The question won’t ever be a pleasant one to consider for the Sixers but, as they watch the Eastern Conference finals, it’s still worth asking: How did that happen?
How did the Sixers lose Game 7 of their second-round series to the Hawks at Wells Fargo Center despite a 5-for-23 performance by Trae Young?
The video above provides a few answers unrelated to Ben Simmons, a player seemingly dissected and critiqued as much as any in the NBA after making a third of his foul shots in the series. Please feel free to watch it and then return here.
We’ll expand on a couple of points, the first of which is that the Sixers were dependent on Joel Embiid and their transition offense throughout the season.
When Embiid did not touch the ball, the Sixers' half-court offense was usually somewhere between mediocre and poor. In the regular season, the team scored 97.1 points per 100 half-court plays, according to Cleaning the Glass, which ranked 14th.
The Sixers started 16.0 percent of their plays in transition during the regular season, fifth-most in the league. That figure was 18.1 percent during the postseason and skewed by playing the Wizards in Round 1, an opponent who liked to play fast and wasn’t especially strong when it came to transition defense (or defense in general).
Still, the Sixers avoided half-court offense very well for a Game 7, even though they forced only 10 Atlanta turnovers. Failing to capitalize on those opportunities at their typical level (119.0 points per 100 transition plays, 3.7 under their regular-season average) was costly. The open-floor giveaways and missed shots in the paint tell a better story than the numbers.
“I think we counted it at halftime, we had three fast breaks where we threw the ball away and gave them … I think they got six points or eight points out of it,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said minutes after the game. “Same thing in the second half. You just can’t turn the ball over in a playoff game, especially in a Game 7.
“A lot of that came, to me, from just not trusting the simple pass, (not) making the right plays. You know what’s disappointing? We’ve done it all year. We’ve trusted all year, we’ve moved the ball all year. And we just didn’t do it tonight. If I had to say the most disappointing part of the game, it was that.”
The Sixers did indeed appear to gel all season, both on and off the court. Danny Green’s right calf strain likely played a minor role in the lack of Game 7 trust. Embiid’s small right lateral meniscus tear surely didn’t help either. Playing through that injury, it couldn’t have been easy to maintain total mental clarity. Some of Embiid’s old habits of trying to squeeze through difficult passes and not believing in the basic play when he was double teamed resurfaced. He turned the ball over eight times in both Game 6 and Game 7.
Those might be relevant factors, but still: Why was trust an issue for players that always seemed to enjoy each other’s company and had no obvious chemistry concerns?
“It happens,” Rivers said in his end-of-season press conference. “They do enjoy each other. This team is a very close team. I think they grew as a group, had a lot of fun together. But in the moment of truth — I thought several times in the playoffs, actually — guys went back to trying to win the game for us. That’s not necessarily a negative thing, but it’s something that we can grow from and understand that we all have to do it together.
“You have to keep trusting each other, you have to keep trusting the system. You can’t vacate it in a time of need. That may have the best teacher of the year for us. We will sit back this summer and the beginning of next year as a group, and we’ll see that. And that will be a great teacher for us. But it has nothing to do with if you’re close or not. You can be the closest team and that happens.”
Rivers made quite a few decisions that backfired, both in Game 7 and in the series as a whole.
He used 10 players in Game 7 and attempted to squeeze seven passable minutes out of Dwight Howard. Not surprisingly, the Sixers were outscored by five points when Howard was on the court. Who knows if it would have worked, but Rivers never going with Simmons as a backup center over Howard despite his in-season optimism about Simmons at the five is one of several curious choices. Of course, having only one traditional backup center on the roster in Howard — plus limited depth at the four — limited Rivers’ options.
The Sixers were flawed but perfectly capable of beating the Hawks at home. There’s no point in dwelling on specific turnovers or defensive miscues from a single game, but the Sixers’ front office, head coach and players can improve by addressing their underlying problems.
*All statistics from Cleaning the Glass, which factors out garbage time, unless otherwise noted