The Philadelphia 76ers are one of the best teams in the NBA; that is indisputable.
They finished out the regular season with the best record in the East – the third-best record overall – had a pair of players finish second in the running for league MVP and DPOTY, and now boast three players named to the NBA’s All-Defensive teams, including one who is averaging 20 minutes of action a night (more on that here).
Factor in a championship-winning head coach in Doc Rivers and a deep bench of quality role players capable of fill a variety of different roles, and it’s no wonder the Sixers are among the best teams in the NBA as things presently stand.
With that being said, the Sixers are only as good as their best player. When Joel Embiid is on fire, going for 28.9 points in 28.9 minutes of action, the team can hang with the best of them, but when he’s off – like he was in Game 4 versus Washington due to inactivity or in Game 4 versus Atlanta due to on-court complications from his meniscus tear – the margin of error become a whole heck of a lot smaller, as was evidenced in an underwhelming Monday evening in Atlanta.
And the worst part? There’s not a darn thing the Philadelphia 76ers can do about it but cross their fingers and hope for the best.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ fourth-quarter strategy left a lot to be desired.
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Who will finish out any given Philadelphia 76ers game as the team’s third-leading scorer is a crapshoot.
Usually, scorers one and two are a pretty safe bet; Embiid has developed into a near-point-per-minute scorer at this point in his career, and Tobias Harris flirted with a 20 points per game campaign for his second straight season.
But behind them? Things get a tad dicey.
Now typically, picking Ben Simmons to finish out any given game with double-digit points is a pretty safe bet. Of the 58 games Simmons appeared in during the 2020-21 NBA season, he scored 10-plus points in 48 of them and passed the 20 point mark on eight separate occasions.
So yeah, while some will continue to pound the war-drum that Simmons is an offensively broken player who can’t hang on a championship-caliber team, he’s developed into a more than adequate scorer in addition to his exceptional gifts as a facilitator.
Rajon Rondo had his best seasons as a pro under Doc Rivers during their shared tenure in Boston, and he averaged 10.7 made 3s a year during his first six NBA campaigns. Cast Tobias Harris in the Paul Pierce role and Joel Embiid as a thicker Kevin Durant, and that strategy has a proven track record.
If that’s how Doc wins, then so be it.
But wait, there’s more. The Sixers’ starting five – when healthy – is padded out with a pair of quality shooters, and they have as many as six reserve players who could fill a role on seemingly any of the teams remaining in the postseason.
Only, here’s the problem: Joel Embiid is the Philadelphia 76ers’ alpha.
When Embiid is on the court, the offense and defense funnel through him. When Embiid is off the court, the Sixers suffered through some brutal stretches low-lighted by extended scoreless stretches, including a particularly rough go versus Atlanta in Game 2 that was miraculously ended by a wonderful 14 minute run by Shake Milton.
If Milton could provide that same sort of pop in every game with regularity, even just at the 13 points per game clip he averaged during the regular season, the Sixers may be able to weather the absence of a player like Danny Green without too much issue. But when he’s out, and Embiid is playing effectively on one leg, things can get out of hand in a hurry.
Case and point, Game 4 in ATL.
In a game where the Sixers really, truly, desperately needed someone other than Embiid to step up and produce when the Big Fella couldn’t quite reach his typical “Best in the World”-level of play, no one really could. Despite all five starters finishing out the game with double-digit points and the bench contributing 25 points in 68 total minutes of action, Embiid still took five of the seven shots taken during the final two minutes of the game, even though he didn’t make a single shot from the field after the half.
That, my friends, is not good at all.
Despite a solid first-half showing, Harris only took four shots from the field during the second half and barely touched the ball during his final 3:23 run. The same could be said for Simmons, who played the final eight minutes of the game sans the last 6.6 seconds of regulation and only accounted for one point, one assist, and one defensive rebound.
Frankly, the only player who did provide a spark in the fourth quarter was Milton, who recorded a third of the team’s points in six minutes of action. Had he been reinserted into the game at the 3:23 mark, when Atlanta took a timeout following a six-minute scoreless run by the Sixers, maybe the Sixers would have been able to break the tied game in their favor and outgun the Hawks on their home turf, but instead, Doc opted to roll with his starting four plus some Matisse Thybulle sprinkled in for good measure over the hot hand and watched his team go scoreless from the field during the final 2:44 of regulation.
When you only score two points in the final 2:44 of regulation – all of which came from the stripe – in a four-point game, you probably deserve to lose.
If Joel Embiid can return to his Game 2 form when the Philadelphia 76ers roll back into the Wells Fargo Center for a pivotal Game 5, the team will (probably) win. Regardless of how you feel about Trae Young, he is unquestionably the best player in the series when healthy and should be able to bully his way to another statement game in front of his adoring fans. But if Embiid is limited, or worse, can’t go at all, the Sixers will once again have to try their darndest to replace the lifeblood of their offense and defense with a supporting cast largely made up of character actors. If history is of any indication, even the best supporting casts around fall to titanic lineups almost every time, which is bad news if that’s all you have to offer.