The blown 18-point lead in the second half of Game 4 was bad enough. Then the Philadelphia 76ers outdid themselves in their Game 5 matchup against the Atlanta Hawks, blowing a 26-point lead in the second half, when they were still up by 10 points with just 4 minutes left. The Sixers had an all-time playoff collapse, ultimately losing 109-106 to send them down 3-2 in the series.
Now, in a series that they should have realistically won already, the Sixers find themselves facing potential elimination in Game 6 on Friday night. They have no choice but to rediscover their confidence and completely turn themselves around.
The first half of Game 5 was excellent, as Joel Embiid completely dominated at both ends of the floor to lead the way. It may have been the finest half of his career, as he scored 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting, 10 rebounds, and played brilliant defense.
Then the second half happened. Turnovers and rattled play was an issue early. The Sixers coughed up the ball 8 times in the third quarter alone (compared to only 5 in the entire first half), which mostly came in the first few minutes of the period.
“The ball got stuck,” Doc Rivers said after the game. “To me, for most of the second half, the only movement sets we had going were the Seth [Curry] actions. Then the second unit started doing the same thing. They usually don’t do that. They were trying to attack matchups, which, that’s not how you play.”
From there, things continued to go down hill. Rapidly.
The Sixers still had a 25-point lead with only 15 minutes remaining. Then they proceeded to shoot a woeful 6-of-21 for 23 points the rest of the way, including 5-of-17 shooting in the fourth quarter. Lou Williams by himself hit more fourth quarter shots (going 6-of-8) than the entire Sixers team. Philly’s defense slipped, Doc Rivers’ bench-heavy lineups failed late in the third and early in the fourth, Embiid and Curry were the only Sixers to hit a shot in the second half, and the team completely failed to execute offensively in a game that should have been impossible to lose.
“It’s a great question,” Tobias Harris said after Game 5 when asked about why the Sixers have struggled maintaining late leads. “Um… you know, it’s… yeah. I don’t know right now. That’s a tough one to answer.”
“You know, the weakness right now is when we gain those leads, we kinda go away from what got us there,” Harris added. “And that was playing defense, moving the basketball, getting some good looks. That’s hurt us in the last two games.”
Apart from Embiid’s first half performance and Curry exploding for 36 points (he’s really stepped up on offense in the playoffs overall), there are hardly any positives to take away from Game 5. If you’ve missed any of our coverage on what on earth happened, you can check out Sean Kennedy’s Bell Ringer piece, and Harrison Grimm’s recap. Although I won’t blame you if you want to do as much as you can to forget about that mess instead...
We know what the Sixers are capable of. Just look at the first half of Game 5 as the latest reminder. The collapses have come when defensive lapses occur, offensive execution falters, bench-heavy lineups unsurprisingly falter, and the offense gets bogged down by roster issues that can’t be avoided. For instance, Ben Simmons’ serious limitations in the half-court, or the lack of more high-level perimeter creation and playmaking to elevate the offense in general. This was always a significant flaw heading into the season, and it was bound to show up eventually in the playoffs. Especially if Joel Embiid (despite being an MVP-level player now) is going to have a rough fourth quarter at times and Tobias Harris (despite having a terrific season up until now) is struggling to score.
The Sixers shouldn’t be falling apart against an inferior Hawks team, though. Even if Embiid’s knee is becoming an more of an issue for him late in games, the rest of the team has to do more to support him offensively. The Sixers are left in an elimination game with no choice but to regain their composure, and changes need to happen.
Simmons needs to be more aggressive and engaged offensively, whether he’s screening more off the ball, looking to drive more to the rim (like he did much better in Game 3 of this series), or actually taking advantage of available mismatches against smaller defenders. 0 field goal attempts from Simmons in the fourth quarters of Game 4 and Game 5 will not cut it whatsoever. Tobias Harris simply has to provide far more than the 4 points on 2-of-11 shooting he put up in Game 5. The Hawks’ defensive liabilities like Lou Williams and Trae Young need to be attacked as much as possible through post-ups, pick-and-rolls, off-ball screens for shooters, or anything the Sixers can conjure up. Doc Rivers’ all-bench or Harris-plus-bench lineups can’t be relied upon. The offense can’t stray too far from Embiid’s dominance in the post, which happened too often for most of the second half of Game 5.
“We’ll get back up,” Rivers said after the game. “We’ll be back here for Game 7, I believe that. This is part of sports. You know, you have some awful moments in it. There is no guaranteed path to getting to your goal. We have made this hard on ourselves.
“We have to own up to that, all of us, and then we have to get up and be ready for the next game. It’s gonna be a crazy atmosphere. Good. We’ll be ready for it.”
It’s embarrassing that the Sixers are in this situation with only themselves to blame. Losing to a team with superior offensive firepower like the Brooklyn Nets in the Conference Finals would be an understandable end to what’s been an entertaining, successful year of improvement for the Sixers. Losing to the Hawks in six or seven games, especially in such crumbling fashion, would be an inexcusable failure.
The Sixers are the better team and there’s definitely still a chance they win this series. It’s just hard to feel overly confident that they can pull it off after the way they’ve collapsed in the last two games. We’ll soon see if they’re able to bounce back.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Atlanta Hawks
When: 7:30 pm ET, June 18
Where: State Farm Arena, Atlanta, GA
Listen: 97.5 The Fanatic