By any common measure, the Sixers have been one of the most clutch teams in the NBA this season.
According to NBA.com’s default parameters for clutch stats (within five points and under five minutes left), the Sixers are tied for the third-most games played with clutch time this season. In these games, the Sixers are second only to Denver in winning percentage, going 30-15.
There are a few reasons this stat doesn’t represent the team very well. First, this team is so different from the start of the season. Second, these parameters that constitute “clutch” are arbitrary. And third, the Sixers have had a handful of games this year where they’ve allowed too-little-too-late runs to make a comfortable win look like a close game in the end, artificially boosting their clutch winning percentage.
We can adjust the parameters to account for some of these issues. If we only count games since Tobias Harris joined the team (February 8), and only include games that are within three points in the last two minutes, the Sixers still hold up pretty well. They’re tied for the second-most games played, and they’ve gone 8-5, giving them the eighth-best winning percentage for that criteria.
The Sixers are winning close games. That’s a fact; it’s not debatable. But lately, the Sixers haven’t been closing very well.
In the last two weeks, they’ve played just two games meeting the adjusted parameters (within three points and under two minutes), losing both. Normally, this miniscule sample size wouldn’t be the slightest bit concerning. But it’s the way they’ve lost that’s been bothersome.
The Sixers look lost down the stretch, and no one seems comfortable in his role.
This isn’t a surprising development. Chemistry is never a guarantee when you trade for a borderline All-Star at the trade deadline. Combine that with the fact Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler have been battling injuries since February, and you get a team still looking for how the pieces fit together.
The two losses noted earlier were to the Atlanta Hawks on March 23, and the Milwaukee Bucks on April 4. In each game, the Sixers had chances to take the lead in the final minute. Instead, they ran plays that were executed poorly. Not “missed an open jumper” poor, but “what the hell are all five Sixers on the court doing?” poor.
Let’s start with the Hawks game. The Sixers bring the ball up the court in a tie game with just three seconds separating the shot clock and the game clock. And they do this:
Let’s take a look at all five players at different points in this play. Here is a still image with 12 seconds left on the shot clock.
Joel Embiid is slouched over in the corner. He isn’t facing the play, and his man isn’t facing him. Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris are next to each other and being guarded by one player, allowing an extra man to have both eyes on Jimmy Butler. James Ennis is clogging the lane where Butler wants to drive. And Butler is 45 feet from the basket.
3.7 seconds left on the shot clock.
Nothing has been accomplished in the last eight seconds. Embiid is still in the corner, now with his hands on his knees. Using your best player how you would use Ersan Ilyasova doesn’t make much sense. Simmons is screening Harris open for a 3, but Butler is dribbling in the other direction. Butler still hasn’t made it past the logo, and he’s about to pass to the only Sixer on the court who isn’t good enough to make a play.
2.5 seconds left on the shot clock.
After passing to Ennis, Butler runs at him for no reason. Now the Sixers’ worst offensive option is about to be double-teamed with no time to pass out of it. Embiid is still planted in the corner, and Simmons is still screening for Harris as if this is a pass that James Ennis routinely makes. Ennis eventually passes to Butler with 0.2 seconds left, resulting in a shot clock violation. The Hawks would score on the next play to win the game.
Now, here they are against the Bucks, down two with about a minute left. They’ve just allowed six straight points, so they badly need a score. This is what they come up with.
15 seconds on the shot clock.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is guarding Tobias Harris like he’s Ben Simmons. Harris is shooting over 40 percent from 3 on the season, and a make here could put the Sixers in the lead. But Harris isn’t even looking at the basket. I understand the Sixers are running a play, but you won’t get a much better shot than this.
11 seconds on the shot clock.
I’m fine with the play Brett Brown called. Screen action between Redick and Embiid has been effective for the past two seasons, and the ball ended up in the hands of the Sixers’ best player.
But Embiid forces it here. Giannis is still showing Harris no respect, and he comes in for the easy block from behind on Embiid. Even if Embiid had gotten the shot off, it would have been low-percentage, and there were four Bucks in the paint ready to grab the rebound. Luckily, it was still Sixers ball with enough time for a good look.
8 seconds on the shot clock.
The Sixers don't make much of an effort to post Embiid low off the inbound. Tobias Harris slips free of his man, but Embiid can’t get the pass over Brook Lopez. The Bucks get out in transition and go up two scores with under 40 seconds left to play.
Even if Lopez hadn’t tipped the pass, Harris likely would’ve been trapped under the basket, as his man was about to recover and Giannis had already left Ben Simmons to go cover Harris. It would’ve taken a great pass from Embiid followed by a great pass from Harris for that play to be anything but a turnover.
The Sixers have looked confused at the ends of their last two close games, and it’s led to some ugly finishes. A lot of it seems to be because they aren’t comfortable playing together yet.
In reverse order, we just saw Embiid force a pass, Embiid force a shot, Harris turn down a wide open 3, Ennis make a late pass causing a shot clock violation, Butler drawing a double team to Ennis, Butler passing a hot potato to the worst offensive player on the court, Simmons and Harris allowing themselves to be guarded by one player, Butler not getting the ball past the logo until there were under three seconds on the shot clock, and Embiid camped in the corner like he’s a stretch five instead of a superstar.
All of this happened on what were arguably the Sixers’ two biggest possessions of the last two weeks.
Perhaps the worst of these mistakes was Embiid standing passively in the corner. Butler’s a great option at the end of games, but he can’t be the only option. He shoots just 42.4 percent from the field on isolation plays - that can’t be the Sixers’ first choice. Even his bucket to seal the Boston game was just a great shot off a horrible isolation possession. When the game is on the line, Embiid needs to be front and center.
This piece has just been focused on the final minute of the past two close games. But there are other things that constitute “clutch.” In that Bucks game, the entire second half could be considered “clutch” with how close the game was and how high emotions were running. With that in mind, this was very disappointing to see:
Ben Simmons played 21 minutes in the second half and his last shot of the game came with 9:40 to go in the 3rd quarter.— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) April 5, 2019
The Sixers need Ben Simmons to be more aggressive. He’s at his best when he’s actively looking to make a play on both ends of the floor.
Yes, I’m worried. The Sixers clearly aren’t fully comfortable playing with each other, and lately it’s hurt them at the end of games. That’s not to say they can’t get it together when the playoffs come, but it’s not going to be easy.
Roster instability hurts the chemistry. Injuries hurt the chemistry. And I have no doubt that not giving a shit the past week has hurt the chemistry.
It’s not the off-court chemistry - I really do believe that the guys on this team get along. It’s the on-court chemistry. Knowing how to play together. Everything that’s between Embiid and Redick that isn’t there between most other players.
The Sixers have talent. They also have players who seem to be hard workers and a coach who is a lot better at drawing up plays than most people give him credit for. All of that bodes well for the Sixers getting better looks in the playoffs. And I should reiterate that this is still a small sample size that I’m not trying to blow out of proportion.
But this also can’t be overlooked. We’re looking at one-possession games in the final minutes. Games that are common in the playoffs. Games when make or miss is the same as win or lose. And the Sixers haven’t just missed, they haven’t even gotten shots off.
The Sixers have looked so lost when it’s mattered most, and unless they can figure it out, they’re not making it past the second round of the playoffs.