When the 76ers first reconvened as a group before the start of training camp, they immediately attempted to turn the painful end to their 2020-21 season into a valuable teaching tool.
They rewatched the fourth quarter of their 103-96 Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, when the top-seeded Sixers again sputtered down the stretch.
The play most remembered from that fourth-quarter fade, of course, is when Ben Simmons passed up a wide-open dunk with the Sixers trailing by two with less than four minutes to play — and the postgame comments from coach Doc Rivers and star center Joel Embiid that followed. Simmons instead gave the ball up to Matisse Thybulle, who was fouled and went 1 of 2 from the free-throw line.
Yet the film session revealed several areas where Philly folded.
“It was not a rehash,” Rivers said after the Sixers rewatched Game 7. “It was a very positive experience. But I just thought, ‘You still learn.’ This team is still together, and I wanted to point out the things we talked about all year [that] I said will come back and get you, and a lot of it came back and got us. ...
“That’s how you win big games, and you could see the difference. We were not ready for that yet. Hopefully, we are this year, but we’ll be better at it.”
The Sixers and Hawks meet at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center for the first time since that Game 7 heartbreaker. Ahead of the regular-season matchup with plenty of intrigue, here’s a look back at the other miscues that cost the Sixers that game and series, mistakes they now hope can be key lessons moving forward.
The shot-making (or lack thereof)
It’s easy to forget that the Hawks missed their first nine shots of the fourth quarter, fueling a 10-1 Sixers run punctuated by an and-1 finish through contact by Tobias Harris to give Philly an 81-77 lead with less than eight minutes to play.
But the Sixers could not capitalize on a slew of opportunities to extend that advantage or retake the lead in the final minutes. The Hawks, meanwhile, made a barrage of difficult shots, including multiple conversions by Kevin Huerter and All-Star Trae Young to snap out of a poor shooting performance.
A breakdown of the shots that shifted, squashed or prevented momentum:
9:20 to play, Sixers up 78-77: Young is blocked from behind by Thybulle, igniting a fast-break opportunity. But Harris missed the layup on the other end.
8:14 to play, Sixers still up 78-77: Harris drives and lifts a shot high off the glass over Clint Capela, but it rims out.
7:26 to play, Sixers up 81-77: Young misses a floater, sparking another Sixers transition opportunity. But Thybulle misses a wide open three-pointer, and Danilo Gallinari comes back the other way to bury a three-pointer with a hand in his face to slice the Sixers’ lead to 81-80.
6:16 to play, Sixers up 84-82: Embiid misses an open three-pointer, and Huerter answers with a tough baseline jumper to tie the game.
5:27 to play, tied at 84: Harris misses an attempt in the lane at the end of the shot clock, and Young gets past Thybulle for a floater on the other end to give the Hawks a two-point lead.
3:48 to play, tied at 86: After an Embiid fadeaway, Huerter spins in the middle of the lane to hit an off-balance shot over Seth Curry to regain an 88-86 advantage.
2:46 to play, Hawks up 88-87: After Simmons’ snafu and Thybulle’s free throw, Young nearly loses his dribble far outside the three-point arc. Harris steps out to try to swipe the ball away, but Young gets by him and feeds Capela for the alley-oop finish that gives the Hawks a three-point lead. Embiid then tries to back down Capela, but misses the turnaround jumper. Following a scramble for the ball, Young launches one of his signature deep pull-up three-pointers from 29 feet away to extend Atlanta’s advantage to 93-87.
The stretch perhaps highlighted the Sixers’ need for an elite perimeter shot-creator, something the reluctant-to-shoot Simmons is not. While Rivers, Embiid and Harris were pleased with the defensive intensity and overall effort down the stretch of that game, they most attributed the struggles to lack of execution — Rivers said there were two broken possessions in the quarter that a casual fan would not notice — and failing to do the more nuanced parts of offense such as screening, cutting and running the floor.
“Key things that could have shifted the game from a loss to a 10-point win,” Harris said during the first week of practice. “It’s just a learning curve. These things take time to build championship teams, championship organization, culture. … All those things add up, and those things start right now in training camp and go all the way through the year, because these habits are what comes out in big-time games through the year.”
The costly foul
The Sixers ranked second in the NBA in defensive efficiency during the regular season. But defending without fouling — especially shooters outside the three-point arc — is imperative in crunch time.
With Atlanta clinging to a 93-92 lead with less than a minute to play after a Harris layup, Huerter gets a ball screen at the top of the key and dribbles to his left. As Thybulle tries to recover, he swipes Huerter across the head as he pulls up from beyond the arc.
Thybulle places his hands on his head, immediately grasping the magnitude of his mistake. Huerter sinks all three free throws, putting Atlanta up two possessions for good.
Thybulle was a NBA second-team All-Defense selection last season. But earlier this week, he spoke candidly about working this season on being more solid defensively, rather than gambling for the “heroic” play.
The pivotal turnover
Turnovers were an issue for the Sixers for much of Game 7 as they committed 14 during the first three quarters that the Hawks converted into 13 points. Philly cleaned that up by giving it up three times during that final period, but one turnover in the final minute essentially sealed the defeat.
The possession after Huerter’s three free throws, Embiid tried to put a dribble spin move on Gallinari in the lane in hopes of getting to the basket. But Gallinari poked the ball away and it goes to Huerter, who kicks it ahead to Gallinari for the breakaway dunk to put the Hawks up 98-92 with 41.5 seconds to play.
That was one of Embiid’s eight turnovers in the decisive game. While recently reflecting on Game 7, Embiid said, “I gotta be that anchor, especially when it comes to closing games.”
“Which I will be,” Embiid said Thursday night. “Last year in the regular season and part of the playoffs, in those clutch situations I always came up. As the year goes, I think we’ll be better.”
When asked at last month’s Media Day how things might be different with Simmons and his team had the Sixers pulled out that Game 7, Rivers conceded, “That’s a great question, I don’t know.” Harris, though, said, “If I knew the situation was gonna be what it is right now [with Simmons], the day after we lost to Atlanta, I would have had the whole team pull up at Ben’s house and let’s just have a conversation.”
“To a man, I don’t think anybody went home that night not taking some type of ownership on themselves that we lost the game,” Harris added.
Instead, here we are.
Simmons demanded a trade and then did not report to training camp. He arrived about two weeks later after the organization began fining him for missed preseason games. He was kicked out of practice for being disengaged the day before the regular-season opener, then faced his team two days later to say he is not mentally ready to play. Rivers said prior to Thursday’s 110-102 win against Detroit that Simmons had been at the Sixers’ practice facility in Camden for at least three consecutive days, including that morning’s shootaround.
As a team, the Sixers are 3-2 entering Saturday, with three wins over inferior competition in New Orleans, Oklahoma City and Detroit and two losses to 2021 playoff teams in the Nets and Knicks. And Philly is still struggling to close out games.
The Sixers scored one point in the final 5:33 against Brooklyn last Friday, collapsing on national television after surrendering the lead for good in the final minute. Less than a week later, Philly needed to re-insert its starters Thursday against the winless Pistons, when a 20-point advantage dwindled to seven with less than four minutes to play.
Rivers has been frustrated with sloppy offense, while Embiid said the Sixers must improve drastically at guarding their man on the other end. Tyrese Maxey, a 20-year-old in his second NBA season, has a significant learning curve as a starting point guard in Simmons’ absence.
It will be months before the Sixers get their true opportunity to prove they have grown from last season’s playoff heartbreak. The current 2021-22 sample size is incredibly small, especially given the uncertainty surrounding Simmons’ situation.
Yet Saturday against the Hawks presents an early chance for the Sixers to put those lessons from the Game 7 fourth-quarter film into practice.
“We’ve got to get ourselves mentally and physically in shape,” veteran wing Danny Green said. “It takes a lot of tough games of coming down the stretch, down to the wire and seeing what you’re made of. … You have a dogfight, and you see who’s going to execute the last three or four minutes of the game.”