PHILADELPHIA — Ben Simmons backed his way to the basket, spun around Danilo Gallinari for the easy look at the net — an uncontested layup, a dunk — and he passed. Passed the ball. Passed on the shot. Passed on the chance to tie the game.
Joel Embiid threw up his hands in disbelief. With a chance to tie Game 7 against Atlanta late in the fourth quarter, Simmons surrendered the chance to play postseason hero and fed the ball to Matisse Thybulle.
“I just assumed Gallo was coming over my back,” Simmons said.
Simmons thought Gallinari would try to foul him — much as the Hawks did throughout the seven-game series victory to reach the Eastern Conference finals — and going to the line in the clutch was a risk the All-Star guard was not willing to take.
His free-throw shooting was the poison in the postseason that ultimately knocked out the top-seeded Sixers. Simmons shot 25-for-73 (34%) from the line in the playoffs and missed 27 alone against the Hawks.
Unacceptable numbers for any player, much less a former No. 1 draft pick with more than $140 million left on his contract. He can’t shoot 3s (5-for-34 career), his free throws failed him and now Simmons is afraid to dunk. Coach Doc Rivers went from Simmons’ most ardent supporter early in the playoffs to openly wondering about the guard’s fate in Philly.
Simmons lost his shot, his confidence, and potentially his job in Philadelphia.
How can the Sixers justify bringing him back?
“I still believe in him but we have work to do,” Rivers said. “We’re going to have to get in the gym, put a lot of work in and go forward.”
Asked if Simmons could still be a point guard for a championship contender, Rivers said he didn’t have an answer. Consider: Simmons did not attempt a shot in the fourth quarter in Game 2. He did the same in Games 4 through 7 — 0-for-0 in the final period. Not one single shot in the fourth over five playoff games.
Sixers guard Danny Green said Monday it was unfair that “everyone wants the narrative it’s all Ben’s fault.”
“It’s not just Ben. We all together win or lose,” Green said. “He’s a mentally tough kid, usually. We don’t know what was going on. It happens with players. Ben has gone through quite a bit this year and it’s not his fault that we lost. Everybody is going to say if Ben had made this, if I had made some shots in Game 1 or so-and so made some shots … we can’t harp on one player.”
Simmons’ missed dunk opportunity that would have made it 88-all with 3:29 left gnawed at Embiid. Thybulle was fouled on the play and made 1 of 2.
“I’ll be honest. I thought the turning point was when we, I don’t know how to say it, but I thought the turning point was just we had an open shot and we made one free throw,” Embiid said. “We missed the other and then they came down and scored. We didn’t get a good possession on the other end and Trae (Young) came back and made a 3.”
Embiid also blamed himself for a later turnover, but the MVP runner-up gamely carried the Sixers through the postseason while playing with a torn meniscus in his right knee.
Simmons had long been publicly coddled by former coach Brett Brown and Rivers — who went so far as to chide a reporter for asking why Simmons was playing in late-game situations — until his failures in the fourth ultimately sent him to the bench.
“Offensively I wasn’t there,” he said. “I didn’t do enough for my teammates. There’s a lot of things I need to work on.”
Shaquille O’Neal said on TNT, “If he was in my locker room, I would have knocked his (butt) out.”
The LSU-on-LSU crime makes for good theater but Shaq’s broader point was that it was about time Simmons stopped making excuses for his miserable play. Simmons said his free-throw woes were more mental than physical. At 24, Simmons seemed aware that a complete overhaul of his game may not happen in Philly — or anywhere.
“I am who I am. It is what it is,” Simmons said. “The first thing I’m going to do is clear my mind and get my mental (health) right.”
Green said it was a mistake that “people think Ben doesn’t care.”
“You can see in his play that he cares,” Green said. “I think he might be a little afraid of certain things. But I think because of how his interviews go, he doesn’t show much emotions. Believe it or not, he cares.”
Simmons wouldn’t be the first No. 1 pick sent out of Philly because of potential issues of the mind rather than mechanics. Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 pick of the 2017 draft, had his rookie season slowed by mental issues that resulted in a broken shot and an eventual trade to Orlando.
Simmons was an NBA All-Defensive first team selection and his size and strength should make him attractive to some team willing to take a flyer on a project with potential.
It’s hard to see how that works next season in Philly.
REFERENDUM ON THE PROCESS
The Sixers’ lengthy rebuild that started in 2013 and survived a 10-win season and 26- and 28-game losing streaks was planned with a big payoff at the end.
The No. 1 seed, the home-court edge and playing a Hawks team that fired its coach and didn’t have a single All-Star wasn’t enough to even get the 76ers to the East final.
About the only thing Sixers can trust is the second-round exit: Three of ’em in the last four seasons and a first-round sweep last year.
Tobias Harris wasn’t worth his max contract and the bench was mostly a bust in the postseason. Rivers played 10 deep in Game 7 and some of his lineups were baffling at times when the Sixers needed their stars in the game.
Embiid rose to the level of one of the NBA’s elite players but again was hampered by an injury that slowed him in the postseason. He’s signed through the 2022-23 season but he’s eligible for a “super max” deal that could pay him $191 million from 2023 through 2027. Could the Sixers really risk tying up that much money in an injury-prone center who would be 33 by the end of that contract?
Team president Daryl Morey gets his first big offseason to shake up the Sixers. Standing pat isn’t an option and he’s set to talk this week about his vision for the offseason — and what that means for Simmons.