NBA Playoff Winners and Losers: Addressing the Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia 76ers Ben Simmons Joel Embiid Jimmy Butler (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Philadelphia 76ers Ben Simmons Joel Embiid Jimmy Butler (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

Prepare yourself, here comes an extended exegesis on the Philadelphia 76ers after just two NBA playoff games. And it won’t necessarily be pretty.

Winner: The Sixers’ Second Half

Heading into halftime of game two of the Nets/Sixers series, Brooklyn was within one point, 65-64. For the second consecutive game, Philadelphia struggled to defend the out-manned Nets and just couldn’t complete the puzzle on offense.

Sure, they finished the half with 65 points, but the spacing and shot selection left ample room for improvement. In the second act, Philly righted their wrongs and then some, pulverizing Brooklyn from the moment the two clubs jogged out of the tunnel.

Defensively, Philadelphia finally locked in. When you get down to the nitty-gritty of the Brooklyn offense, Russell is a very raw and young resemblance of Harden, but the supporting cast boasts a bevy of former late-first and second-round picks who are, for the most part, enjoying their first appearance in the postseason.

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Though Dinwiddie, LeVert, Kurucs, Allen, Hollis-Jefferson, and Carroll are formidable playoff rotation players, there’s no explanation for them competing point-for-point with loaded Philly on the road (and beating them in game one, of course). Nonetheless, after posting a 64-point output of their own in half number one, Brooklyn was silenced, literally, to begin the second half. The Nets didn’t score until Jarrett Allen finished a put-back flush over Embiid with just over nine minutes remaining.

The 76ers finally played like a team with the second best starting five in the League. The faults in the Simmons-Reddick-Butler-Harris-Embiid fivesome are plentiful, but the advantages are likewise. In the second half, Brooklyn ran out of steam, and the Sixers ramped up the intensity they missed on Saturday. Simmons pushed the pace, Embiid controlled the paint, Harris and Reddick wove through screens and connected on open jumpers; and Butler filled in where necessary.

For one of the very few occurrences in 2019, the peak Sixers were on display. The result: a 51-point third quarter equally dominated offensively and defensively by the East’s three seed. No disrespect to Brooklyn, but that’s what this series should look like. The well of excuses is bare, so cash in now, Philadelphia.

Loser: Philadelphia’s Season At-Large

The effort contrast between the first game and a half and the second half on Monday was immense. Too immense, actually. And that’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s a great sign to see the superior side assert themselves so forcefully on the untheatrical side of the court. But on the other hand, playing with 100 percent intensity only 25 percent of the time simply won’t cut it in the playoffs.

But this is who they’ve been all season. For as dominant as Philly was Monday, they still lost the weekend, and head to Brooklyn tied 1-1 due to lackadaisical performances across the board in game one.

What makes this Sixer team so polarizing – to its fans and to the national audience–is the unique combination of inconsistency and overwhelming top-end talent. A contending team with multiple veteran all-stars and a superstar or two playing inconsistently and unfocused occasionally isn’t a rare occurrence in the NBA.

We’ve witnessed it with Golden State over the past couple years, and with Miami during the LeBron run (to point out recent examples), and to cross sports, the Patriots during the regular season lately. Those dynasties had superstars and found themselves in contention every year. Yet, the questions and fan-support weren’t nearly as harsh as they are toward this year’s 76ers. Why? It’s quite simple. Winning. Those examples yielded multiple titles each and earned their laziness.

Philadelphia carries itself like a seasoned contender, who’s already proven themselves, and they haven’t whatsoever! A second-round sweep at the hands of a debilitated Boston team is all The Process has to show for itself. Embarrassing. Spare me your “King Hinkie” talk. We are two years removed from Philadelphia celebrating losses and chainsmoking losing seasons like a 1980s celebrity. Two!

Simmons, Embiid, and Butler all carry themselves with cocky confidence instead of a hunger for winning which unproven stars typically practice. On the other sideline, D’Angelo Russell is a dog. He’s hungry, and he plays with a competitive edge like he has to prove himself on a playoff stage, which he does. Well, guess what? So do the Sixer guys.

Ben Simmons is an all-time dislikable player (so far) in my eyes. Where’s the evidence this guy cares deeply about winning? In college, he gave up on the school HE PICKED after a few months. I know Johnny Jones was a coaching nightmare, but good grief Ben, if you’re actually a potential All-NBA player and someone who makes everyone else on the court better, then what’s the excuse for such an abominable year in college?

Your teammates were plenty good enough to make the tournament, considering they qualified the year before. And once Simmons reached the professional ranks, the shine of his unique game as a 6’10 quasi-LeBron-acting point guard impressed for his first year, but the glamor is wearing off fast. He clogs Embiid’s Lebensraum with his silly refusal to develop a jump shot and then reprimands rightfully fed-up fans after embarrassing playoff losses where he was a non-factor. Experience is very important in the playoffs and maturity is a key factor in that regard, which Simmons needs to develop.

Speaking of maturity, there’s Joel Embiid. Gulp. Like Simmons, his antics were enjoyable and chuckle-worthy when he was first drafted and Philly fans were looking for any evidence of high-level basketball they could nibble on. But since Philadelphia swiftly entered win-now mode, Embiid’s childish attitude and oft-pouty mood aged quickly and poorly.

His game one was horribly mismanaged, and he may not be completely at fault for that, but nonetheless, he was a disaster on the court. The mere thought of “play Boban instead of Embiid” paints an ugly picture. He clearly wasn’t 100% so why are Brett Brown, Embiid, and co. even risking it? And just for him to come in for a couple of minutes, hog the ball, draw a few fouls, and brick three-pointers suggest his presence was barely positive, if at all.

Then tonight, we got a vintage Frustrated Embiid move when he careened his elbow right into Jarrett Allen’s face. If he pulled that crap on Al Horford in Boston, he’d be ejected for certain and likely ambushed on his way out of TD Garden. C’mon Joel, that’s playground garbage. This is the NBA Playoffs. Grow up.

Finally, there’s Jimmy Butler. In game one he actually showed up and single-handedly kept Philadelphia lingering in the second and third quarters. But his general demeanor this season was reprehensible. In Minnesota, he started a civil war against Karl-Anthony Towns and blew the chemistry completely out of the water for no reason. I’m going to leave that whole situation be, but note that Butler could not have handled it worse. Anyways, once he arrived in Philadelphia, the leaked stories and whispers of brewing chemistry issues followed predictably. I don’t think I’m breaking any news by saying Butler isn’t a fan of Simmons’ or Embiid’s immaturities. Butler, again, has an empty track record of playoff success.

Sure, his Bulls made the playoffs regularly during his tenure, but Butler was never one of the three best players on the team until the later years when Chicago, wait for it, stumbled in as an eight-seed and dropped four straight to the Celtics in a six-game series after losing Rondo. I’m certain his unearned personal ego as one of the game’s elite rubbed youngsters the wrong way in Minnesota, and Embiid (a factually superior player) probably hasn’t loved having Butler as a teammate either.

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All this to say, Philadelphia’s Jekyll and Hide case is ridiculous. Win a meaningful playoff series and then come talk to me. Once you win a title I’ll listen to you complain about early-round playoff dreariness. And no, Brooklyn, who hasn’t had their own draft pick since the Bush Administration (pick one) doesn’t count.