It was a heart breaker this evening, as the Eastern Conference’s top regular-season seeded Sixers lost at home to the upstart 5th seed, the Atlanta Hawks, 103-96. The game never felt comfortable as the Sixers looked tight and clumsy almost the entire way. With ten turnovers in the first half, and a bunch of blown easy shots, they wound up nearly doubling Atlanta’s turnovers, 17-10. The turnovers were a huge issue for them in game 1, when they opened the game just handing the ball away over and over and tonight had a similar vibe from the jump. Oh, and things got more painful from there. Then the cold shooting started.
While they did a decent enough job defensively on the whole, holding Atlanta to 44 percent from the field, and 25.6 from deep, they struggled to shoot themselves as well. Philly as a team connected on just 42.5 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3. They felt tight from the early going and then the crowd started to sound a bit anxious too.
They did survive a Trae Young to a degree. Young had a horrific night shooting, at just 5-23 and 2-11 from deep. If you knew only that, you’d probably start celebrating early. And Bogdan Bogdanovic, dealing with a knee issue, was just 2-8. So basically, the Hawks star wasn’t very good, and their second-best perimeter scorer was too hurt to help. But Kevin Huerter utterly destroyed the Sixers.
The dude nicknamed Red Velvet picked on Seth Curry like he did in game two and he went 10-18 on Sunday, looking like one of the best players in the game on either squad.
Joel Embiid did what he could on some torn cartilage in his right knee. There is a part of me as a fan that is a teeny tiny bit relieved he won’t have to continue to play on a torn right meniscus. We’ll see down the road here if he’ll need off-season surgery. But Joel Embiid, despite applying pressure with his 31 points and 11 rebounds on just 21 shots, was also one of the Sixers’ biggest culprits with nearly half of their turnovers, totaling 8.
It was a lot easier to look past the issue when the team was missing Ben Simmons in the bubble during the first round a year ago. But heading into his 8th year since being drafted, Embiid is going to have to deal with another injury this summer and he's again going to have to work on finding ways to limit turnovers. As brilliant of a season as he had, and let’s find a way to appreciate that despite the pain because he was truly brilliant, the flaws in his otherwise stellar game are consistent and will need to be addressed if he’s going to take this team to the next level in the future.
He’s going to have to work on his landings on monster dunks or limit his dunks or both, (numerous injuries he’s dealt with over his career have come from dunks and dunk attempts) and he’s going to have to continue to improve as a passer.
But Joel wasn’t the big problem here. He was a pleasant surprise after we accepted he was going to play with a torn knee. The Sixers squandered 22 and 26 point leads in games 4 and 5. They lost both by 3 a pop. That was the biggest problem of this series. They should have simply wrapped this thing up before tonight by winning both of those.
Ben Simmons had foul trouble and while he contributed mightily to a great defensive effort on Young, he was absent offensively in a way that has sort of needlessly plagued the Sixers for months now. The coaching staff doesn’t appear too comfortable handing him the ball and letting him run the offense, so he spends what feels like countless possessions sort of hiding in the “dunker spot.”
And while there are plenty of things to very reasonably criticize Simmons for, like his absolutely, positively disgusting free throw shooting these playoffs (25-74, clearly some form of yips right?) or difficulty finishing or willingness to vanish into a “game plan” (perhaps in large part because he’s worried about getting fouled like tonight when he passed up a wide-open dunk to a cutter) it’s also baffling to see him play so well in a game 5 against Washington, then be used like he has no ball skills whatsoever in the half-court for huge chunks of the next series, while Tobias Harris shoots 24 times, despite a nightmare closeout game.
After the game, Embiid didn’t pull any punches, citing the moment Simmons turned down an open jam to pass to Thybulle who wound up getting hacked and splitting a pair from the line.
Joel Embiid: "I'll be honest. I thought the turning point was when we — I don't know how to say it — is when we had an open shot and we made one free throw..."— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) June 21, 2021
That can’t bode well for a relationship that may have a checkered history.
As for Tobias Harris. That was very very painful to watch. He was clearly tight, and just couldn’t finish around the rim this evening. He had had a very good year, was a borderline All-Star and salvaged what looked like a major bounce-back season for himself. But what so many will remember is how many dunks or layups he simply bricked this evening.
Harris Scored 24 points on 24 shots, which isn’t efficient. But to make matters worse, the Sixers for some reason continued to rely on him, as if he were hot, or would eventually get hot. Almost as if he were Paul George. And it just never happened.
Dwight Howard was a really big problem for Coach Doc Rivers. Howard was a -29 over his 142 playoff minutes. It wasn’t especially difficult to foresee that happening because he was a team-worst -66 in his 1,196 regular-season minutes. Several analysts joked that he was destined to become Doc Rivers’ new Montrez Harrell, a player who Rivers overutilized in a playoff-melt down during the bubble, where Doc’s Clips blew a 3-1 series lead including some double-digit leads in key games to Denver. As loveable and fun as Howard was, even though he may have been a terrific signing for the Sixers at his low cost and certainly worth having, the coach simply over-relied on him all season long and it translated into the playoffs too.
Howard was a -23 in 70 minutes of action against Atlanta. During their four losses, he was a -37 in 36 minutes. There will be Montrez Harrell and Greg Monroe jokes, book it.
The Sixers lost 4 games that series by a total of 17 points. In those games Dwight Howard was a -37 in 36 minutes. Hard to blame Dwight for fighting hard and doing his job. But why didn’t the team foresee that leak in the boat?— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) June 21, 2021
So much hung in the balance tonight. Had the Sixers won, they could have said they finally shook the second-round monkey on their back. They were the one seed. They had a DPOY candidate in Ben Simmons, an MVP runner up and All-NBA player in Joel Embiid. And a pair of All-Defensive team members in Simmons and Matisse Thybulle. Instead, there’s an entire off-season ahead to think about how this type of series loss could have been avoided.
Last season many were troubled by how little the team got from Al Horford and Tobias Harris despite their huge contracts. This off-season, there will be fans wondering the same thing about Harris and Ben Simmons. Ben averaged 6.4 field goal attempts this series. It’s astounding.
More bad stuff:
- Matisse Thybulle was a -34 in 136 minutes that series. He had some flashes but he couldn’t find ways to avoid many of the controversial sneaky fouls Trae Young draws and he committed basically a game sealing 3 shot foul attempting on an ambitious block from behind on Huerter tonight. Had he simply contested that shot they may have had a chance to tie. He took a wide open corner 3 that would have put them up 7 with just over seven minutes to go. That one hurt too. I thought that was a bigger turning point than the one Embiid referred to, post game.
- Furkan Korkmaz, Ben Simmons, Tyrese Maxey, George Hill, Dwight Howard, and Shake Milton shot 6-20 combined. Add in Harris’ 8-24 stinker and that’s 14-44 from a big part of your team. Unbelievable.
- George Hill was a -15 tonight in his 22 minutes. The Sixers traded Zhaire Smith for Tony Bradley, and then Tony Bradley for Hill and he didn’t quite look right in the uniform. I know he spent the bulk of his run with Dwight in lineups that didn’t work. But maybe that thumb never healed right. He was worth having but man, they missed Danny Green.
There’s time for all of that and I’m sure we’ll have plenty of ideas ourselves and our readers will too. But for now, man, it just stinks to lose a series that was so dang winnable. If you’re looking for bright spots, there are a few:
It was probably always about 2022 for this team. That may have been why Daryl Morey didn’t push all his chips into the middle trying to get James Harden or Kyle Lowry. Watching them grind out that game tonight and win might have even provided false hope in certain players or the coaching staff. Now all of that can be properly examined. Embiid would have logged an absolute war with Milwaukee on a torn knee that might have gotten larger. Having to face difficult questions now, while preserving his health isn’t the worst place to be in. They still have a lot of talent, much if it very young, and plenty of draft picks to splash around with. Excelsior.