In many ways, the Philadelphia 76ers were a new team this season. They had a new coach, a new lead voice in the front office and a roster comprised of several fresh faces. But, when push came to shove in the postseason against the Atlanta Hawks, the Sixers were plagued by several familiar problems.
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Turnovers have been an issue for the Sixers for the past several seasons. Under former head coach Brett Brown, the Sixers lead the league in turnovers during the 2017-18 season with 16.5 per game. They improved slightly the following season and finished 25th with 14.9 per game.
Last season, they climbed all the way up to 10th in the NBA (14.2 per game), but then they dropped back down to 21st this season (14.4) under new coach Doc Rivers. Yes, these are regular season stats, but regular season play is the best predictor of postseason performance. That’s why it’s not so surprising that Philly’s looseness with the basketball came back to hurt them against Atlanta.
In the four games that the Sixers dropped in the series, they lost the turnover battle. That’s not a coincidence.
In Game 1, they had 19 turnovers compared to 15 for Atlanta and the Hawks ended up winning by four, 128-124In Game 4, the Sixers had three times as many turnovers as Atlanta (12 to four) and Philadelphia lost that game by threeIn Game 5, the Hawks won the turnover battle 15-11 and won the contest by threeFinally, in Game 7, the Sixers committed 17 turnovers, while the Hawks committed just 10, and Atlanta won the game by seven
All four of Philadelphia’s losses in the series were by single-digits, and turnovers could be pointed to as a major factor in each loss. Specially, Joel Embiid’s struggles with turnovers probably gave Sixers fans flashbacks of previous postseasons. Embiid has struggled with turnover issues throughout his career, but he has gotten better at taking care of the ball. He averaged a career low 3.1 turnovers per game during the season, but that number increased to 3.8 during the playoffs.
In the last three games of the series against Atlanta, Embiid had 21 total turnovers, many of which came at extremely inopportune times — like this one that came with the Sixers trailing by four with under a minute remaining in Game 7:
Embiid carries a large load on the offensive end for Philadelphia, and he deserves credit for playing through a torn meniscus this postseason. But as a team’s go-to guy, you simply can’t lose the ball in a situation like that. That play basically ended any hope that the Sixers had of winning Game 7 and extending their season.
Taking better care of the basketball should again be a major focus for Philadelphia heading into next season.
Doc Rivers’ postseason struggles followed him to Philadelphia
Doc Rivers is a well-respected coach, but he has had his fair share of struggles in the postseason. Heading into his first season with the Sixers, Rivers had garnered a reputation for playoff collapses. He’s the only coach in NBA history whose teams have blown 3-1 playoff leads on three separate occasions.
After the Clippers became the third team coached by Rivers to do so last season, Paul George criticized him for a lack of adjustments.
“Doc was trying to play me as a Ray Allen or a JJ Redick, all pin-downs. I can do it, but that ain’t my game,” George said at the time. “I need some flow, I need some mixes of some pick-and-roll, and post ups…That last season was hard.”
Those postseason struggles followed Rivers to Philly. The Sixers’ loss in Game 7 to Atlanta was Rivers’ fourth straight loss in a Game 7, which is tied for the longest streak in NBA history. It was also Rivers’ 29th overall loss with a chance to clinch a playoff series, which is the most by a head coach in league history.
Rivers made plenty of questionable decisions regarding his rotation against Atlanta, and after leading 2-1 in the series and then blowing 18-plus point leads in both Games 4 and 5, the top-seeded Sixers loss to the fifth-seeded Hawks will go down as another blemish on Rivers’ resume, even if he doesn’t view it that way.
A lack of perimeter creation
If there’s been one consistent hole in Philadelphia’s roster construction over the past several seasons, it’s the lack of perimeter creation — guys that can space the floor and make plays by beating their primary defender and getting into the paint or operating out of the pick-and-roll. The importance of that role becomes amplified in the postseason when the pace slows down and defenses are extremely focused. Just look at Trae Young, who had a field day against the Sixers in that role in the semifinals, as he was able to consistently make plays for Atlanta down the stretch of games, while the Sixers had tough time getting good looks late in games. The Hawks outscored the Sixers 40-19 in the fourth quarter of their Game 5 victory, and 23-18 in the final quarter of their win in Game 4.
Embiid is excellent, and he was the MVP runner-up for good reason. But it’s tough for him to establish himself late in games sometimes, as he’s reliant on another player to deliver him the ball and defenses can load up on him and deny entry passes. Ideally, Embiid would be paired with a dynamic perimeter player able to generate his own offense at the drop of a hat. The type of guy you can give the ball to in isolation and say “hey, go get us a bucket.” For all the things that Ben Simmons does well, he isn’t that guy.
The Sixers have tried to address this issue in the past. They drafted Markelle Fultz with the first overall pick in 2017 to be that dynamic combo guard that could play alongside Simmons, either with or without the ball. That obviously didn’t pan out. Then Philly traded for Jimmy Butler — and he had a solid stint with the Sixers — but the two sides separated after a single season. Since then, that hole has remained unfilled.
It’s not a coincidence that two of Philadelphia’s three wins in the series were buoyed by big play from bench guards. In Game 2 it was Shake Milton who helped the Sixers secure a win, and in Game 6 it was rookie Tyrese Maxey. When those guys were at their best, they provided the Sixers with the type of perimeter creation that they needed alongside Embiid and Simmons, whose inability to generate his own offense makes another perimeter creator a necessity in the first place. As long as Embiid and Simmons are the main building blocks on the team, the Sixers have to do a better job of surrounding them with high-level perimeter bucket-getters.