TORONTO — Everything you needed to know was there in Brett Brown’s face: in the arch of his eyebrows, in the furrow of his forehead, in the slack of his mouth as it hung agape in the cold, bright lights. There was surprise, and there was disgust, and, most palpably of all, there was bewilderment: a stunned, frozen, incomprehensible confusion at the series of events unfolding before his eyes.
This was early in the third quarter, a period that had begun with his team outscoring the Raptors 12-4 and trimming their 21-point halftime deficit to a suddenly manageable 13. JJ Redick had just drilled a 26-foot three-pointer that sent Toronto reeling to its bench for a full timeout. For the first time all night, the Sixers were looking like a team that belonged on the court in Game 5 of an all-tied-up conference semifinal.
And then something happened that looked a lot like an epitaph being carved in real time. One moment, Ben Simmons was dribbling down the court in transition for the start of a possession that could possibly bring the Sixers to within 10. The next, he was letting fly one of the most curious and careless passes of his young career, a bizarre lob-type thing into traffic that Raptors guard Kyle Lowry intercepted with a full head of steam.
After Lowry coasted down to the other end of the court for an easy layup, Brown leaned back in his chair and stared up at the giant video board hanging high above his head. Right then and there, he seemed to know. If he didn’t, he would soon. A series that the Sixers not long ago held in firm control was about to deliver them to the brink of another long offseason.
It would do so in embarrassing fashion, a 125-89 thrashing to complete what many will see as a validation of all of their darkest fears about this team. For a second straight game, their two young cornerstones were absent enough to warrant a candlelight vigil, Simmons and Joel Embiid combining for 13 turnovers and just eight made shots. Barring the dramatic arrival of a team that has been missing in action for the vast majority of this series, the Sixers will finish this season the same way they did the last one, staring warily ahead to a pivotal summer in which, despite a slew of looming free-agent decisions, the most important work will need to be done from within.
If the season does, indeed, end by the end of this week, it will be hard to avoid the sense that the last year has been one of stasis. Once again, Simmons will enter an offseason having been taught a painful lesson about the need for him to expand his game outside of the paint. In Game 5, he managed just five shot attempts from the field and one from the foul line. He finished with more turnovers than assists. He was a nonfactor on offense, and when that is the case, it makes life that much more difficult for everybody around him.
At the top of that list is Embiid, who will once again enter an offseason needing to get his body into good-enough shape that he can give his tendons and bones and immune system the best possible odds at avoiding the sorts of injuries and illnesses that have plagued him all postseason. The big fella was invisible on the offensive end for the fourth time this series, ravaged by an upper respiratory infection that is the latest in his long line of afflictions.
“It [stinks],” Embiid said. “I know I’ve got to do a better job for us to win. I’ve got to do the little things. When I’m needed to score the ball, I’ve got to show up. Setting screens, I need to do a better job of. I can’t control my physical condition, but I can control how much I push myself, and I try to do that; I just have to do more. I know that I’ve got to go back to Game 3, the same energy, gotta have fun. That’s one of the keys of me playing so well this postseason. I need to smile on the court. I need to lift my teammates up. I shouldn’t care about offending anybody. I just have to be myself and not really care and do whatever I want to. At the end of the day, that’s how I dominate.”
Late Tuesday night, there was a lot of talk about energy and effort in the visitors’ locker room at ScotiaBank Arena. Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, Simmons, all pointed to a lack of spirit, particularly on the defensive end of the court.
“It wasn’t there at all,” Simmons said. “It’s the playoffs. We’ve got to bring it. It should never be like that.”
That such a thing needs to be said only furthers the reason to doubt whether the Sixers can overcome their long odds (according to ESPN, teams that fall behind 3-2 in a best-of-seven series end up losing about 85 percent of the time).
At the same time, it is easy to feel like you don’t have energy when the two players who are supposed to be your most energetic stars are missing in action. Now, the margin for error is gone.