There is no excuse. There is no silver lining. Everything is bleak and the one thing everyone can agree on when assessing blame for the Sixers blowing a 26-point lead and now trailing the Atlanta Hawks 3-2 in this second-round series is that all of it is internal. The Sixers have no one to blame but themselves.
Doc Rivers deserves to be questioned for once again putting out lineups with too many limited bench players that make every Philadelphian clench their fists and pray that a few random variance 3s fall through to prop up the plus-minus of the units.
Tobias Harris deserves blame for a poor showing in Game 5 himself, shooting 2-for-11 and getting largely dominated by Atlanta’s John Collins on the other end as well.
While not deserving blame, Joel Embiid wearing down in the second halves due to the torn meniscus injury he has been playing through looms as a large culprit of the Sixers being on the brink of catastrophe.
Even the bench, playing horrific basketball in several stints during this series, has earned ridicule from the fanbase, but at some point it feels like you’re yelling at a group of five-year-olds for not putting a toilet seat down. Yeah it sucks, but what did you really expect from them?
And then there’s Ben Simmons. The man you’ve all been waiting for. As someone who owns his jersey, has watched basically every NBA game the 6-foot-10 Aussie has ever played and defended him on multiple occasions, it pains me to admit that he’s been downright awful in this series, and in my estimation, the one at which most blaming fingers have to be pointed.
Look at his raw stat line, and one might think Ben is struggling, but still holding true to his usual weird-but-helpful regular season self. He’s averaged 11.6 points, 8.4 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game in this series versus the Hawks on 55.6 TS% (poor for a non-shooter like himself) and a FT% so low that viewers under the age of 18 are now required to sign a waiver to access the number on NBA.com.
Gone is the cutting verve and juice that was peppered into the Sixers offense during the regular season. Simmons had found success all year off these “Slot Cuts” as Nekias Duncan of Basketball News dubbed them. Weaponizing the presupposition that every defender matched up against him would sag into the key to clog driving lanes for other Sixers player, Simmons would get running starts into these cuts and leave opponents in his dust on the way to the hoop.
Most often the passes were thrown by either Harris or Seth Curry, as those two have the most pull-up 3-point shooting equity of anyone on the roster, and the threat of a jumper from either of them consistently gave Simmons the runway he needed on a foray to the rim.
While there isn’t a perfect answer as to why some of these downhill opportunities have disappeared (again, I’m just a speculative fool who watches a lot of basketball), there are a couple of reasons one can find.
The first of which goes to how the Hawks have defended both Harris and Curry, particularly down the stretch of Game 5. Needing to jolt their defense, they pressured both of the two farther out in the half court with point-of-attack defense. While neither Harris nor Curry is a shaky ball handler, they’re also not dynamic blow-by artists, and thus limiting the advantages they can create can chokehold Simmons’ ability to capitalize on said created advantages.
There’s also the unfortunately on-brand faulty positioning of Simmons in the crunch-time offense that has been a trademark of every Sixers’ second-round defeat. Watch this possession and keep your eye on both Simmons and how Danilo Gallinari’s defense of him affects the setup.
So many questions and complaints to be derived from that short clip. It’s clear that the call was to get Embiid the ball for a post-up, but having Simmons stand right near the free throw line allows Gallo to dip down and clog a passing angle to Embiid when Simmons is trying to hit him for a high-low entry, and similarly, Curry takes additional time getting it to Embiid when Gallo is backing off.
They could have also had Simmons set Curry a ball screen, eschewing the Embiid post-up, though I could also argue that one effective chase over from Lou Williams and Gallinari playing in a deep drop versus a non-threat perimeter screener in Simmons could negate that advantage quickly.
Last of all, as Embiid makes his move, Simmons drifts into the lane for no explicable reason and further clogs the region of the team’s best player.
Again, it’s difficult to discern whether we should be yelling at Doc for putting Ben in that position or at Simmons for ruining the whole possession, but it’s not good enough either way you slice it.
Later on, needing a 3 desperately, Simmons did set a ball screen for Curry that generated a great look. Unfortunately Curry couldn’t keep his red-hot stroke going on this game-tying attempt, but also watch Simmons and what he does after setting the screen.
He rolls and then...just kind of dies?
No attempt to get into the paint for rebounding position, and lackluster effort to grab it once it did bounce out toward him. Simmons just looks completely disengaged after having fulfilled his required task of connecting on the ball screen.
Simmons not only has to be put in better positions, he has to work toward them. It’s not even a critique on effort more than it is a recognition that you have a responsibility to try and make something happen there.
Last of all (though it requires rewinding a bit on the game clock), take a look at this possession, perhaps the most infamous throughout the Sixers’ fourth quarter collapse.
No audio, but a video breakdown of that really, really bad play the Sixers put together down the stretch of last night's game. Having a player who isn't a threat to score in the halfcourt seems to be a problem in playoff basketball. pic.twitter.com/t5MazxkNkG— Spiritually Broken Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) June 18, 2021
A whole lot to digest there. Gallinari’s ability to ignore Simmons in the paint certainly helped clog things up, as did Simmons again removing himself from the play after Harris drove baseline. However, Embiid also had a responsibility to find Simmons when he was open underneath the bucket and missed it.
I’ve detailed before how Embiid, while an improved skip passer, struggles to make complex interior feeds, and he should have seen Simmons here. It’s a little more difficult than it appears in the screenshot due to Gallinari’s length and Collins being ready to pivot and go for a block attempt, but still a viable option in that play. Harris also deserves some blame for weirdly going up with his left hand at the end of the play and getting stuffed at the rim.
But as always, Simmons is the main reason the lane is so clogged during this entire sequence, and the ineffectiveness of his half-court abilities are a catalyst toward the jumbled mess.
All of this hurts to write because I, contrary to what some might believe, am a huge Ben Simmons fan. I’ve watched and defended him for four years now. I want him to win every time he steps on the court. I begged my Mom to get me a Simmons jersey during his stellar rookie season for Christmas and still wear it to this day. I want him to succeed so very, very badly.
But at some point a reckoning comes for all of us it seems. Everything in Philadelphia has changed since 2018. The coaching staff has been redone. The front office has endured several makeovers. Everyone on the roster from that original playoff squad is even gone save for Furkan Korkmaz, who apparently cameo’d in a forgettable 14 games as a rookie.
Through it all there have been only two constants — Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. It’s hard to say there’s a “problem” with a team that is always in playoff contention and has now won three playoff series in four years, but every fan knows that they want more than this, and underachieving once again is indeed a big problem.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Joel Embiid isn’t the problem, which leaves one man in Ben Simmons who is increasingly the one the Sixers themselves need to find an answer to.
I sure hope Simmons and the Sixers come out tonight in Game 6 with that answer, because if they don’t, I am not sure where there is left to go from here.