If they’d held leads of 18 and 26 points in their past two games, the Sixers would already be in the Eastern Conference Finals.
They couldn’t seal the deal in either Game 4 or Game 5 of their second-round series against the Hawks, though, and will playing to avoid elimination in Game 6 at State Farm Arena.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on ESPN, with Sixers Pregame Live at 7 on NBCSP. Sixers Postgame Live will air on NBCSP following the game.
Joel Embiid (small right lateral meniscus tear) is listed as questionable for the sixth time this series. Trae Young (right shoulder soreness) is probable.
Here are three Game 6 storylines:
What will Sixers get from Simmons and Harris?
Tobias Harris missed all four of his field goal attempts and was scoreless in the second half of Game 5. Ben Simmons shot 0 for 1 from the field and 2 for 6 from the foul line after halftime.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers thinks Harris will be better in Game 6.
“Listen, the game the other night … Seth (Curry) had it going, so you play the two-man game with Seth and Joel and you spend time there,” Rivers said Thursday. “I think (Bogdan) Bogdanovic has done a pretty good job. That was one of the switches they did two games ago, and it’s taken away some of his speed plays that he has an advantage on bigs when they guard him.
“Bogdanovic is a pretty good post player. They’re doubling him on the post, so they’re taking that away. We believe we can get him going. I believe Tobias will have a pretty good game tomorrow.”
Following Simmons’ comment that his dismal free throw shooting (32.8 percent in the playoffs) is more of a mental issue than a form issue, Rivers was asked whether he could do anything to help Simmons with that side of the game.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But it is a mental game. We all know that. It’s always been that with all these guys in the league that struggle. I had DeAndre Jordan going through the same stuff during the playoffs and through his career. The one thing you’ve got to do is keep working on them. You’ve got to keep trying to get a routine that maybe you can lose the mental part, because you have checked into your routine.
“But it’s hard to do right now, and so we’ve just got to keep him working on them, and that’s what he’s doing. He’s putting in the work. That’s all you can ask him to do right now. The mental stuff, it’s hard to get rid of … so he’s just got to step up there and keep shooting them, and we’ve got to keep supporting him.”
For what it’s worth, Simmons was great in his only previous career Game 6. He posted 21 points, eight rebounds, six assists and zero turnovers in the Sixers’ 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals win over the Raptors to force a Game 7.
Second unit could look different
With the Hawks slicing into the Sixers’ lead, Rivers brought his starters back earlier than he wanted Wednesday, turning to his first unit with 10:03 to play.
As a whole, the Sixers’ bench scored 13 points, 26 fewer than the Hawks’. Shake Milton and George Hill combined to shoot 2 for 10. The Sixers were outscored by 14 points in Dwight Howard’s eight minutes and 34 seconds on the floor.
Despite his off night, Harris was the player Rivers preferred using with his bench. Not surprisingly, shortening his rotation is one of the many options he said he’s considered.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of thoughts,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have a really big coaching staff. We have gone over probably every thought you can think of. And we do that. And that’s what we do, actually, after every game, whether we win or lose. So that’s no different. We had Tobias on the floor with the rest of the bench guys and they didn’t perform well, so we clearly want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
The potential downside of fewer bench minutes could be late-game fatigue for the Sixers’ stars, which appeared to be a factor in Game 5. Rivers needs to find a more effective way to rotate, though. One idea that might make sense, given Simmons’ recently diminished impact in half-court offense: Playing him for some or all of Howard’s backup center minutes.
Beyond the X's and O's
There are clear strategic areas where Rivers and the Sixers can improve. In a broad sense, most of them boil down to sticking with what’s working and finding quicker solutions if and when things start to go south.
However, the intangibles are more relevant Friday night than ever. If the Sixers take an early lead and Young nails a long-distance jumper or two, will they retain their confidence, or will they sense yet another impending comeback? If Simmons doesn’t solve things at the foul line, will it have a deflating effect?
Most of these types of questions apply to the team at large, but they’re especially pertinent for Simmons and Harris, who are both in the first half of five-year contracts. Game 5 was deeply devastating, and it will take a significant effort to recover and send the series back to Philadelphia.