Are the 76ers better than their recent predecessors? Or are they destined for another Eastern Conference semifinal exit?
It doesn’t look good for the East’s No. 1 seed. The Sixers blew a 26-point lead en route to losing 109-106 to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 5 of the conference semifinals Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center. The Hawks now have a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 6 is Friday night in Atlanta.
The sellout crowd voiced its displeasure. During the fourth-quarter collapse, a water bottle was thrown on the court. And the Sixers were serenaded with boos as they exited the floor.
Now, they must contend with a State Farm Arena crowd that will be just as electric, if not more so, than it was in Games 3 and 4. The Sixers will also have to defy history.
Game 5 winners have gone on to advance 82% of the time in playoff series that were tied 2-2.
Joel Embiid and Seth Curry were the only Sixers to score baskets in the second half. Curry scored 25 of his 36 points in the second half on 9-for-13 shooting. Meanwhile, Embiid scored 13 of his 37 points on 3-for-9 shooting. However, the rest of the team shot a combined 0-for-11.
For the game, Tobias Harris had four points while making just 2 of 11 shots. He was scoreless after intermission. Ben Simmons finished with eight points and nine assists, but he went 4-for-14 from the foul line. He said his struggles from the foul line are “mental.” And Simmons attempted just four shot after saying he needed to be more aggressive after one-shot in the second half of Game 4.
The Sixers were outscored 40-19 while getting away from their principles in the second half.
“We were up,” Simmons said. “We had it. I think we gave it to them. We got too comfortable. We didn’t play the way we should be playing.
“We didn’t move the ball as much in the second half. We didn’t get as many easy shots. And defensively, too many lapses where we didn’t communicate.”
Hawks guard Trae Young scored 13 of 39 points in the fourth quarter. Lou Williams also scored 13 of his 15 points in the quarter. The former Sixers tormented Curry, who attempted to guard him, by making 6 of 8 shots that quarter.
The Hawks shot 72.7% in the final quarter with Young and Williams leading the way. The Sixers, however, shot 29.4% from the field and missed five of their 14 free throws.
“I mean we talk about an underdog, for a team that has no All-Stars, no All-Defensive players, you know no All-NBA players, this team is fighting,” Young said. “We are in the second round of the playoffs. And I think we had that chip on our shoulder all year just by being overlooked and having that underdog mentallity.
“We’re playing with that chip on our shoulder right now and just are continuing to do that. We need them to keep it up.”
Now, the Sixers must win Game 6 in Atlanta to force a winner-take-all Game 7 at home.
“We’ll be back here for Game 7,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I believe that.”
This collapse comes after the Sixers blew an 18-point lead en route to losing 103-100 in Game 4.
They are the only team to blow at least an 18-point lead in back-to-back playoff games in the last 25 seasons.
Asked why they have an issue holding onto leads late in the game, Harris responded: “That’s a great question.”
“I don’t know,” he added. “I mean, that’s a tough one to answer. But ... the weakness right now is when we gain those leads, we kind of go away from what got us there. That was playing defense, moving the basketball, getting some good looks. And that’s hurt us the last two games.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this hard.
Much has been made about the hiring of Rivers and a new coaching staff, bringing in the new role players, and employing Daryl Morey as president of basketball operations. Folks celebrated the Sixers’ finishing with the conference’s best record for the first time in 20 years. And the team can boast a league MVP runner-upin Embiid and a defensive player of t he year runner-up in Simmons.
But they’re one loss away from having won just one of their last 11 second-round appearances dating back to 1986. They beat the Raptors in seven games in 2001 en route to finishing as NBA Finals runners-up.
This loss isn’t on Embiid, even though he missed his last four shots and a pair of free throws with 10.9 seconds left. At the time, the Sixers were down, 107-104.
For the most part, he was solid after struggling mightily in Game 4 Monday night. He had 17 points and 21 rebounds that night. However, he only made 4 of 20 shots, including missing all 12 of his second-half attempts.
Early on in Game 5, it looked like the Sixers would win running away.
They made made their first six shots en route to shooting 16-for-20, including making 5 of 7 three-pointers, to lead 38-24 after one quarter.
That’s when it was obvious Embiid would be just fine, not missing a shot before being subbed with 1 minute left in the first quarter. The Sixers built a sizable lead with him leading the way.
But down 51-31, the Hawks went to a Hack-a-Ben as Young intentionally fouled Simmons with 4 minutes, 58 seconds left in the first half. The point guard made the first foul shot before missing the second.
Then on the next possession, Simmons missed both foul shots after being intentionally fouled by Kevin Huerter.
Huerter later committed a clear-path foul on Simmons near midcourt. As a result, the Sixers retained the ball after he went to the foul line for two shots.
Simmons missed both of his free throws before the Sixers inbounded the ball. As expected, Huerter immediately fouled him again, sending Simmons back to the line. He made the first foul shot before missing the second.
As a result, the Sixers led 56-32 with 3:42 to go before intermission after Simmons went 2-for-8 from the line during that stretch.
But the Sixers went on to take a commanding 62-40 lead, as Embiid added seven points in the second quarter. He went 1-for-3 from the field and made all five of his foul shots.
The Sixers led by 26 points with 8:31 left in the third quarter and still had a 87-67 lead when Simmons was subbed out with 40.7 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Hawks responded with a 9-0 run to pull within 11 points before Simmons and Embiid were subbed back into the game.
Then with the Sixers up 102-94, the Hawks went back to Hack-a-Ben.
This time, Simmons made both foul shots to give the Sixers a 10-point cushion with 4:23 left.
The Hawks went back to it after a Young layup. This time, Simmons missed both free throws.
His trips to the foul line were momentum shifts due to his futility.
Then Atlanta closed the gap to 104-98 after a Clint Capela dunk with 3:21 left. Rivers called a timeout to take Simmons out of the game to stop the Hack-A-Ben.
He came back in with 2:29 left. But at that point, they had lost all momentum. Young drew a foul on Matisse Thybulle while attempting a three-pointer with 1:26 left.
Young sank three foul shots to give the Hawks the lead for good at 105-104.