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The Sixers Can’t Get Away With Both Of These Guys Sucking

Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Trae Young watch the ball.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty

I am going to show you something hideous and impossible-seeming. Are you ready? It is the second-half shot chart of 76ers All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, from Philadelphia’s miserable 103-100 come-from-ahead Game 4 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Can the human mind process this gruesome sight without fracturing? Will you immediately claw your eyes out after scrolling down this page? Seems likely! We shall find out together.

A shot chart showing the second-half production of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, from Game 4. It's real bad.Credit: NBA.com

Whew. It was as ugly on television as it is on a graphic. It’s hard to know which is worse: that Joel Embiid was responsible for all 12 of the misses on that chart, or that Ben Simmons, credited with the only make, attempted just one single shot across 17 minutes of play down the stretch of a tight one- and two-possession game. Simmons completed his vanishing act with a brutal 1-for-5 performance from the free-throw line; on the series he’s 8-for-25, including 4-for-15 in two Sixers losses with a combined scoring margin of just seven points. The 76ers went up 18 points late in the second quarter Monday night; from that point until the end of the game, Embiid and Simmons combined for seven total points, and were a combined minus-31. Had either of them screwed their heads on properly for any three-minute stretch of the second half, the Sixers would be headed back to Philadelphia with a 3-1 series lead. Instead they were both grumpy and skittish and weirdly disengaged, as if their team’s big first-half lead bothered them more than it did the Hawks.

Embiid, because he hasn’t established for himself Simmons’s pattern of passivity, had the more immediately alarming second half. He looked sore and tired and crushingly discouraged. It seems very likely the meniscus tear Embiid suffered in the first round is continuing to fuck him up. A couple times he tried to go to work and found himself utterly juiceless, whether due to a timely double-team, a timely flop, or his own dead legs. With the game on the line and a chance to put the Sixers ahead in the closing seconds, the 76ers ran a nice play to get Embiid pointed at the cup, and it produced a point-blank layup opportunity. You’ve seen the shot chart, you know how that went, but it’s instructive to evaluate the miss with your own eyes:

That play also nicely captures Simmons’s hot-potato second-half routine: He dives to the cup when his man, John Collins, rotates over to contest Embiid’s layup; the ball, having barely grazed any part of the basket, falls directly into his hands on the rebound, but rather than rip it down and go up strong, Simmons panics and flicks the ball limply toward the rim; when it inevitably comes up short, it’s a flailing Simmons who swats it out of bounds for what functionally was a game-clinching turnover. The play was so unnatural and bizarre that the scorekeeper didn’t know what to do with it, and credited Simmons with neither a shot nor a rebound nor a turnover. He could’ve brought it down, gathered, thrown a pump fake at somebody, and forced his way to the line—it absolutely would’ve worked in all the chaos under the rim—but the very last thing Simmons wants to do in a one-possession playoff game is take a free throw. Even keeping him on the floor and in the dunker spot for a crucial late possession is a curious decision, given his terror of shooting and horrendous free-throw performance; it’s hard not to suspect this is Doc Rivers trying to protect his player’s ego, at the expense of maximizing a late-game lineup.

Injury or no, Embiid will take most of the shit for this loss, if for no other reason than his second-half O-fer was the stuff of history: Per Kirk Goldsberry, Embiid’s 0-for-12 was the most attempts without a make in a postseason game in 25 years. After the game Embiid said he knew very early—”from the beginning of the game,” according to Embiid—that he “didn’t have it tonight.” Philly’s half-court offense is built around his dominance on the block and gravity around the paint, and though they very nearly escaped with a win Monday night, their scoring could go fully into the toilet if a lingering injury prevents Embiid from having it going forward. Every extra game Embiid has to play on that knee is another chance for it to explode, or at least one less day of rest should the Sixers eventually advance. They need him to perform on that knee so that they can comfortably wrap up games and then the series, so that he can then have a couple extra minutes or shifts or days where he doesn’t have to perform at all.

It’s worth mentioning that a team with a little less weirdness would depend on their second superstar to pick up some of the scoring burden when their main guy has an off night, whatever the reason. If Simmons comes in for a little bit less vitriol following this embarrassing loss, it will only be because fans have come to expect stretches of extreme passivity, and Embiid has largely made those stretches survivable by being such an individual force. On a slightly less weird team, with a slightly less neurotic second star, the burden of carrying the offense wouldn’t slide all the way down to Tobias Harris, Furkan Korkmaz, and the lesser Curry brother. Simmons hates shooting jumpers, and the Sixers mostly work around it. He also hates taking free throws, and sometimes—often at the worst times—that means declining to venture inside and put some of his pronounced physical advantages to good use. But even with all that, with an important game on the line you’d expect even Rajon Rondo to step a little outside his comfort zone in order to pick up a floundering offense. Instead Simmons took one single shot, and every big possession had to grind through the guy on the bum leg enduring the night from hell. Embiid couldn’t make it work, but there’s a very strong argument to be made that he shouldn’t have had to.

Even with all that eye-popping individual failure going on, the 76ers very nearly pulled out of Atlanta with a commanding series lead. It took some heroic stuff down the end—an insane Trae Young pass and a gutsy John Collins three-pointer, and several impressive sequences of dead-serious team defense—for Atlanta to grab this game and even the series, even with Embiid building a house of bricks and Simmons hiding inside of it. The Sixers still seem like the better team in this matchup, so long as at least one of their two foundational superstars remembers not to tie their own shoes together for a full half of basketball. One or the other of Embiid or Simmons could’ve had a full-blown crisis and the Sixers would be two games up with an elimination game at home in their immediate future. Monday night both guys melted down, and now who the hell knows.