As I sat there watching the Philadelphia 76ers compete in a do-or-die elimination game, trying to figure out some way, any way, to generate consistent offense against Atlanta’s mediocre-at-best defense, there was one thought that kept creeping into the back of my mind as the Sixers stumbled their way to a crushing 103-96 loss to the Hawks in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Sixers – the players, the coach, the organization as a whole – failed Joel Embiid.
You saw Ben Simmons, their max contract point guard, moving so little from his designated spot along the baseline that he might as well have been standing in cement. Simmons was scared to even touch the ball, much less create a scoring opportunity, once he crossed half court, and he finished the series attempting three total shots in 56 minutes of play in the fourth quarter in seven games against Atlanta.
In his place, the Sixers alternated handing the ball to Shake Milton, a former 54th overall pick in the draft; George Hill, a 35-year-old journeyman acquired a couple of months ago who has averaged fewer than five points per game in the playoffs; and Tyrese Maxey, a 20-year-old rookie who was out of the rotation a week ago.
These are not players who would typically be asked to lead a team’s half-court offense in the guts of a pivotal Game 7. It is only Embiid’s individual brilliance that makes it seem even remotely plausible.
You watched as Tobias Harris, their near-max contract forward, miss layup after layup in a close game, capping off a disappointing end to his once-promising playoff run by shooting 34.5 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from 3-point range over his final three games.
These were the running mates that the franchise had spent so long, and divested so many resources, trying to acquire, then spent years telling you were good enough to form the core of a team capable of competing for an NBA title.
But in truth, they didn’t have a core capable of winning an NBA title. Deep down, we knew that Harris wasn’t good enough to be the best perimeter scorer on a championship team and that the deeper the Sixers got into the playoffs, the more a good defensive team would be able to game plan to take advantage of Simmons’ obvious and undeniable limitations.
I didn’t expect and am partially stunned that the Hawks were capable of exploiting those weaknesses, but those limitations were always in the back of my mind as the Sixers advanced deeper and deeper into postseason play.