Ben Simmons was trending on Wednesday night and not for the right reason. He finished with eight points during an epic Game 5 collapse after the Atlanta Hawks went to the infamous “Hack-a-Ben” strategy early and watched the All-Star point guard miss 10 free throws.
He went 4-of-14 from the charity stripe as the Philadelphia 76ers fell 109-106. The Hawks lead the Eastern Conference semifinals 3-2 with Game 6 slated for Friday night in Atlanta. After the game, all the talk was on Simmons and his inability to come through in the clutch. Literally. Head coach Doc Rivers pulled him for Shake Milton with 3:20 left in the fourth quarter so the Hawks couldn’t intentionally foul him.
“Obviously, I gotta knock down free throws, I gotta step up and do that,” Simmons told reporters. “It is what it is, coach’s decision.”
The 24-year-old returned 51 seconds later after a Sixers’ shot-clock violation. The decision on what to do about Simmons late in games has been an underlying storyline throughout the playoffs. No one on the roster can handle the rock as he does, but the missed foul shots might be costing them games.
“You play minutes without Ben in the game. I think we are equipped for that and we’re ready to do that,” Rivers said. “When Ben makes them, we get to keep him in and when he doesn’t we can’t and that’s just the way it is.”
Simmons has now attempted just five field goals over his last six quarters while going 5-for-19 from the free-throw line. Is it a mental thing or something that can be worked out with extra work in the gym?
“Definitely, I think mental,” Simmons said.
Time will tell for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
“We’ll get back up,” Rivers said. “We’ll be back here for Game 7. I believe that.”
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Second Half Collapse Doomed Sixers in Game 5
Twitter was rife with calls to trade Simmons and fire Rivers. The Sixers surrendered a 26-point lead to the Hawks in Game 5, one game after giving up an 18-point advantage. While it’s true that Simmons’ shooting has hurt the Sixers down the stretch, it hasn’t been all his fault.
“You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to see that when the ball is moving and when we’re playing and sharing, it’s really good,” Rivers said. “And then the ball got stuck. Got stuck for most of the second half.”
Tobias Harris went 2-of-11 from the field for just four points. Furkan Korkmaz was held to eight points while Shake Milton and George Hill combined for only seven points. More alarming, Philly watched as only two players — Joel Embiid (37 points) and Seth Curry (36 points) — attempted field goals in the entire second half. The Hawks went on a 13-0 run in the fourth quarter.
“We got too comfortable, didn’t play the way we should be playing, didn’t move the ball as much in the second half,” Simmons said. “We didn’t get as many easy shots, too many defensive lapses where we didn’t communicate.”
Blame Second Unit for Bad Stretch
The Sixers’ second unit has struggled to maintain leads for the majority of the season. The normal rotation of George Hill, Matisse Thybulle, Dwight Howard, Shake Milton, Tobias Harris (the only starter in that group) struggled in the second half, too. It was night and day after they helped push a 22-point Sixers’ lead into the halftime break.
“The second group really struggled tonight in the second half,” Rivers said. “They were phenomenal in the first half and then in the second half they struggled and down the stretch, we scored 19 points and gave up 40. It’s on us, it’s on all of us, it’s on me, it’s on the players and we have to figure out how to get back up which we will and bring this game back here for Game 7.”
Philadelphia would host a potential Game 7 at the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday (June 20) if it gets to that point. Game 6 is slated for Friday night (June 18) in Atlanta.