Last night, the Sixers suffered one of the most embarrassing losses in NBA history as they blew a 26 point lead and were up 18 points heading into the fourth quarter. This heartbreaking performance is even worse considering they blew an 18 point lead in game four just two days earlier. Despite being the vastly more talented team, the Sixers are now down 3-2 in the series to the Atlanta Hawks and will have to fight with their backs against the wall.
Vibes Can’t Solve Everything
It feels as if all year the “kumbaya” stories surrounding the growth in the relationship between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid and the new mentality in the locker room have dominated conversations. Under new management, new coaching, and with a more complimentary supporting cast- hopes had never been higher for the Sixers this season.
While these newfound positive vibes are great, it does not excuse the lack of basketball execution and overall basketball talent. The Sixers are a very good team but there are holes in the roster that simply cannot be covered up by any amount of pregame dancing or team activity.
Not making moves due to fear of disrupting the “vibes” on the team is an embarrassment and one would hope this was not the case for Daryl Morey. Despite being linked to several trade talks this season, the only deal that ended up being completed was a swap of Tony Bradley for George Hil.
The lack of team chemistry and potential locker-room issues have been referenced as a cause for their unfolding in previous seasons. These problems have been fixed, but the team is facing similar postseason struggles. It is great to see the team getting along so well, but this cannot overcome the areas that the Sixers still need improvement on.
Lack of Bench Production
The Sixers bench is better than it has been in the past but is still a notch below being capable of contributing on a championship-caliber team. The reserves are a mismatched group of players who each have different areas in their game in which they excel. While there are flashes where they have impressed, the group of players do not fit together and have been unable to consistently produce this season.
In last night’s game, Joel Embiid and Seth Curry (who were the best players for the Sixers by a large margin) exited the game with 1:27 left in the third quarter. At this point, the Hawks were down 22 points and the Sixers maintained an 18 point lead heading into the fourth quarter. Joel Embiid, Seth Curry, and Ben Simmons checked back into the game with 10:03 left in the fourth quarter. In the 1:57 that ticked off the clock, that Hawks had gone on a 7-0 run. This cut the lead to 11 and resurrected the Hawks’ chances in the game.
Doc Rivers is not off the hook for his stubbornness to stick to his rotations and sub based on whole units rather than rotating guys in. The all-bench lineup has plagued the Sixers throughout the season and become a relevant complaint once again in the postseason. The adjustment to play Tobias Harris, who scored 4 points in 38 minutes last night, has not been the proper solution as this unit continues to struggles.
The lineup of Tobias Harris, Shake Milton, George Hill, Matisse Thybulle, and Dwight Howard has played the third-most minutes of any Sixers lineup this postseason. In that time, the group has been outscored by 11.4 points per 100 possessions and seen decreases in their shooting percentage, three-point attempts, and free-throw attempts while they are in. When Tyrese Maxey is in this lineup instead of Harris, the unit has been outscored by 27.4 points per 100 possessions this postseason.
Ben Simmons Postseason Struggles
Regardless of how rigorously Ben Simmons is defended by many, the deficiencies in his game are extremely detrimental to the Sixers and have been put on full display this postseason. The DPOY candidate is extremely impactful on the defensive end, is arguably the best transition player in the league, and is the primary initiator for the Sixers offense.
Even with all the things he does great, Ben Simmons is not capable of being a major contributor on a championship-caliber team as his game currently sits. In 38 minutes last night, Simmons ended with 8 points, 9 assists, and 4 rebounds while attempting just four field goals and shot 4-14 from the free-throw line. The Hack-a-Simmons technique was put into action and ultimately proved successful as he was forced to be subbed out toward the game’s conclusion due to his inability to knock down free throws.
It is much easier to hide in the regular season, but Simmons’ flaws have never shined brighter. He is still a very good NBA player, but the best ball-handler and engine of the offense MUST be able to comfortably have the ball in crunch time. The gaping hole in his ability to shoot free throws makes Simmons a liability late in games and will continue to bail out opposing teams until this is fixed.
Doc Rivers elected to put in Shake Milton in over Simmons late in the fourth as a way to combat this issue. While it gave the Sixers a better chance than leaving Simmons out there, Shake also struggled last night. When Daryl Morey elected to trade for George Hill midseason, there was great talk over his veteran leadership and ball-handling ability. This seemed like a perfect chance to make use of this, but Rivers instead elected to play Shake Milton- who had been out of the regular rotation for the better part of the last two months.
Despite being down 3-2 in the series, the Sixers could very well come back and win the next two games. Even if this is the case, these flaws have been put on such display that they stand little chance against the winner of the Bucks vs Nets series. The Sixers gave themselves the best possible chance at coasting through the postseason and still found a way to make it difficult for themselves. For now, the focus must be on finding a way to win the next two games against the Hawks, but the heartbreaking game five loss may have given an indication of the major moves that need to take place this offseason.
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