It’s been a fun ride, but it’s time for the Philadelphia 76ers to Process this: they still have a long way to go to get where they want.
Declarations that the 76ers’ rebuild is complete and title contention will be a regularity going forward were as premature as the confetti shot off at Wells Fargo Center at the end of regulation in the Boston Celtics’ 101-98 overtime win in Game 3 of the second round series.
Winning 52 games and a first-round series in a season where Ben Simmons put together a Rookie of the Year campaign and Joel Embiid stayed relatively healthy is a massive success for a franchise that was trapped in the lottery as recently as a year ago.
That success came faster than anticipated, which is why expectations were (justifiably) raised ahead of the playoffs. And with how wide open the East looked due to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles, the Toronto Raptors’ unreliable nature and the Celtics’ injury woes, it actually appeared as if the stars were aligning for Philadelphia to reach the NBA Finals.
But the second round against Boston has splashed some cold water on Process truthers and provided much-needed perspective on where the 76ers are right now.
An argument can be made that Philadelphia’s current predicament of being down 3-0 in the series has more to do with the Celtics than it does with the 76ers’ limitations. After all, playoffs are often about matchups and Philadelphia just looked like world-beaters en route to a gentleman’s sweep over Miami a round earlier. It’s not crazy to think the 76ers might be faring better if they were playing Cleveland or Toronto, based on the strengths and weaknesses of those teams.
Nevertheless, Boston has exposed Philadelphia’s deficiencies in ways that aren’t unique to just them. And it starts with the 76ers two cornerstones: Simmons and Embiid.
Aside from the one-point stinker he had in Game 2, Simmons has been his usual self scoring-wise in the series, averaging 17.0 points on 56.0 per cent shooting. But those stats don’t begin to tell how the Celtics have corralled him in the half-court and leveraged not just inability to shoot, but his unwillingness to.
It may only seem like a subtle difference, but Boston’s advantage of completely ignoring Simmons when he’s beyond the arc has allowed them to tweak their defensive positioning to the point they can simultaneously cover the paint and stick with Philadelphia’s shooters – essentially playing five-on-four on occasion.
By keeping Simmons in front of them and then challenging him to score over their long defenders when he drives, the Celtics have shut off a lot of drive-and-kick opportunities. Boston haven’t been as successful when back-up T.J. McConnell has been on the floor – McConnell is plus-19 in the series while Simmons is minus-19 – because of his quickness and ability to keep the defence somewhat honest.
McConnell plays his role extremely well, but he can only help to a certain extent. You know who would be a perfect complement to Simmons and give the 76ers what they need? The Markelle Fultz that came out of college, before… whatever it is that derailed his rookie season.
It’s way too early to say Fultz won’t ever be that, but it’s also no sure thing to say he’ll return to what he was, let alone develop into a star. If he does, he could be the missing link and final piece of the 76ers’ puzzle. But again, that’s a big ‘if’.
As far as Embiid, this second round has shown he’s far from a finished product.
He’s averaging 24.3 points against the Celtics, but it’s his 43.5 per cent shooting that’s been more telling of how the series has gone for him. Boston have been mostly content with leaving Aron Baynes or Al Horford in single coverage against him and living with post-up after post-up. Embiid is an absolute load to deal with, but his post game still leaves a lot to be desired.
And on the other end of the floor, the Celtics have sapped his rim protection by dragging him out near the perimeter with bigs who can knock down jumpers.
Embiid and Simmons are just 24 and 21, respectively, so it would be foolish to assume they won’t get better. Their shortcomings in this series shouldn’t be viewed as a failure, but rather as an indication of the room they still have to grow.
The Process, insofar as the methodology of tanking to acquire draft picks, may be over.
However, the next phase – going from good to great – has just begun.
In what was as close to a must-win for Toronto as possible without it technically being a do-or-die game, the Raptors felt the full wrath of James, who stomped on their hopes at the Air Canada Centre with 43 points and 14 assists in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 128-110 win.
It was the first 40-point, 14-assist effort in playoff history and it was fitting it came on Toronto’s home floor, where James has owned the Raptors with five straight postseason victories.
This is the risk Toronto ran when they couldn’t take advantage of an inefficient shooting night by James in the series opener, when he was 12-of-30 from the field.
In Game 2, LeBron was simply on and when that’s the case, there’s no defence in the world that can slow down the best player on Earth.
James shot 19-of-28, including 7-of-11 on fadeaways which he utilised often in the second half with great success.
Raptors forward OG Anunoby wasn’t nearly as effective guarding James as he was in Game 1, when LeBron had 17 points, six assists and shot 8-of-19 in 48 possessions.
With Anunoby on him in Game 2, James had 20 points on 9-of-13 shooting, while dishing 11 assists in 41 possessions.
Pascal Siakam, who defended James the second-most of any Raptors player, fared no better as he allowed 17 points on 7-of-9 from the field in 19 possessions.
LeBron tonight:— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 4, 2018
6 of 9 in isolation
6 of 7 out of pick and roll
3 of 6 in the post
2 of 2 in transition
1 of 1 in spot-up
While James was unsurprisingly phenomenal, the Cavaliers received an encouraging performance from Kevin Love, who woke up to have 31 points, 11 rebounds and shot 11-of-21 overall. Prior to Game 2, Love was averaging just 10.9 points on 31.9 per cent shooting.
The Cavaliers have everything working in their favour as the series moves to Cleveland, which means Toronto are in danger of suffering a sweep at the hands of James and Co for a second straight year.
Falling in the second round to a team that has consistently been a roadblock for them would be enough of a failure, but if the Raptors get swept, they’ll have to take a hard look in the mirror in the offseason after making such little progress following a promising campaign.
Ben Simmons’ limitations were exposed on a night he got his first taste of playoff failure.
Whether or not Simmons should be considered a rookie has been a hot debate this season, but the phenom looked every bit the part of a first-year player as the Philadelphia 76ers blew a 22-point lead in the 108-103 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 2.
Simmons’ horrendous showing, which saw him score all of one point as he was erased offensively by Boston, contributed to the 76ers blowing a 22-point to fall into a 2-0 hole as the series now shifts to Philadelphia.
It was the first time in Simmons’ brief career – 88 games – he failed to make a basket as his lone point came from the free throw line at the 7:14 mark of the first quarter. He finished 0-of-4 from the field, while recording seven assists, five rebounds and five turnovers.
While Al Horford spent the most time of any Celtics player matched-up on Simmons – 27 of 61 possessions – it didn’t make a difference who was guarding the 76ers playmaker as he was blanked all night.
Simmons had such a rough night that there was controversy around coach Brett Brown’s decision to insert him back into the lineup for the final stretch, instead of leaning on back-up T.J. McConnell. Simmons ended the game with a plus-minus of minus-23, while McConnell was a team-best plus-16.
While his size, athleticism and passing have made up for his lack of shooting for nearly the entire season, Simmons’ most glaring weakness was on full display and impossible to ignore in Game 2.
All four of his field goal attempts came in the paint and a couple weren’t even close as his touch completely missed the mark.
Ben Simmons did not make a FG for the first game in his brief career.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 4, 2018
The last time an eventual Rookie of the Year did not make a FG in a playoff game was Jerry Lucas in 1964.
Lucas was 0-7 with 3 points per @EliasSports pic.twitter.com/ZDVRZSU43N
Boston are uniquely equipped to take away Simmons’ driving runways by throwing long bodies at him. He managed to get easy points through dunks, free throws and transition play in the series opener, but in Game 2 the Celtics were successful in shutting down fast-break opportunities and staying with him every step of the way.
There’s no doubt that any semblance of a jump shot or even a threatening post game would alleviate Simmons’ deficiencies.
From his point of view, however, the Game 2 performance was his own doing.
“I think it was mainly what I did to myself,” Simmons said. “Mentally, I was thinking too much, overthinking the plays. Wasn’t just out there, flowing, playing the way that I play, which is free.
“I think, obviously, [the Celtics] have a game plan, I know what their game plan is and I’ve got to play my game.”
While Simmons’ night to forget wasted strong efforts from role players Robert Covington and J.J. Redick, who combined for 45 points on 9-of-16 shooting from deep, Boston once again capitalised on another impressive performance by Terry Rozier.
The Celtics guard had 20 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, proving to be instrumental to Boston’s comeback.
In the playoffs, Rozier has been at his best particularly in the fourth quarter, in which he has 56 points on 18-of-27 (66.7 per cent) shooting overall, including 13-of-20 (65.0 per cent) from deep, to go with 13 assists, 12 rebounds and no turnovers in 64 minutes.
If he bring his play from the first two games to Philadelphia, the series may be shorter than expected.