When you’ve got a 3-0 lead in the playoffs, what you want next—all you want next, really—is something normal.
Yes, you anticipate that your opponent, back firmly against the wall, will play desperate, frenetic, and potentially inspired basketball. And sure, that could result in something unexpected: a starting lineup change here, a confounding tactical adjustment there. You can deal with those as they come, though, provided the significant advantages that propelled you to that 3-0 lead hold steady and everyone stays healthy. That’s all you’re looking for: a normal continuation of existing precedent, with no alarms and no surprises, please.
The 76ers didn’t get that in Monday’s Game 4 as they attempted to close out the Wizards. What they got instead: a worrisome injury to their most important player, stagnant offense interspersed with inconsistent defense, a renewal of old unpleasantries about their point guard’s shooting woes, and a 122-114 loss to put the brooms back in the closet and force a Game 5 on Wednesday. It is, to put it mildly for Sixers fans, not what you want.
And it starts, as all things do in Philadelphia, with the health of Joel Embiid, who fell hard after Robin Lopez blocked his layup attempt with just under five minutes to go in the first quarter:
Embiid got up and stayed in the game, but when he checked out with less than a minute remaining in the opening frame, he promptly headed back to the locker room ...
Embiid headed to the locker room after an apparent injury. pic.twitter.com/ynDK91j6du— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 31, 2021
… and, ominously, didn’t come out at all during the second quarter. Sure enough, the Sixers announced at halftime that Embiid was suffering from right knee soreness, and that he wouldn’t return, ending his night after just 11 minutes of work.
The knee diagnosis was a little surprising, since Embiid seemed to be nursing his lower back and right hip after crashing down. His right foot did land first and hard, though, and his right knee did appear to bear the brunt of the impact. Considering Embiid missed 10 games earlier this season after sustaining a bone bruise in his left knee—also, coincidentally, in Washington against the Wizards—you couldn’t blame Philly for exercising an abundance of caution when it comes to the health of its MVP finalist, and hoping that the rest of the Sixers could finish the job and get Embiid a few extra days off before the start of Round 2.
Unfortunately—and sometimes you need to say what’s obvious—removing a player as talented as Embiid would change things dramatically for any team. (Here’s where we remind you that Philly went 10-11 without Embiid this season, and actually got outscored by one point per 100 possessions this season with him off the floor.)
Embiid’s absence thrust Tobias Harris into duty as Philadelphia’s no. 1 scoring threat, and while Harris had been excellent through the first three games against Washington, he struggled mightily for much of Monday. He needed 24 shots to score his team-high 21 points, converting just 4-for-14 attempts in the paint, and having his shot blocked six times. After Embiid’s exit became official, the Sixers mustered just 19 points on 8-for-23 shooting with five turnovers in the third quarter. Washington seized the opportunity to take control, as stars Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook attacked a lane no longer patrolled by one of the sport’s most menacing defenders to repeatedly create good looks:
Save for a steady diet of George Hill and brief bursts of late-game color from reserve swingman Furkan Korkmaz and rookie Tyrese Maxey, the Embiid-less Sixers couldn’t get much going, shooting just 41.7 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from 3-point range as a team. With Embiid out and Harris struggling, and Philly in desperate need of some more shot creation and offensive juice, Game 4 seemed like an opportune time for Doc Rivers to dust off a look—small ball with Ben Simmons at center—that he barely turned to during the regular season, but that has paid dividends for Philly in the past. Instead, though, Rivers largely leaned on backup big men Dwight Howard and Mike Scott (who combined for one point on 0-for-7 shooting), ran more offense through Harris and Seth Curry, and mostly relegated Simmons—who was limited all game by foul trouble—to a complementary role as a dribble-pitch triggerman and dunker-spot lurker.
Whether due to the foul trouble, the de-emphasized role, or a combination of the two, Simmons never quite seemed to get on track, attempting only two shots in the second half and just five for the game, finishing with 13 points, 12 rebounds, and three assists in 24 minutes. The most notable part of his performance? Wizards coach Scott Brooks chose to intentionally foul Simmons—who had missed all nine of his free throw attempts in the first three games of the series—on three consecutive possessions late in the fourth quarter. (This isn’t the first time Brooks has gone to this well; back in 2017, his Wizards sent Simmons to the line 24 times in a single quarter.) When Hack-a-Ben started, the score was 108-all; after Simmons split his freebies on three straight trips to the stripe, Washington held a 112-111 lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
The Wiz stopped intentionally hacking Simmons after the third trip, because doing so in the final two minutes would have given Philly one free throw and the ball. But when Simmons screened for Korkmaz and then rolled to the rim to try to cut Washington’s lead to two with 1:08 to go, Westbrook whacked him and forced him to earn the points at the line. Once again: a split pair. Simmons went 4-for-8 from the line in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter and 5-for-11 overall—a bitter pill to swallow in what was a one-possession game until the final minute.
Brooks’s decision to hack Simmons with the game in the balance didn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense. For one thing, Simmons shot 61.3 percent from the line during the regular season, far above the break-even point for the probability that the gambit would pay off. For another, slowing the game down by putting Simmons on the line made it more likely that Washington would have to attack Philadelphia’s set defense—not the friendliest circumstance, considering the Wizards scored just 93.8 points per 100 possessions in the half court in Game 4, about what the 24th-ranked Wolves managed during the regular season. Late in a tie game with their season on the line and the Sixers’ best player already out, the reward didn’t seem to be worth the risk. Except … y’know … it worked!
In a vacuum, Simmons producing one point per possession and forcing Washington to go against a set defense seems like a decent enough outcome; just ask noted analytics enthusiast Doc Rivers. In this context, though, sending Simmons to the line meant the Wizards weren’t giving up drives, offensive rebounds, and pull-up jumpers, as they had on their previous three possessions. (It also might’ve gotten Simmons off his game just a tad, which is a bit tougher to quantify.) And while having to unlock Philly’s set defense is typically a tall task, it’s significantly less daunting against a small-ball lineup without Embiid or multiple point-of-attack perimeter deterrents—the Sixers closed with some combination of Simmons, Harris, Korkmaz, Curry, Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, and Danny Green—and the Wizards were up for it, scoring or drawing a foul on five straight possessions after starting to hack Simmons:
After the game, Rivers could’ve attempted to downplay Simmons’s ongoing free throw woes—just 5-for-20 in this series, and now just 49.3 percent since the All-Star break—as he and the Sixers head back to Philadelphia. Instead, though, Doc decided to take a scalpel to the way his point guard’s peccadilloes and occasional offensive passivity are covered:
"Ben is not a 40-point guy, he does other stuff for the team. I don't understand why that's not syncing in our city"@76ers Doc Rivers defends @BenSimmons25 after game 4 vs. @WashWizards #ThatsGame | #PhilaUnite | #3ptcnvrsn | #NBAPlayoffs | #PHIvsWAS pic.twitter.com/7lWrjyzcjP— The 3 Point Conversion (@3ptCnvrsn) June 1, 2021
“You guys [in the media] keep this Ben Simmons narrative alive, which to me is freaking insane, [with] how good this guy is and all the things he does,” Rivers said. “Ben is not a 40-point guy. It’s not what he does. He does other things for your team. And I just don’t understand why that’s not sinking in in our city. Everybody on the team doesn’t have to be a scorer to help the team. Ben scores, but Ben creates scoring for us. That’s what he does. If I’m Ben, at some point, I’d get tired of it. I just would. Because he’s just too good and he does so many good things for this basketball team. And I keep saying, celebrate him. Celebrate all the stuff he does well. We don’t do that enough.”
That’s perfectly fair. Simmons is a fantastic All-NBA-caliber two-way ace who plays a massive role in Philadelphia’s success as a facilitator and defensive weapon. Him taking only a handful of shots and missing a half-dozen free throws, while not the preferred outcome, isn’t the primary reason the Sixers dropped a game to the eighth-seeded Wiz rather than finishing off the sweep. However, one might wonder if this is a “physician, heal thyself” situation—one in which the prescription for what ails Philly, particularly if Embiid needs to miss Game 5, would be for Doc to celebrate the stuff Simmons does well (like creating offense with the ball in his hands for the many catch-and-shoot targets on the Sixers’ roster) rather than presenting him as a target for derision because of what he doesn’t (like waiting on the baseline for someone else to make something happen so he can flash to the middle or hit the offensive glass).
The Sixers didn’t get the normal they were looking for in Game 4, but they still have more than enough to knock off Washington back at home, with or without the big fella. Getting Embiid as close to 100 percent as possible is the most important thing Philly can do to prepare for the tougher tests that lie ahead. Doing what’s necessary to maximize Simmons, though—rehabilitating his confidence at the stripe, yes, but just as importantly putting him in positions where he can endanger a defense rather than let it rest—isn’t far off.