PHILADELPHIA — 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid was understandably upset after the Sixers were eliminated from postseason contention by the Atlanta Hawks in Game 7 on Sunday night. Embiid, who played through the entirety of the series with a torn meniscus in his knee, left it all out on the floor for Philadelphia, but ultimately it wasn’t enough in a 103-96 loss. Now, the Sixers will enter the offseason after losing in the second round for the third time in four seasons.
After the game, Embiid expressed his frustration with several different things — the officials, himself, and his teammates. First, it was the officials, who Embiid thought did a less than stellar job throughout the series.
“There’s a lot of stuff that went wrong,” Embiid said. “Whether it’s [that] they can foul me all they want. Whether it’s the officiating. Tonight, you got guys fouling, putting their hands up with me going for a dunk, and they don’t call anything. It’s just the last three games, it’s been the same way, over and over.
“Then, last game, I get fined for having my arms out while I’m getting pushed in the freaking back. And I got fined just because, I don’t know why. So, there’s a lot of stuff that went wrong. As a team, we still have to be better. We still had a good chance to win. We just made a lot of mistakes.”
Embiid then seemed to turn his finger from the referees to a teammate. When discussing what he thought was the turning point in the game, Embiid pointed to a play that Ben Simmons made — or failed to make — with three and a half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. After spinning around Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari in the post, Simmons had an open opportunity at the rim. Instead of going up for what appeared to be an easy dunk, Simmons passed the ball to Matisse Thybulle, who was fouled and went on to make one of his two free throws.
If Simmons had completed the play with a dunk, the game would have been tied, and the Sixers may have gained some momentum. Instead, the Sixers were still down one following Thybulle’s free throws, and the Hawks quickly capitalized by adding to their lead on the next possession. In Embiid’s eyes, that particular play served as a big blow to Philadelphia’s chances.
“I’ll be honest. I thought the turning point was when, I don’t know how to say it. I thought the turning point was we had an open shot and we made one free throw and we missed the other and they came down and scored,” Embiid said. “We didn’t get a good possession on the other end and Trae [Young] came back and he made a 3 and then from there, down four, it’s on me. I turned the ball over and tried to make something happen from the perimeter. But I thought that was the turning point.”
To those of us that were in the arena, Embiid’s unhappiness with Simmons’s decision to pass up the dunk attempt was immediately evident.
Simmons has had his fair share of struggles over the years, but Embiid has always had his back. This is the first time, that I remember at least, that he publicly questioned Simmons’ timidness on the offensive end. It will be interesting to see how those comments impact the dynamic between the two players moving forward, if at all.
As good as Embiid was over the course of the series against the Hawks, he isn’t blameless in defeat, and he is well aware of that fact. Among other areas of improvement, he needs to do a better job of taking care of the ball. He had 25 total turnovers over the final four games against Atlanta, many of which came at inopportune times and directly resulted in transition opportunities for the Hawks.
Embiid also had his fair share of struggles from the floor in the series. He shot just 9 of 24 in Game 6, and was an abysmal 4 for 20 in Game 4. The Sixers lost that game, and the difficulty that Embiid had producing points was a major factor. So, while Embiid might have been the MVP runner-up this season, he knows that he needs to be even better moving forward in order for Philadelphia to advance past the second round.
“[I] just gotta be better. Personally I felt like I took a huge step this year, and there’s so much more I can do,” Embiid said. “I can be so much better… There’s so much more I can do. I progressed a lot this year, and next year I’m going to be even better… It’s on me. I got to be better. I got to take another step with it comes to taking care of my body, and my game as a whole because I still feel like I have a lot of untapped potential that people haven’t really seen.”
When he was asked if he wanted the Sixers to run back the same, or a similar squad, next season, Embiid was noncommittal, saying that he didn’t think it was the right time to get into such a discussion. For those that like to read between the lines, that answer could probably be interpreted as a “no.”
Given the way they flamed out in the postseason despite finishing with the best record in the East for the first time in 20 years, changes, of some sort, are likely in store for the Sixers over the offseason. Only time will tell exactly what those changes look like, but Embiid is assuredly not the only person in the organization that’s frustrated after such a disappointing end to a once promising season.