Forgive the brief metaphysical musing about to come, but we figure it fits after the Sixers gave away a 26-point lead, lost Game 5 of their second-round series Wednesday night to the Hawks and tried to answer questions about a calamitous sporting event.
Reality is subjective in the sense that two folks can disagree on whether they’re witnessing aggression or selfishness, brilliance or competence, steadiness or sluggishness.
But, in our view, no one can stare at the sun and accurately say it’s dark.
So, we’ll note Ben Simmons’ weaknesses have cost the Sixers important games. We could go much further, of course, since hyperbole appears impossible after Simmons shot 4 for 14 from the foul line in a 109-106 loss.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers’ first instinct was to conjure an explanation to the contrary.
“I would say the (intentional) fouls in the first half actually helped us,” he said. “We actually increased the lead when they were doing it. In the beginning of the third quarter, (Bogdan) Bogdanovic and (Kevin) Huerter (had) four and five fouls. So in a lot of ways it really helped us. The missed free throws in the fourth quarter hurt us. So I would say that’s where it affected us, for sure.”
Rivers, coaching his 22nd NBA season, is no fool. He’s off base in his assessment, though. None of Bogdanovic’s five fouls were on Simmons. Huerter was scoreless in 28 minutes, shooting 0 for 7 from the floor. He was not a positive presence for the Hawks.
With 4:23 remaining in the game, Simmons made two free throws to give his team a 104-94 lead. The Sixers were close to skirting free of a night all about Simmons and fatal flaws.
Trailing by eight points, the Hawks fouled Simmons again with 3:31 to play. The 24-year-old missed both attempts and Clint Capela threw down a dunk on the ensuing possession. Rivers called a timeout, Shake Milton came into the game and Simmons sat on the bench. He only re-entered following two Sixers turnovers.
“You play minutes without Ben during the game,” Rivers said. “I think we’re equipped for that, and we’re ready to do that. Obviously we did it again tonight. Do you want to do that is the better question, and the answer would be no. But when Ben makes them, we get to keep him in. When he doesn’t, we can’t. And that’s just the way it is.
“Some nights we still do if it’s working our way. In the first half we kept him in because we were actually increasing the lead and we felt like they were getting in foul trouble. The fourth quarter, you don’t really worry about foul trouble, so then you have to make them.”
Simmons is not making them, of course. He’s not shooting jump shots either, although a shift on that front would have been shocking and, given his thoroughly ineffective track record, almost certainly unhelpful.
But, even with form that strayed quite a bit from the textbook, he’d converted 67.1 percent of his free throws in 31 games before the All-Star break for the top-seeded Sixers. A glance at the numbers indicated incremental improvement. After posting a 56 percent mark at the foul line his rookie season, Simmons was at 60 percent in Year 2, 62.1 percent in Year 3.
In 27 post-All-Star break games, Simmons hit 53.3 percent of his foul shots. In the playoffs, he’s made 32.8 percent (22 of 67).
He was asked whether he had an explanation for the drastic drop-off.
“No idea, but I need to get it back,” he said. “That’s on me.”
Questioned on whether his free throw problem is more of a mental issue than form-related, Simmons acknowledged the obvious.
“Definitely, I think mental,” he said.
Simmons is playing a sport that, even with no jarring, helmet-to-helmet hits, can turn brutal come the postseason. It’s very possible the Sixers would already be in the Eastern Conference Finals, not on the brink of elimination, if it was somehow illegal for an opponent to require him to do the one thing he’s worst at.
Simmons enhanced the Sixers during the regular season because, outside of shooting, he’s actually an extraordinarily well-rounded basketball player, one who deserved to be selected with the first pick in the 2016 draft and has merited three All-Star nods. He guarded stars of all positions at (or extremely near) a Defensive Player of the Year level this season, sparked transition offense and found open three-point shooters.
Now, the Hawks are sagging well off of him in crunch time and the essential fact is he’s failing at a basic job.
We haven’t mentioned Joel Embiid yet, the Sixers’ 27-year-old franchise cornerstone who posted 37 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, four blocks and two steals on a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. Simmons is never the sole factor determining whether the Sixers win or lose, but he’s supposed to be their No. 2 star, and to complement Embiid's special talents.
For both casual and obsessive Sixers followers, the thought that Simmons’ foul-shooting woes have caused the team to waste one precious year of Embiid’s prime is inevitable. It’s fair to go there, even if Simmons might still salvage this series and the season.
Rivers and the Sixers are looking at the sun, and the glare is awfully bright.