The Liberty Bell tolls for the Philadelphia 76ers in the fourth quarter.
The top-seeded Sixers would be in the Eastern Conference finals right now if not for respective blown leads of 18 and 26 points to the Atlanta Hawks in Games 4 and 5 of their second-round series. The tragic flaws of their All-NBA cornerstones created what is now a chronic closing problem. Ben Simmons still cannot shoot, and Joel Embiid still cannot put forth 48 minutes of consistent effort. It is about to be their downfall again.
Wednesday's Game 5 in Philadelphia was one of the biggest choke jobs in NBA playoff history, complete with a scoring drought of four-plus minutes at the end of the fourth quarter, and the only positive the Sixers can take from it is that this latest collapse overshadowed an equally regrettable blown chance in Game 4.
Philadelphia was 1-for-7 from the field in the final five minutes of each of its three-point losses in the last three days, combining for one assist against three turnovers. The Sixers' only field goals were a Furkan Korkmaz 3-pointer to beat the shot clock and a meaningless Seth Curry 16-footer with 0.1 seconds left in Game 5.
In the clutch over the past two games, Embiid was 0-for-5 from the field, Simmons never shot and Tobias Harris missed both of his attempts. For the entire fourth quarters of Games 4 and 5, Embiid and Harris were a combined 1-for-15. Simmons did not attempt a shot in either fourth quarter. (He is 1-for-2 from the field combined in the two second halves.) That's $94.5 million this season for one bucket when it mattered most.
"You don't need to be a brain surgeon to see that when the ball is moving and we're just sharing, we're really good, and then the ball got stuck for most of the second half," lamented coach Doc Rivers. "The only movement we had going was the Seth actions. ... They were trying to attack matchups. That's not how you play."
Only, that is often how close playoff games are played late. The Sixers just aren't equipped to leverage it.
Atlanta is actively using Simmons' inability to shoot free throws against him. As the Hawks employed a hack-a-Ben strategy in a desperate attempt to swing momentum in their favor on Wednesday, Simmons finished 4-for-14 from the line, including two freebies that would have given the Sixers a 10-point lead with 3:31 remaining. He is now 12-for-39 in the series and 22-for-67 in the playoffs (32.8%). Only Ben Wallace — a career 41.4% free-throw shooter — shot worse from the line on at least 50 attempts in a playoff run.
"When Ben makes them, we get to keep him in, and when he doesn't, we can't," Rivers said, simplifying what has frustrated 76ers fans for four years running now. "And that's just the way it is."
Asked after Game 5 if his issues were physical or mental, Simmons told reporters, "Definitely mental."
Philadelphia still might have blown whatever cushion Simmons stitched together, since the Sixers' only reliable crunch-time offensive options are tired Embiid post-ups and praying Curry channels his older brother.
And here's the thing: Curry was incredible in Game 5. He finished with a playoff career-high 36 points on 13-for-19 shooting (7-of-12 from 3). He was a +6 in almost 38 minutes. The Sixers just have nobody else who can consistently create from the perimeter, and that includes their 6-foot-11 max-salaried point guard. Nobody but Embiid or Curry found the net in the entire second half of Game 5 — just utterly absurd.
Why Rivers — author of this past decade's other great single-game playoff collapse and three career blown 3-1 series leads — has not at least tried more Harris creation would be a mystery if not for his history. He entered Game 5 averaging a career-high 23.2 points (on 54/40/83 shooting splits) in his first nine playoff games. He is also 3-for-11 from the field over 49 clutch minutes in his playoff career, far from battle-tested.
Asked why the Sixers have blown big leads these last two games, Harris said, "It's a great question. I don't know right now. That's a tough one to answer, but the weakness right now is when we gain those leads."
Playing on a partially torn right lateral meniscus, Embiid disappeared on the offensive end in the second half of Game 4, finishing 0-for-12 from the field. Afterward, Hawks center Clint Capela said, "Whenever you wear him out, everything becomes tougher for him. When the fatigue comes in, it's a different ballgame."
Embiid watched video of Capela's postgame interview between games and informed his Sixers cohorts on Wednesday, "Watch what I'm gonna do tonight," according to TNT's Stephanie Ready. Sure enough, he dominated the first 11 minutes of Game 5, scoring 17 points on 8-for-8 shooting and staking the Sixers to a 38-21 lead. Embiid had 25 points and 10 rebounds by halftime, and his charges pushed the lead to 62-40.
Except, Capela was right. Embiid does have a history of tiring over the course of playoff games, and that has not gotten better on a bum knee. Since returning from the injury that cost him the clinching Game 5 in the first round, Embiid is +56 in 89 first-half minutes against the Hawks and -2 in 93 second-half minutes.
As a team, the Sixers are 1-7 in playoff games that have come down to the final five minutes since Jimmy Butler left for the Miami Heat in free agency following Game 7 of the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals. Rivers has been no better than Brett Brown in that regard, which makes you think it is a personnel problem. The last two blown opportunities have been their worst, and they could compound if the next one is close.
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