Ben Simmons had a blank expression on his face as if anguish and frustration had cancelled each other out, resulting in a look that was...blank.
The promising season of the No.1 team in the East, the Philadelphia 76ers, was over. Sure, the clock read there were still four and a half seconds left, but the score was already waving goodbye. The Sixers were done.
Despite an MVP-lite performance by Joel Embiid, they just couldn’t beat the Atlanta Hawks four times, the minimum requirement to get to the Eastern Conference finals. The Sixers had multiple chances, and all they had to do was keep it steady and hang on to the lead. They couldn’t do that either.
It probably dawned on Simmons, with the Sixers’ championship dreams crumbling in real-time, the many opportunities they had blown. Or he was probably thinking about the years that had gone by, specifically the Embiid prime years that are slowly withering away without any reward.
Or he could be thinking about that one play that everyone else will be thinking about for quite some time. That one play where the Sixers could have gotten a sure two points but instead only got one. The game’s “turning point” as Embiid described it postgame.
That’s not quite accurate, given that the Sixers were still within one with a minute left. But perhaps Embiid was on to something there. Maybe he’s saying that it was a turning point in the Sixers’ journey, which is now at a crossroads, facing a long tumultuous offseason.
Because that single play, and its aftermath, said a lot. It said that Simmons, despite his other positive contributions, isn’t a dependable friend in the late, biggest stages of the game. It said that Embiid, after going into war, would pinpoint tactical errors and throw his teammate under the bus. It said that Sixers coach Doc Rivers is no longer confident that he can win a championship with Simmons as his point guard.
It’s easy to blame Simmons. Or rather, Simmons had made it easy to blame him. A quick glance at the numbers and Simmons’ appalling free throw percentage and non-existent attempts in the fourth quarter would suffice. In all seven games in the second round, guess how many total shots Simmons attempted in the fourth quarter? Three. That’s the exact opposite of shooting your shot.
The Sixers’ problems are deeper, though. Simmons couldn’t have single-handedly collapsed when his team had 18- and 26-point leads in Games 4 and 5, respectively. Perhaps equal blame should be lobbed towards Doc, whose rotations and late-game decisions in the Atlanta series deserve further review.
How about Tobias Harris? Are we sure he didn’t play a part in this playoff unraveling?
With their offseason coming earlier than expected, it will provide more time to prepare for the upcoming pilot episode of the Sixers drama. It’s coming. Whether it’ll involve Simmons or Rivers or even Embiid, it’s coming. Teams as high-caliber as the Sixers can’t go lowkey and be like, “Let’s run it back.” There will be changes and they will be huge.
If the Sixers’ first and second options are Joel Embiid’s left and right meniscus, they can forget about their championship aspirations. A shakeup is the obvious next move, but to what extent? That’s something that’s all up in the air.
Perhaps that’s why Simmons had that look on his face at the end of Game 7, as he stood on the sidelines in the closing seconds, rendered useless in a game that values putting the ball in the basket. He’s probably thinking of his next move now that he has all the free time.
For Simmons, a No.1 draft pick and an All-Star, this is rock bottom. Everyone, including Magic Johnson (which is rare), is ripping him. But he can bounce back for sure. He’ll find a way, whether it’s switching teams or switching shooting hands. Whatever his next move is, the only thing that Ben Simmons has to do is not pass it up.