By Connor Thomas
Everything fell apart for the Sixers last night, and yet… nope, I’ve got nothing. There are no positive takeaways from Game 4’s 100-103 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. No silver lining, no upside, no “well at least we saw so and so do this or that”. It was a brutal loss that mathematically only costs the Sixers 1 game, but feels more backbreaking than that. Where do we even start with the criticism of what we witnessed in Atlanta last night? I guess we should start at halftime, when the Sixers still felt like the clear 1 seed and seemed to be on the way to taking a commanding 3-1 series lead. The Sixers held a 13 point lead at the break, and looked to be poised to push the Hawks to the brink of elimination. Then, everything went wrong.
It is hard to even blame a single player for the loss, because the team in general played so poorly in the 2nd half. Joel Embiid, who had gone to the locker room for some type of medical treatment in the 1st half, put together one of the worst basketball performances of the last 25 years, going 0-12 from the floor. He could not have hit water if he had fallen out of a boat, and looked like he was uncomfortable the whole time he was throwing up bricks. On top of the historically bad shooting performance, now there are questions about his fatigue heading into Game 5 of the series. Ben Simmons wasn’t much better. He had a near triple double at halftime with an 8 PT, 11 REB, 7 AST stat line, but finished out the game with only 3 more points, 1 more rebound, and 2 more assists. How a 6’10” player who recorded 17 minutes of floor time did not record more than a single rebound is beyond me, not to mention only having 3 points. The top two players for the Sixers absolutely disappeared in the clutch, and that is unacceptable in the playoffs. It simply cannot happen.
That brings us to Tobias Harris. Harris was tied for a 2nd half worst -16, and scored 0 points in the 4th Quarter. He had been the Sixers closer throughout the regular season, always finding a way to pour in a clutch bucket or two. How in the hell does he end up not scoring in the 4th Quarter? He played 10:08 of the available 12 minutes, the most of any Sixers player, and did not contribute a point. So here’s a coaching test for everyone out there: if you’re Doc Rivers, and your best player hasn’t scored from the floor in the 2nd half, your 2nd best player refuses to take a shot, and your 3rd best player doesn’t have it either, wouldn’t you draw up some plays for some hot handed players? Well Rivers decided that Seth Curry, who was your 2nd highest scorer in the game, only deserved 5:39 of action in the final quarter. He did not score in those 5 minutes. The bench was not awful; there were some big plays from Shake Milton, Matisse Thybulle, and Dwight Howard throughout the game. But Doc wasn’t willing to rotate them in more. There is no guarantee at all that anyone on the bench could’ve given the Sixers enough to win, but the unwillingness to change the rotations based on your top 3 players going cold was reminiscent of the criticisms that ran Rivers out of LA last year.
Outside of the rotations, the other questionable call by Doc last night was the 2nd to last play of the game, drawn up for Joel Embiid to give the Sixers the lead. The play was beautiful; starting with a Seth Curry handoff to Tobias Harris that led to a pick and roll with Embiid streaking in from the left elbow. Embiid got to the rim and had a chance at a layup, and even though he missed badly, it was exactly the opportunity you would look for on that play. But why was the play drawn up for Embiid? He had clearly been hampered by some type of pain or injury in the 2nd half, and was 0-11 from the floor. I get that he’s been the best player on the planet when healthy this season, but when do you accept that it’s not his night and trust the clutch moment to someone else? Yes, Embiid could’ve been put on the free throw line which is basically automatic, but your closer (Harris) and your hottest shooter (Curry) are both better percentage free throw shooters than even Embiid. Less likely to draw a foul? Absolutely. But given the circumstances and the flow of the game, you could certainly argue that Embiid was not one of the top 2 options to take the go ahead shot. Again, for better or worse, it was another instance of Doc choosing not to adjust and instead stick with the blueprint.
In summation, everyone is to blame. It was a total collapse in a game that could end up defining a playoff run. The more likely option is the Sixers still win the series, and the direct effects of the Game 4 loss will only be some anger on a Monday night/Tuesday morning. But the longer an earlier series lags on, the longer the odds get for the Sixers to host the Larry O’Brien Trophy. It needs to be Sixers in six. See you in Philly on Wednseday.