Some losses, you see them coming. You expect them. They follow a script. Reality presents itself from the first pitch, from the opening kickoff, from the drop of the puck or the jump of the ball. Joe Jurevicius runs 71 yards with everyone else in slow motion. Shaquille O’Neal settles in on the low block and starts doing business. Donovan McNabb is intercepted, and then L.J. Smith fumbles. The rest of the game is a process of acceptance. The end of the season arrives, but it does not flatten you like a bus.
This was not one of those losses. This was a 3 a.m. phone call. It was a car door in a bike lane. It was an arena full of hollow shells, 20,000 stomachs sucked out of 20,000 mouths: gone like a 26-point lead, gone like a playoff series, gone like the maddening promise of a new era. They stood empty and ashen-faced, staring at the court like it was a blinking cursor on a blank page. This was Joe Carter rounding the bases. It was Ryan Howard lying alone in the dirt. The final helpless seconds ticked down. The clock said zero. The scoreboard said Hawks 109, Sixers 106. None of it made any sense.
Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Wednesday night might not have been the end of a chapter, or even the end of the season. Plenty of teams have come back from a 3-2 deficit to advance. Plenty of times, the Sixers have won two straight games. They did it against Atlanta just last week. They have basketball’s most dominant big man, if not its most dominant player. Win on Friday, and they’ll be home on Sunday, one win shy of guaranteeing themselves four more games.
Right now, though, we are still in the moment, and it sure feels like one that won’t easily fade. If the season ends the way it probably should, the way that Ben Simmons’ postgame face said it probably will, Wednesday night could easily go down as one of those generation-defining cataclysms that echoes throughout time. Hyperbole? Perhaps. There are plenty of moments that look a lot smaller from the outside. But this was not just a loss. It was defeat, in the grandest and most abstract sense of the word.
One hundred and sixty five. Consider that number. Stare at it the way you stared at the clock during those final helpless seconds. One hundred and sixty five. That’s the number of games that the Sixers had led by 25+ points in the last 25 seasons.
After Wednesday night, they are 165-1. That’s not a cat that will return quietly to the bag. It will be there in the offseason, as the Sixers attempt to progress from a four-year-long stasis. It will touch every decision that Daryl Morey makes. It will be there in training camp, as Doc Rivers tries to build a bench rotation that won’t leave him raving like a madman whenever the starters aren’t in the game. His group was outscored, 37-13, in Game 5. Maybe the coach should have handled his rotations differently. Or, maybe, there was nothing he could do.
“We’ll be back here for Game 7 — I believe that,” Rivers said. “The mood was down. It was awful. What would you think it would be? It would have to be. This is part of sports. You have some awful moments. There’s no guaranteed path to get to your goal. We have made this hard on ourselves. We have to own up to that. All of us. And then we have to get up and be ready for the next game.”
The reality that will linger longest is the one that has always hovered over Simmons. It was there for the duration of Game 5, the Hawks sending him to the line, daring him to shoot. The one time he sank both of his free throws, the fans at the Wells Fargo Center reacted like they’d won a showcase showdown on “The Price is Right.” Then came another 0-fer, and a Hawks bucket at the other end that cut the lead to six. With 3:28 remaining, the energy was gone. The train was in the tunnel. The only decision left was whether to close your eyes.
“I need to get it back,” said Simmons, who shot 61% from the foul line during the regular season but missed 10 of his 14 free throws in Wednesday’s loss. “That’s on me.”
He is a good player, better than many people have given him credit for and more people will henceforth acknowledge. The Sixers outscored the Hawks by seven points when he was on the court. As bad as it was, it would have been worse if he was not out there.
Still, this wasn’t just a loss. It was a ghost, and it will haunt every game that Simmons plays until he gets his next chance to exorcise the demon. It will accompany him to the foul line. It will be his only company outside 15 feet. Together, they will watch the defenders pack the paint like a penalty kill. And they will hear the rumble of a crowd that has not forgotten Game 5.
The long term still depends on the short term. Win two straight, and the Sixers have as good a chance at a title as any team that’s still alive. But the short term depends on their finding answers that four years have yet to yield. How do you close out a game when an opponent bets against your star ballhandler and there’s nothing he can do? How do you piece together a bench that is wildly outclassed by an opponent’s talent? How can a team win a competitive postseason series when its primary strategy is for its center to play like an all-time great?
In Game 5, Joel Embiid played as good a half of basketball as has ever been played on this stage. He scored 24 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, shot 9-of-11 from the field. In the second half, the Hawks clamped down, and Seth Curry almost saved the Sixers. He finished with 36 points, shot 7-of-12 from three-point range, and it still was not enough.
Some losses sting. They all linger for a while. But there are some that you cannot escape. The Sixers just lost one of the latter. Before, they were trying to make history. Now, they are hoping it was not just made.