I missed the start of the Hawks’ comeback on Wednesday night. That’s an embarrassing admission for someone employed to pay attention to NBA playoff games, I know, but hear me out: With 3:19 left in the third quarter, Seth Curry made a layup to push the 76ers’ lead to 25. Their win probability, per ESPN, was 99.7 percent. I messaged my editor “This game sucks,” and went to wash the dishes in order to be fully prepared to write about the Jazz-Clippers game to follow.
Then I returned from the sink to find Lou Williams (!) leading a ferocious comeback on the 76ers’ home floor (!!) as Philadelphia blew its second giant lead in a row (!!!). The 76ers should have won this series already; they should have time to rest Joel Embiid’s knee before the franchise’s first conference finals appearance since 2001.
Instead, they lost 109-106 and now trail 3-2 in the series, staring down an elimination game in Atlanta after another harrowing collapse. One night after Milwaukee’s incomprehensible blown lead in a 2-2 series, the 76ers matched the Bucks miss for miss and gasp for gasp. The 76ers—just like the Bucks—may still win the series. But after Games 4 and 5, it’s clear that no Philadelphia lead, no matter how large, is remotely comfortable—for the 76ers themselves, for their fans, or for prospective dishwashing spectators around the country.
The Hawks deserve ample credit for the comeback, mainly by catching collective fire in a 40-point fourth quarter. Trae Young scored 39 points in the game, and John Collins (19), Danilo Gallinari (16), and Williams (15) joined him in double figures; Williams posted a plus-31 net rating, signifying just how starkly the game shifted once he checked back in late in the third quarter.
But no team comes back from a 26-point deficit without considerable assistance from its opponent, and the 76ers were rather forgiving down the stretch Wednesday. In the run of post-Process stumbles, now growing longer every game, the 76ers played all the hits.
Ben Simmons was once again a nonentity on offense. He attempted just four field goals, making two, and shot 4-for-14 on free throws as the Hawks employed a Hack-a-Ben strategy to great effect, strangling the Sixers’ otherwise potent offense and forcing Simmons to the bench for key fourth-quarter possessions. In NBA playoff history, the only players to shoot as poorly from the line as Simmons on so many attempts are centers Wilt Chamberlain (twice), Shaquille O’Neal, Ben Wallace, and Andre Drummond.
Joel Embiid was much better than Simmons in Game 5; the injured center scored a team-high 37 points, beginning with an electric 8-for-8 showing in the first quarter. Yet just as he ran out of gas in Game 4, missing all 12 of his field goal attempts in the second half, Embiid struggled down the stretch on Wednesday, shooting 1-for-5 in the fourth quarter and boinking two key free throws in the final minute.
The supporting cast staggered under the pressure as well. Only Embiid and a scorching Curry (36 points on 13-for-19 shooting, including 7-for-12 from distance) scored in double digits, and no other Philadelphia player even made a single shot from the field in the second half. Tobias Harris shot 2-for-11 over the full game. Furkan Korkmaz, in the starting lineup with Danny Green hurt, shot 2-for-7. Shake Milton made just one shot from the field, continuing his season of inconsistency.
And the clutch offense sputtered once again—the 76ers shot 5-for-17 in the fourth quarter (29 percent), without a single make from either 3-point range or the restricted area. The Hawks shot 16-for-22 (73 percent) in the same period.
A 26-point lead doesn’t disappear all at once. Such a comeback takes a number of factors blended together. A desperate strategic wrinkle that pays off (Hack-a-Ben). Puzzling lineup decisions from the leading team. (The 76ers started the fourth quarter with Harris and … Milton, George Hill, Dwight Howard, and a rotation of Matisse Thybulle and Tyrese Maxey. That group didn’t score.) Unsustainably hot shooting from one side, paired with ice-cold looks from the other. Rising confidence as the lead dwindles, contrasted with growing jitters and worried murmurs from the crowd. And, finally, one last spurt that pushes the trailing team over the barrier.
Even after a quarter’s worth of disasters, the 76ers had so much leeway from their massive lead that they still led by eight points with just more than four minutes to play. And they could have attacked both Young and Williams, two of the worst defenders in the NBA, playing together—yet the team’s offensive possessions from then on went:
- Embiid 3, missed
- Simmons free throws, missed both
- Harris turnover
- Embiid long 2, missed
- Harris long 2, missed
- Harris layup, blocked
- Curry 3, missed
- Embiid free throws, missed both
- Korkmaz 3, missed; Curry rebound and meaningless putback with 0.1 seconds left
That’s how the last bits of a big lead crumble: with complete and total aimlessness, the continuation of not just a season-long concern, but of a multi-season arc for the franchise. One more loss, now, and a lot more than just an in-game lead is set to crumble in Philly.