Following Game 4’s loss against the Washington Wizards, there were some major concerns for the Philadelphia 76ers. Not for the series necessarily, but for the rest of the playoffs. Unfortunately, it seems that those concerns are still alive and well, and they’re putting a significant damper on the 76ers’ hopes for a championship. These persistent problems were on full display in Philadelphia’s epic home collapse against the Atlanta Hawks, and they are down for the first time in the playoffs.
Concern One: Joel Embiid’s Injury
Matt Slocum, Associated Press
Still a Concern? – Kind Of
The first, and biggest concern, for the 76ers following that loss to the Washington Wizards was Joel Embiid’s health. That turned out to be slightly overblown, as Embiid has been able to play every game against the Hawks and log fairly major minutes. The reason this concern remains is the age-old conditioning problem. Two games in a row now the 76ers have blown double digit leads, this latest one being the most egregious of all considering the 76ers were up by 18 points heading into the fourth.
One major reason for these collapses has been the heavily reduced effectiveness of Joel Embiid late in these games. In Game Four, Embiid had 13 points at half and ten boards, shooting 50% from the field and 100% from the line. The second half was Embiid’s worst half ever, going 0/12 from the field and scoring just four points. That miserable half includes Embiid missing an essentially wide open go-ahead layup in the dying moments.
Game 5 had a similar split. Embiid was straight dominant in the first half, scoring 24 points on ridiculous 9/11 shooting, again pulling down ten boards and shooting perfect from the line. The second half was much worse. Embiid went 3/9 (1/5 in the fourth), only got three rebounds and scored 13 points. He also missed two free throws that could have pulled the contest to within one in the dying moments of the game.
Embiid has often been seen diving on the ground and getting up slowly, rubbing various parts of both legs and even limping every once in a while. He’s clearly not 100% healthy, and it seems to be really affecting his stamina, leaving him with no legs at the end of games. Blaming Embiid is not the idea here, as he, along with Seth Curry, were the only two Sixers to truly show up in the game (they were the only two Sixers to score in the second half), however it’s concerning that Embiid might not be able to be relied upon late in games as he deals with injuries that won’t go away anytime soon. If that is the case, someone else needs to step up, and those concerns are much greater.
Concern Two: Tobias Harris Can’t Do it Alone
Matt Slocum, Associated Press
Still a Concern – Overall, yes.
The concern itself is not exactly the problem, but the underlying parts of it are. Right now, Joel Embiid is playing, and playing significant minutes, so doing it alone shouldn’t be necessary for Tobias Harris. The problem is if Embiid is truly getting too fatigued to play effectively in the fourth quarter, then someone has to step up. Harris has done it before, and he’s played very well in all of the playoff games except two of them, but when they needed him to do it here he disappeared.
The reason for the disappearance is the biggest concern. Harris’ game simply relies on difficult shots. Isolation drives, step-backs and pullups in the mid-range, contested post-ups, one really couldn’t ask for a harder package of shots to hit. Harris has been hitting them all year, but he has games where he disappears and it’s borderline impossible to predict when it will happen. Either he’s on and he gives his 20+ points on 55% shooting, or he gives you next to nothing. To his credit, Harris has been more on than off the entire year and the playoffs, but it’s tough to watch knowing any given game Harris might be essentially useless.
In a game that really needed him to step up, he failed to do so, which is a shame. Like Embiid though, a team should be able to absorb a bad game from one of their stars and still win. Seth Curry did massively step up to cover Harris, and on the other side the Hawks won with one of their best players in Bogdan Bogdanovic scoring just six points on 3/9 shooting, which is very similar to Harris’ stat line of four points on 2/11 from the field. An example from a different series is the Brooklyn Nets coming back with James Harden scoring five points on 1/10 shooting. There are many examples of teams in this playoffs winning despite poor games from second fiddles, and the 76ers should have been able to win despite Harris’ problems. They should have, if not for the most glaring concern of all.
Concern Three: Ben Simmons and Fouls
Matt Slocum, Associated Press
Still a Concern? Oh God Yes.
The final, most panic-inducing problem of all is Ben Simmons and foul shots. It’s tough to pin the blame solely on one person in any game. Harris could have obviously played better and Embiid struggled down the stretch. On the other side, Trae Young shot 19 foul shots and made 17, while Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari were making everything right over their defenders late in the game. That being said, Simmons’ horrendous foul shooting was the major cause for this loss.
In what ended up a three point game, Ben Simmons missed 10 foul shots, going a ridiculous 4-14 from the line. If he even makes half of them, still a terrible percentage by the way, it’s a tie ball game, or the Hawks never get back into the game in the first place. Hack-a-Simmons is a major drain on morale and momentum when he continually fails to make them pay, and the strategy allowed the Hawks to creep back into this game instead of being put away for good. Not only that, he essentially cannot be involved in the offense at all, or straight up cannot be out on the floor because he is such a liability from the line.
This limits him in the things he actually does do well, which is defense and transition offense. He wasn’t able to be out on the floor, defending someone like Gallinari who was hunting for mismatches, because he can’t hit foul shots. He can’t handle the ball and get easy transition buckets or set up teammates because as soon as he touches the ball he gets fouled. Same with rebounding. Someone of his size and athleticism should be getting more than four boards, but he can’t in fear of getting fouled. His free throw percentage for the playoffs is now down to a vomit-inducing 32.8%.
There’s clearly some sort of mental block with Simmons, as he’s never been remotely this bad in his career. This season he hit 61%, which still isn’t good for a guard, but the Sixers would be ecstatic with that number right now, nearly double his current rate. If it is a mental thing, it’s not really something that will just magically go away in a game or so. If this game didn’t completely break his confidence at the line, it’s hanging on by a thread and if the 76ers do go deeper in the playoffs it will be more and more of an issue. It’s hard to see the 76ers winning anything when the opposing teams can hack Simmons to their hearts delight, not pay for it and eventually chase him out of the game entirely.
What Does the Future Hold?
These concerns aren’t going away anytime soon. Harris’ shot selection means he can always disappear, and Embiid’s injury isn’t going to miraculously heal and let him be ready to go at the end of games. At the same time, if Embiid posts a 37/13/5 statline with an additional two steals and four blocks on 60% shooting, that should be enough to win despite late game struggles. Similarly with Harris, he’s been great 80% of the time, and the team should help him out every once in a while when he has a bad game.
Simmons and the foul shooting debacle though, is truly holding this team back. Just like the other two, it’s a problem that has no quick and easy solution that can be implemented tomorrow. Unlike the other two concerns however, this one is not so easily overlooked. Hack-a-Simmons proved to be effective. Ben can’t score these free points and it then limits all the good things he does do. Simmons is made into a bystander at best, unplayable at worst, and a team’s supposedly second best player, a multi-time All-Star and First Team All-Defensive Player cannot be forced out of games like this and still expect to be successful.
At the end of the day, this series against the Atlanta Hawks is still supremely winnable. The 76ers were up massively in two straight games, and unbelievable choke jobs let them down twice. Odds are, it doesn’t happen again (although that is a familiar phrase for Doc Rivers coached teams). The ability to generate these huge leads consistently means something, and that should be the much harder part than just hanging on the rest of the way. Even if they win this series though, how does this team fare against their next opponents, that should be getting better and better? If they are struggling so much with essentially unfixable problems, what happens when they face teams that have equal talent like the next ones will? The 76ers’ championship hopes faded a lot last night, and it wasn’t just because they are down 2-3.
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