The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

76ers’ promising season comes apart in Game 7 against the plucky Hawks

Joel Embiid and the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers failed to make it past the second round of the NBA playoffs again. (Matt Slocum/AP)

PHILADELPHIA — Doc Rivers opened the night with an admission that, within a few hours, became a premonition and a curse.

“I’ve had a couple games where the moment absolutely swallowed the team on the floor,” the Philadelphia 76ers coach said, ruminating on the heightened pressure that comes with a Game 7. “I wish you knew before the game which ones, who [would be impacted]. Hopefully none.”

Swallowed was the perfect verb for the deciding contest between the 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks in a second-round series that unfolded in the shadow of the Milwaukee Bucks’ dramatic triumph over the Brooklyn Nets. While Saturday brought the best out of Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Sunday saw Joel Embiid and Trae Young waver for much of the night. In the mess of mistakes, self-inflicted wounds and outbursts of frustration that occasionally bordered on the absurd, Young’s Hawks stunned Embiid’s 76ers with a 103-96 upset to earn a date with the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals.

Desperate for a long-awaited postseason breakthrough, the 76ers stopped caring about style points long ago. Since it drafted Embiid in the 2014 lottery, Philadelphia has been on an agonizing seven-year march to the Eastern Conference finals. Embiid missed two full seasons because of injury, and he didn’t reach the playoffs until his fourth year.

The closest Philadelphia came to reaching the East finals previously was in 2019, but Kawhi Leonard ended that run with a Game 7 buzzer-beater. The 76ers never stood a chance of making noise during the bubble playoffs last year — not after Jimmy Butler left in free agency and Ben Simmons was lost to injury — and they were swept out in the first round.

This was supposed to be the year, with Embiid finishing as MVP runner-up and the 76ers claiming the East’s top seed and enjoying what looked like a cushy path through the postseason. Yet Sunday they couldn’t even win ugly.

Philadelphia’s foibles started early and lasted all night. In the second quarter, Embiid eyed a fast break but threw the ball away, leading directly to a Hawks three-pointer and causing a furious Rivers to call a timeout so his players could collect themselves. On the first possession after the stoppage, 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey threw the ball straight out of bounds.

As the second half unfolded, Simmons drew scattered boos when he awkwardly tossed up a hook shot that missed badly. The heckling and sighs commenced again late in the third quarter when the 76ers gave up two straight transition baskets because of careless defense and an Embiid cross-court pass that never reached its intended target.

When Simmons, often wary about attacking the hoop because of his poor foul shooting, passed up what appeared to be an open dunk late in the fourth quarter, the decision drew outrage from thousands. When he missed a free throw with less than two minutes remaining, the boos returned. And when Embiid committed his eighth turnover of the game in the final minute, leading to a breakout dunk that sealed the result, the disconsolate building fell silent.

Embiid, who has been playing with a small meniscus tear in his right knee, was strong but not always sharp, finishing with 31 points (on 11-for-21 shooting) and 11 rebounds to go with the eight turnovers. He had little impact as the game slipped away in the fourth quarter.

“It sucks to come up short once again,” Embiid said. “There’s a lot of stuff that happened. It just felt like this was going to be our year. But whether it’s [covid-19] or injuries, it just sucks. If there’s one thing I want to say, I gave everything I had. It’s not easy, especially when something always happens at the wrong time. ... There’s a lot to regret.”

Philadelphia finished with an astounding 17 turnovers, shot just 42.5 percent from the field and hit just nine of its 28 three-pointers. As in years past, the 76ers’ shaky offense got even worse when it mattered, and Rivers wondered aloud during his postgame news conference about whether Simmons can lead a championship team as a point guard.

“I love being in Philly,” Simmons said when asked about his future with the 76ers. “I love this organization. I had a bad series. I expect [the heckling]. It’s Philly. I didn’t shoot well from the line this series. Offensively, I wasn’t there. I didn’t do enough for my teammates. There’s a lot of things I need to work on. . . . We lost. It sucks. I am who I am. It is what it is.”

But even as Philadelphia sputtered, it wasn’t clear that Atlanta could take advantage because Young was living his own nightmare. In the first half, he missed 11 of 12 shots, committed three reckless turnovers and drew a technical foul for an animated response to a changed foul call.

Young, one of the breakout stars of this postseason, subsidized his stat line with an array of tricks to earn trips to the free throw line. But he saved his best for last, hitting a late floater and draining a three-pointer from the top of the key to put Atlanta up by six with less than three minutes to play.

Unsung guard Kevin Huerter (Maryland) carried the Hawks’ offense for much of the night, posting a team-high 27 points. Hawks Coach Nate McMillan hailed Huerter for “coming up big,” while Young added 21 points (on 5-for-23 shooting) and 10 assists against six turnovers.

“The fact that we had to give [Young] so much attention allowed other guys to get off,” Rivers said. “He’s definitely their guy. He’s having a heck of a run right now.”

The Hawks’ joyride continues in the East finals, where they will be heavy underdogs. “We’re happy we made it,” Young said, “but we’re not satisfied.”

The 76ers enter the offseason earlier than expected and contemplating existential questions. What will it take for the 27-year-old Embiid to lead a deep playoff push? Must Simmons be traded? Can the roster be retooled with Tobias Harris’s contract on the books? Is it a coincidence that Rivers’s teams — first the Los Angeles Clippers and now the 76ers — struggle so mightily to close playoff games?

With their season ruined, Philadelphia’s fans simply seethed. “F---ing embarrassing!” one fan shouted as he headed for the exit. “I can’t believe this s---!” another yelled.

Sign up for our weekly NBA newsletter to get the best basketball coverage in your inbox