The Sixers are as soft as summertime butter. They wilt like graveyard flowers. They don’t want to win; they want to have won. They get ahead, then they coast, then they panic.
The “Rocky” statue hangs its head in shame.
In the latest installment of the absurd, eight-year saga that began with four years of tanking, the Sixers and their $94 million big three blew leads of 18 and 26 points in Games 4 and 5. They gave away games to a hodgepodge Hawks squad that should have been swept three days ago. Why? All talk, no action.
These Sixers, coddled by ownership, coaches, and cultish fans, believe that their No. 1 seed entitles them to the Eastern Conference finals, especially against this squirrelly gang led by a middle-school point guard and a 16-year veteran who craves strip-joint chicken wings. They’re wrong. Scrawny scorer Trae Young and Sweet Lou Williams are eating them alive in the semis.
The Process, for whatever it ever was worth, is in peril. The Sixers trail, 3-2. Game 6 is Friday night in Atlanta; Game 7, ostensibly, Sunday in Philadelphia. A loss in either to a No. 5 seed like the Hawks, branded by consecutive collapses, will detonate a rebuild. No player will be safe. None. After all, who has earned immunity?
Joel “The Process” Embiid, always injured and never fit, was 1-for-10 in the fourth quarters of Games 4 and 5. Tobias Harris, who claims Kobe “Black Mamba” Bryant as his idol, is a poisonous 0-for-5.
And if you think those numbers are hard to, er, process, then check this out: Ben Simmons, who was supposed to be the next LeBron “King” James, has entirely abdicated: Simmons has not taken a shot in his 18 minutes of fourth-quarter play. That’s what $30.5 million gets you these days; he won’t even try.
It’s insulting to say, and it might hurt to hear it, but it’s true. Grown men win NBA titles. Not Twitter warriors. Not Kardashian divas.
Harris and Embiid will make a combined $64 million this year, but neither could make a layup in the last minute of Games 4 and 5. Both went soft to the rim. Both missed.
At least both of them tried.
Simmons, inexplicably, incredibly, absurdly, has not. He hasn’t attempted a field goal in the last two fourth quarters. In fact, he has shot just five times in the last six quarters — once in the second half of Game 4, when he was 1-for-1 off an Embiid low-post feed in the third quarter, and four times in Game 5, when he was 2-for-4 overall, 0-for-1 in the second half.
Simmons said he’d been gun-shy because the offense stagnated: “We slowed it down too much. Spacing, also. We do those things, it’s going to open up and give me my lanes to be aggressive.”
You should have spit out your milk when you read that.
Consider: An All-Star point guard says he can only score when the rest of the offense distracts the defense enough to give him easy paths to the basket. He asserts that he should not be asked to create said lanes with his skill and size, but Simmons knows he’s able to bull his way to the basket. He’s just scared to go to the foul line.
His coach agrees.
“You start struggling with your free throws, you tend not to want to drive, right?” Doc Rivers said. “We’re really encouraging him to keep going. … We’ll get him there. I believe in him, and I believe he’ll be ready.”
Simmons is 5-for-19 from the free-throw line in the last two games. Hack-a-Ben is an unequivocal success. Hawks coach Nate McMillan tells his players to intentionally foul Simmons whenever the Hawks need to stop a run or need to close a gap. Sixers coach Doc Rivers had to bench Simmons late in the last two games.
It is a trio of Tin Men.
Young, the volume-shooting sprite with the junior-high facial hair, has shown more heart in his 6-foot-1, 180-pound body than in the collective 20-foot-1, 950 pounds of Embiid, Simmons, and Harris. Watching him challenge these Goliaths is like seeing Allen Iverson rejuvenated and reanimated 20 years later — not to mention other Sixers greats.
Julius Erving had more soul in his magnificent Afro. Moses Malone had more grit in his mustache. Charles Barkley had more heart in one enormous butt cheek than these three have combined.
It’s not over. They can redeem themselves with wins Friday and Sunday. If they don’t win, they will cement a legacy of shame.
Embiid won’t be the big man who heroically returned on a bad knee and carried the team to glory; he’ll be the guy who, in 2019, cried in the tunnel after losing in Toronto, swore he’d come back fitter and sharper, then won one playoff series in two years.
Harris won’t be the better long-term option than Jimmy Butler. He’ll be just … a guy.
And Simmons? He won’t sniff another All-Star Game. The adulation over his talent will finally give way to acknowledgment that his game has so many shortcomings, he’s essentially a role player.
Fair? Maybe. Maybe not.
This is money time. This is the playoffs. This is when the last 5 minutes earn you your millions, and your endorsements, and your Hall of Fame plaque … or proves you don’t deserve them.