A Deep Dive into the Death of “The Process” in Philadelphia (Part 4)

Benjamin White '23

The 76ers kicked off the 2021 NBA playoffs on a high note, despite their imminent demise. In relatively short and easy fashion, Philadelphia dismantled the Washington Wizards in a 4-1 first round series win. While the Wizards never truly posed a threat of eliminating the 76ers, they nevertheless created a problem, as early in game 4, Embiid suffered a small meniscus tear that sidelined him for game 5, and forced him to play through pain in the rest of the playoffs. Without Embiid in most of game 4, the 76ers struggled substantially, but blew out Washington in game 5. The series was largely uneventful, other than Simmons’ perimeter shooting hitting his all-time low. In the five game series, Simmons went a horrific 10-28 from the free throw line, with the Wizards intentionally fouling Simmons at times, as Simmons was so inefficient at the free throw line, that forcing him there was often a more practical defense than just straight up defending [6]. Simmons was phenomenal as a primary defender on both Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, but it became obvious how having Simmons as the lead ball handler had significant negative ramifications, as his shooting inability made it difficult to give him the ball, for fear of teams intentionally fouling him to make him shoot free throws. Without a jump shot, he was equally atrocious in an off-ball role, requiring little defensive attention. On the bright side, Embiid thrived in his healthy games, Seth Curry filled the J.J. Redick gap wonderfully, Danny Green served as an efficient 3-and-D wing, Thybulle impressed as a tenacious defender, and rookie Tyrese Maxey made the most of his bench minutes. Most importantly, Tobias Harris finally had a good series as a 76er, averaging 25 points per game on an efficient 50.5% overall shooting, 38.1% three point shooting, and 90.5% free throw shooting [2]. The 76ers advanced to the second round, matched up against the Atlanta Hawks, led by star point guard Trae Young. The Hawks, not seen by many as a legitimate championship contender, formed a well-rounded team that fought hard, but in comparison to the 2019 Raptors, Atlanta was a significantly less formidable opponent. Despite the despair inflicted by the quadruple bounce Kawhi Leonard shot, Philadelphia had bounced back in a positive way, earning another chance to push forward to the Eastern Conference Finals.


Atlanta torched Philadelphia in game 1, only winning by a final score of 128-124, but at one point having a 26 point lead. Embiid was dominant on the offensive end despite his knee injury, putting up 39 points on 12-21 shooting, while being primarily guarded by Hawks center Clint Capela, who had the strength and athleticism to slow down Embiid in the post. Throughout the season, to preserve Embiid’s health, Philly primarily used a drop-coverage pick-and-roll defense strategy, where Embiid would allow ball handlers to step into open mid-range jump shots and floaters in exchange for his ability to protect the rim on what would be closer, more efficient shots if Embiid was to play up. This strategy worked for the duration of the regular season, and even against the Wizards, but it would most certainly not work against Trae Young, who sought out a floater, or pull-up mid range jump shot on most possessions, and thrived at knocking them down. Head Coach Doc Rivers is notorious for lackluster postseason adjustments, and adding on Embiid’s knee injury only encouraged the desire to keep Embiid in drop coverage to lessen his amount of lateral movement. The 76ers switched up defenses occasionally, it was relatively justified given Embiid’s injury, and it was not the sole defensive scheme, but its involvement throughout the series plagued the 76ers success. Young had 35 points on 11-23 shooting in addition to his 10 assists in game 1. Additionally, Simmons continued to struggle from the free throw line, going 3-10. Ultimately, Doc Rivers and the 76ers made enough other adjustments, in addition to herculean efforts by Joel Embiid to win game 2 and 3. Young was held to 21 points on 6-16 shooting in game 2, while Embiid asserted his will, scoring 40 points on 13-25 shooting. Simmons remained quiet offensively, only attempting 3 field goals, and going 0-2 at the free throw line. Embiid nearly had a triple double in game 3, scoring 27 points on 7-14 shooting, snatching 9 rebounds, and dishing out 8 assists. Trae Young, athletic rim runner John Collins, and sharpshooter Bogdan Bogdanović had solid offensive outings, but Philadelphia kept everyone else in check, in addition to Philadelphia having a great offensive game from top-to-bottom. Simmons was noticeably more aggressive, scoring 18 points on 7-11 shooting, but still underwhelming at the free throw line, going 4-8 there. Unfortunately for Philly, Danny Green suffered a strained calf that would sideline him for the remainder of the season. Despite the injury, Philadelphia found itself with another chance to take a 3-1 series lead in the second round. With Furkan Korkmaz inserted into the starting lineup to add some perimeter shooting, the 76ers dominated the first half of game 4, going up 60-42 with 1 minute and 43 seconds remaining in the second quarter. All the 76ers had to do was keep their foot on the gas, and a 3-1 series lead would be theirs [6].


When it was all said and done, Philadelphia choked. Embiid’s knee injury and the tough defense of Capela caught up with him, as Embiid put up only 17 points on an atrocious 4-20 shooting. Simmons remained a liability in a halfcourt offensive set, scoring only 11 points, while shooting 1-5 at the free throw line. Tobias Harris and Seth Curry each had good offensive games, combining for 37 points on 15-25 shooting. The three most impactful Atlanta offensive players were all deterred by the Philadelphia defense, Ben Simmons in particular having an impact, as Trae Young, John Collins, and Bogdan Bogdanović combined for 61 points on a subpar 23-65 shooting. Young thrived as a playmaker, finishing the game with 18 assists, but with the exception of Capela’s 6-9 shooting, nobody on Atlanta shot greater than 50%. The 76ers had every opportunity to close the game out, but complacency killed them. In the second half, the 76ers were less aggressive when closing out on shooters and navigating through the off-ball screens, in addition to Embiid struggling offensively. There was a heavier reliance on settling for jump shots rather than looking for easy opportunities by the basket. Embiid going 0-7 in the third quarter certainly did not help with the lack of collective intensity. Thybulle finally helped raise the Philadelphia defensive effort when he was subbed in near the end of the third quarter, but the damage was done, as going into the fourth quarter, the 76ers lead was only 2 points, at 82-80. The Hawks opened up the fourth quarter with a plethora of off ball screens, and 76ers guard Shake Milton was slow to close out on Bogdanović, who nailed a timely three pointer, giving Atlanta its first lead since it was 12-10 in the first quarter. Similar to some of the second round games against the Raptors, the fourth quarter of the Hawks-76ers game 4 turned into a back-and-forth affair. Upon Young’s re-entry into the game, the Hawks utilized a Young and Lou Williams backcourt, both of whom are listed as 6’1”, considered undersized for their positions. The benefit of having a guy like Ben Simmons, a 6’11” ball handler, is supposed to be to take advantage of undersized defenders. Instead, Simmons’ lack of any kind of shot creation outside of the painted area, or aggression going to the basket negates the advantage a player of his size should possess. Upon Embiid’s re-entry into the game, he airballed a post fadeaway, continuing his terrible second half. Both offenses stagnated, with Philadelphia having possession and a 98-97 lead with a little over 2 minutes to go. Embiid missed back to back jumpshots, and poor pick-and-roll defense gave Trae Young an easy floater, which he made to give the Hawks the lead. Korkmaz forced up a contested three pointer, and Young raced down in transition, where he was fouled, and he put the Hawks up by 3 at the free throw line with 49.6 seconds left. Embiid drew a foul and made both free throws, making it a 101-100 Hawks lead with 40.1 seconds remaining. To Philadelphia’s credit, they forced a Hawks turnover with 16.6 seconds remaining, giving the 76ers a chance to win the game. Instead, Embiid missed yet another shot by the basket, one of the easiest looks he had all game. Simmons tried to keep the ball alive but hit it out of bounds with 8.2 seconds left. Trae Young went to the free throw line, and with 6.6 seconds left, he made both free throws, putting the Hawks up 103-100. Seth Curry missed a contested moving three pointer, and the 76ers missed an opportunity to pull ahead [6].


Game 5 was even more embarrassing for Philadelphia. At one point, the 76ers led by 26. They even led 87-69 going into the fourth quarter. Embiid and Curry fueled the 76ers offense, as the rest of the 76ers offense struggled. With Embiid, Simmons, and Curry on the bench, the Hawks bench unit chipped away at the lead, making it an 87-76 game, before Rivers subbed in the starters. Instantly, Curry hit a floater, before Embiid would hit a post-fade on the 76ers next offensive possession. Curry stepped up in a major way, giving the Hawks fits as they struggled to contain him in addition to Embiid. Even after a timeout, the Hawks still could not stop the two man game between Curry and Embiid. Lou Williams kept Atlanta alive, as the perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate hit multiple timely shots of his own. With the Hawks struggling to slow down the 76ers, Atlanta elected to intentionally foul Simmons, forcing him to shoot free throws, as statistically, they were giving up less points with him at the free throw line than if Atlanta was to defend straight up. Simmons’ final stat line proved Atlanta right, as he finished the game with an awful 4-14 from the foul line, unacceptable for the guy the 76ers expected to be a lead ball handler. Embiid and Curry cooled off a bit from their hot shooting, and with over 3 minutes remaining, it was only a 104-98 Philadelphia lead. With Simmons struggling at the free throw line, Doc Rivers benched him, plugging in Shake Milton for perimeter shooting. Simmons, an elite defender, a guy the 76ers organization saw as a potential generational talent, was out of the lineup in a crucial game 5 for the flaw that he had since his rookie season, his complete lack of an offensive game outside of the painted area. In the last two minutes of a game, NBA rules discourage intentionally fouling a player who does not have the basketball, as the team fouled gets free throws while retaining possession. Simmons would return for those last two minutes, but would be ineffective. The 76ers turned the ball over, and Young buried a jumper. Embiid badly missed a step back jumper, and the Hawks had possession, with the 76ers and their fans all appearing to be in disbelief. Young blew by Thybulle and hit a clutch floater, with a little over 2 minutes remaining. Simmons checked back in, but was clearly hesitant on the offensive end. Harris missed a close range jumper, and the Hawks had possession, now only down 2 points. Thybulle was a little overzealous on defense, bit on a Trae Young ball fake, which Young used to draw a foul. Young went to the free throw line for three shots, where he put the Hawks up 105-104. Embiid found Harris under the basket for a layup, but Collins blocked his shot, and it went off of Harris, becoming Atlanta possession. Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari buried a momentous mid range jumper, putting Atlanta up by 3 points with 51.7 seconds to go. Curry missed a pull up three, Young missed a stepback three of his own, and Philadelphia called their final timeout, down three points with 21.9 seconds left. Embiid was fouled going to the basket with 10.9 seconds left, but he missed both free throws, and even from watching on television, it was palpable how much dread there was amongst the 76ers fans. Young iced the game at the free throw line. The 76ers walked off of their home court to the sound of loud boos. Embiid finished the game with 37 points on 12-20 shooting, and Curry finished with 36 points on 13-19 shooting, but both seemed to disappear in the late fourth quarter. Harris had his worst game of the playoffs, scoring only 4 points on 2-11 shooting, and Simmons was uninvolved with the offense, scoring 8 points on 2-4 shooting. Trae Young’s 39 point performance was incredible, but Philadelphia’s complete collapse for a second straight game was more mind-boggling. [6].


Things got frightening early in game 6. Atlanta jumped out to a 20-8 lead, and Philadelphia’s season had been jeopardized far earlier than they imagined. This time though, they responded, tying the game up early in the second quarter. With their season on the line, the 76ers went into the half down 51-47, in a back-and-forth affair. Curry began the second half on a rampage, scoring 9 of the first 12 points of the half, with the other 3 belonging to an Embiid three pointer. Despite Harris and Simmons both being paid max-contracts, it was once again the Embiid and Curry show for the 76ers. Going into the fourth quarter, it was an 80-76 Philadelphia lead. With under 7 minutes to go, it was an 86-81 Philadelphia lead, and the Hawks began intentionally fouling Simmons again. Simmons split on two pairs of free throws, and Rivers took Simmons out, subbing in Tyrese Maxey as a ball handler. Oddly enough, Rivers utilized a three-guard lineup with Maxey, Curry, and backup guard George Hill. None of the three are great defenders, and with Harris and Embiid in the frontcourt, there was nobody in for the 76ers that had a track record of being a reliable enough perimeter defender to slow down Trae Young. Both sides traded baskets for a while, before Gallinari made a big-time three pointer to cut the 76ers lead to 4 points, at 94-90. Harris missed a baseline jumper, and with two minutes remaining, Trae Young buried a ridiculous sidestep three pointer in the face of Tyrese Maxey, making it a one point game. Simmons subbed in for Hill, but was relegated to an off-ball role. Embiid tipped in his own miss to extend the 76ers lead. Simmons played fantastic defense on a Young floater, and Maxey secured the rebound. Embiid drew a foul, but only went 1/2 at the free throw line. Curry poked the ball away from Young as he tried to split the defense, and following back to back misses, the 76ers took possession, up 4 by 4, with 34.3 seconds to go. The Hawks were forced to foul, and the 76ers escaped Atlanta with a win, and were headed back to Philadelphia for a game 7. Embiid was somewhat inefficient on offense, but his 22 points on 9-24 shooting, with his great rim protection were just enough, in addition to Harris’ 24 points on 9-20 shooting, and Curry’s 24 points on 8-14 shooting. Young’s 34 points were not enough, and once again, the 76ers had to gear up for a pivotal game 7 [6].


Similar to the Toronto-Philadelphia game 7, neither team ever led by double digits in the Atlanta-Philadelphia game 7. Atlanta led 48-46 going into the second half, and they also led 76-71 going into the fourth quarter. Embiid began the quarter by burying a mid range jumper. About a minute later, Simmons drove in, kicked the ball out to Embiid who knocked down an open three-pointer, tying the game. Embiid continued to assert his dominance, hitting a face-up mid range jumper over the outstretched arms of Capela. The defensive intensity made scoring more difficult, with the next score occurring by a Tobias Harris and-one putback layup following an airballed Shake Milton floater. Misses by both teams resulted in a transition opportunity for Atlanta, where Gallinari drilled a much-needed three pointer, but Curry answered right back with a triple of his own. Drop coverage on a Trae Young ball screen gave Young an easy two points on a mid range jumper. An Embiid miss followed by a baseline Kevin Heurter jumper tied the game up at 84. Fatigue wore down on both sides, but through the offensive struggles, Embiid and Young each got a bucket of their own, keeping the game tied, then at 86 with a little over 4 minutes to go. With Bogdanović dealing with a knee injury, Hawks guard Kevin Heurter had been valuable to the Atlanta offense in game 7, with him find success going at Curry, as despite Curry’s successful shooting and offensive production, his lackluster defense allowed Heurter to get going, and a close range floater over Curry got Heurter up to 24 points on the night. With Philadelphia seeking an answer, Simmons posted up Gallinari, spun by him for what should have been an easy, momentum obtaining, uncontested dunk for two points, but he instead passed to a cutting Thybulle, who was fouled, but went 1/2 at the foul line. The complete lack of confidence on Simmons’ behalf was damaging the 76ers. A lob from Young to Capela provided two more easy Atlanta points, and Rivers called timeout with the 76ers down 90-87 with 3 minutes and 4 seconds left. Embiid missed a difficult post hook over Collins. Young took advantage of Simmons sagging off just a little bit, and buried a deep 29-feet three-pointer that extended Atlanta’s lead to 6 points. Harris quickly responded with a lefty layup. Atlanta turned it over, but with Philadelphia in the bonus, and Simmons with the ball in his hands, Atlanta intentionally fouled Simmons, sending him to the free throw line, where he went 1/2. A John Collins offensive foul gave Philadelphia the ball in a three point game, with about a minute and a half remaining. Harris made a floater off an Embiid assist, cutting the deficit back to 1. The 76ers were a stop and a score away from taking control, but an over aggressive Thybulle fouled on a Heurter three point attempt, sending him to the foul line for three shots, where Heurter extended Atlanta’s lead to 4 points with 54 seconds to go. Desperate for a score, Philadelphia called a timeout, but on their possession, Gallinari stripped the ball from Embiid, and had an easy dunk on the other end, making it a 98-92 Hawks lead with 41.5 seconds remaining, which essentially iced the game. Free throws and meaningless baskets made it a 103-96 final score, with the 76ers getting eliminated once again.


[1] https://howtheyplay.com/team-sports/The-Philadelphia-76ers-Trust-the-Process

[2] https://www.basketball-reference.com/

[3] https://www.nbcsports.com/philadelphia/the700level/forget-jojo-you-can-call- him-joel- process-embiid

[4] https://www.si.com/nba/2018/06/07/bryan-colangelo-fired-76ers-barbara-bottini -jerry- colangelo-sam-hinkie

[5] https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2831827-jared-dudley-ben-simmons-is-an- average -player-if-you-keep-him-in-half-court

[6] https://www.espn.com/

[7] https://www.si.com/nba/76ers/news/jimmy-butler-fond-sixers-brett-brown

[8] https://hoopshype.com/2019/06/14/toronto-raptors-roster-nba-draft-trade-free- agency -roster-construction/

[9] http://www.espn.com/nba/salaries

[10] https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2922004-james-harden-trade-rumors-76ers- are- most-likely-destination-for-rockets-star

Note: This article is part four of a series of sports articles, “A Deep Dive into the Death of ‘The Process’ in Philadelphia.” To read the previous part, please see the link below:

A Deep Dive into the Death of “The Process” in Philadelphia (Part 3)