Losing a playoff series is extremely tough given the work that teams need to put in even to qualify. However, when you are a number one seed that has constantly fallen short in previous years due to questionable execution and some bad luck, it gets much tougher.
After a surprising first-round exit in the bubble, and a heartbreaking loss off of Kawhi Leonard’s baseline fadeaway the year before, this year was supposed to be different for the Sixers after many lessons learned and the hiring of a new coach Doc Rivers. The regular season seemed to be nothing but a breeze for the Sixers, but some glaring weaknesses were exposed in the playoffs, and no matter how hard their star big man played, once again, this year ended in disappointment. Such was the tone in Joel Embiid’s voice after their Game 7 loss at home versus the young Atlanta Hawks as he spoke about where he felt things had gone wrong.
“I’ll be honest. I thought the turning point was when we – I don’t know how to say it – when we had an open shot and we made one free throw…”Joel Embiid, postgame interview
One can only assume that Joel’s comments pertain to a certain play in the fourth quarter where co-star Ben Simmons passed up a wide-open dunk in favor of a drop-off to Matisse Thybulle down low. A dunk by Simmons here would have tied the game with three and a half minutes to go. Instead, the Hawks went on a 5-0 run after this play to take a six-point lead into the last two and half minutes of the game.
It is easy to pick on Ben Simmons at this point as his performance throughout this series and particularly in fourth quarters has been abysmal. To put things into context, a dunk by Simmons on the play mentioned by Embiid would have been his first attempt in the fourth quarter since Game 3. Simmons’ disappearing act has been the main storyline of the series as his historically bad free-throw shooting has seemed to take away his confidence in anything he does on the offensive end. Funny that Joel mentioned this particular play though since the Sixers managed to trim the deficit to one with less than a minute to go after a free throw by Simmons that came in between two baskets at the rim by Tobias Harris.
A silly foul then followed this by Thybulle on a three-point attempt by Huerter to put the Hawks up 4, and a turnover by Embiid himself that led to a breakaway for Danilo Gallinari on the other end. If the Sixers convert on that possession, it would have been a one-possession game with about 40 seconds to go, but instead, Embiid’s eighth turnover of the game virtually puts the score out of reach. Sounds like a turning point to me.
Give credit to the Hawks as they were the better team in the second halves of this series; what we learned about Philadelphia here, however, is that despite having all the talent, they are nowhere near the maturity level of a contender and passing the blame around sure does not help. There were many crucial situations after that passed-up dunk by Simmons, yet Embiid decided to point that out. Now the question becomes, knowing you had all the pieces do you run it back with the same group next year? Or do you make changes based on the weaknesses exposed?
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