Alarming numbers told a story of a weird and wild Game 4 in Atlanta. The most significant number: Zero.
No, not the 0-for-12 field goal performance from Joel Embiid in the second half, or the 0-for-5 Embiid posted in the fourth quarter, or the 0-for-1 egg Embiid laid at the rim with 8 seconds to play, which helped the Hawks even the second-round series. Not these numbers, because Embiid was hurt, and sometimes hurt guys play badly.
The most alarming number: 0-for-0. That was Ben Simmons’ field-goal effort in his eight fourth-quarter minutes. The team’s superstar played at 60%, but the team’s primary ballhandler showed 0% heart.
“I definitely should have been more aggressive and attacked more,” Simmons admitted afterward.
Stop us if you’ve heard this before, because you’ve heard this before:
“I just have to stay aggressive. … I was a little passive at certain times.”
That’s what Simmons said after the Sixers’ Game 4 loss in the first round to the Wizards, the game in which Embiid suffered his knee injury in the first quarter — and Simmons took just two shots in the ensuing three quarters. This led to Doc Rivers’ absurd defense of Simmons, which, of course, made them both look even worse.
Here’s another alarming number: Embiid was 0-for-4 in the first quarter. Embiid looked like a guy who could have used at least another 24 hours of ice and elevation, but Embiid’s early inefficiency didn’t alter Simmons’ game at all.
We told you before the series began that Embiid’s knee would diminish the abilities of the man who should have been MVP. We told you Simmons needed to become more assertive to earn more years in Philly, and that this moment — this playoff stage — provided him the best spotlight he could wish for.
Simmons entered this series averaging 14.8 points over his career in the playoffs. He scored 14.3 per game in the 2021 regular season. He’s averaging 12.5 against the Hawks. He scored 11 on Monday.
He is shrinking from the moment. He is hiding from the light.
No one is hoping that Simmons will fail. It’s just the opposite. He has the capacity to succeed, and to succeed wildly — to directly influence the scoreboard on both ends of the floor. He simply chooses to not do so. He defers. It’s bizarre. In a league where guys fire shots with abandon, Simmons can’t get ‘em up.
Simmons can be the Sixers’ most valuable asset, or, in certain circumstances, their greatest liability. This generally has been true of streaky volume shooters — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony. Simmons is the league’s first problematic volume passer.
His value — and it is enormous value — lies in his size, his speed, and his vision, which make him a triple-double threat every night and an elite perimeter defender. Hawks gunner Trae Young torched the Sixers for 35 points when Atlanta won Game 1, but since Simmons became Young’s primary defender, he is averaging just 24.7 points on atrocious 39.0% shooting, and his three-point shooting is worse: 29.2%.
But, like Embiid, Young knows that, since he touches the ball so much, the Hawks’ best chance to win lies in his willingness to take shots. Rivers knows that Simmons is not willing.
That’s why, on Monday, with 6.6 seconds to play, Rivers benched Simmons for the Sixers’ final play.
The stat sheet read like a psychedelic Hunter Thompson novel.
Young had 18 assists, which matched his career high, set in a regular-season win Jan. 30, 2020, also against the Sixers.
The Hawks hit just 36.6% of their field-goal attempts; they were 0-3 this season when shooting less than 37.4%. They hit just 30.0% of their threes; they were 3-11 when shooting 30% or worse.
Simmons had zero turnovers for just the third time in 31 playoff games.
Simmons also hit just 1 of 5 free throws. He’s shooting 34.0% from the line. That’s 17.4% worse than the next player with at least 10 attempts, and 27.3% worse than his 61.3% from the regular season, when he was 11th worst in the NBA, and by far was the worst guard. You can’t make it up.
The scoreboard matters
Batman has torn cartilage in his right knee that won’t let him jump higher than Phil Mickelson, and Robin’s running away.
Simmons’ refusal to shoot wasn’t the only reason the Sixers lost the Game 4′s of their playoff series, but it is the most repairable. The ball stagnated on offense. Tobias Harris was 0-for-2 in the fourth quarter. Rivers didn’t call Simmons’ number, as far as you could tell. And, of course, Embiid’s injured right knee finally turned him into Jon Koncak.
But Joel Embiid’s injured right knee is an unavoidable problem. Ben Simmons’ fear of the spotlight is dereliction of duty.
You can parse it however you like, but the team that wins isn’t always the one that surrenders the best defensive shooting percentage, or gets the most rebounds, or has the guy with the triple-double. The team that wins is always the one with the most points. And when you have the ball in your hands more than anyone else, you have to at least try to score.
If you can’t see this, then you probably can’t be saved. The Cult of Ben demands complete fealty and allows no slander of its lord.
Call this slander, then, if you will:
Playing half a game is wholly unacceptable.