After losing a true stunner on their home floor in a Game 7 that was anything but predictable for countless reasons, the 76ers have now failed to reach the conference finals for the 20th season in a row. The Eastern Conference’s number one seed lost 103-96 against a Hawks team that, at times during the regular season, hardly looked like they were worthy of the play-in tournament. Here are a few thoughts on a game that will irrevocably alter the trajectory of both franchises.
Trae Young is fearless
Kevin Huerter scored a team-high 27 points and spent just about the entire evening abusing Sixers guard Seth Curry (whose unreal outside shooting was just about neutralized by woeful defense throughout the series). Huerter never flinched, be it curling middle around a DHO or posting up a much smaller defender. On a night where Atlanta’s normal number two (Bogdan Bogdanovic) was hampered by a sore knee, Huerter filled the void with ease.
In almost 42 minutes, John Collins continued to embrace his role as an energetic do-it-all, securing 16 rebounds, drawing several key fouls, freeing teammates up with a round of hard screens while providing the relentless physicality this Hawks team badly needs. Aside from a late brain fart that forced Atlanta to burn a timeout, he was sensational.
Clint Capela was a reliable lob threat who did a decent job keeping Joel Embiid on the perimeter, while just about everyone on the Hawks bench (including rookie center Onyeka Okungwu) kept their composure in a hostile environment with their season on the line.
The win was a team effort, especially when you consider Trae Young’s porous shooting. (He finished 5-for-23 and was 1-for-12 at halftime.) Somehow, though, the Hawks franchise point guard emerged from the biggest game of his life as a guiding light, silencing the crowd from 28 feet with his team up three and just 2:31 on the clock.
Young’s pick-and-roll wizardry deserves a standing ovation and the way he exploited Philly’s lackadaisical transition defense over and over off made baskets was brilliant. There aren’t five players alive who do a better job scrambling out of a seemingly hopeless situation than Young; he thrives in chaos.
But there’s something about that three that won’t be forgotten anytime soon. It was bold. It was absurd. It was the type of shot great players take and make in humongous moments because, well, they’re great players. Young might not have been the best player on his team tonight, but he always acted like he was. And that’s a big reason why the Hawks won.
Ben Simmons is not fearless
On the other side of the fence is Ben Simmons, who, once more, shot, made and missed zero field goals in the fourth quarter of an important basketball game. Simmons finished with 12 assists, but anyone who uses that stat to spin his impact in a positive way probably didn’t watch the game. He was more inadequate than bad, which is even more damning.
There are favorable lineup numbers that can be gleaned from the series’ first six games, but those too don’t do justice to Simmons’ undeniable offensive flaws, which consistently swell during stretches that actually matter. His value is not misinterpreted. His skill-set is not undervalued. For most of Game 7, he stood in the dunker spot—watching Embiid face up Capela from the free-throw line, Curry race around a dribble handoff or Tobias Harris isolate on the wing for yet another tough look—cramping the floor, squeezing oxygen from an offense that never had a higher gear from what they were during the regular season.
One of the game’s defining plays came with three and a half minutes to go, when Simmons spun around Danilo Gallinari on the baseline. The only body who stood between him and the rim was Young. According to the laws of physics, a dunk has never felt more inevitable. Instead, Simmons passed it to Matisse Thybulle, who was fouled and went 1-of-2 from the free-throw line.
After the game, Simmons said he made the pass because he thought Gallo “was coming over my back”, but it’s hard to believe he wasn’t worried about getting hacked, then having to stand at the free-throw line where he’s barely hit a third of his foul shots in this postseason. Whatever the excuse, Simmons’s never-improving shortcomings were in some way the root cause.
At some point, it doesn’t matter how imposing you are on the defensive end, or how effortlessly you set your teammates up in transition. As the second All-Star on a team that has championship-or-bust aspirations, plays, quarters, and series like the one Simmons just had—where he attempted fewer shots than Furkan Korkmaz—aren’t enough.
This isn’t to suggest the loss is all on Simmons, just like Atlanta’s win isn’t all because of Young. (Embiid’s eight turnovers were a tad problematic.) But it’s also hard not to contrast these two point guards, and how they responded to adversity in a meaningful spot. One backed down. The other stepped up. Game 7 might not be Simmons’s last night in a Sixers uniform. But assuming the organization is serious about winning it all/not wasting Embiid’s prime, it might have to be.
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