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Joel Embiid says Ben Simmons’s passed-up dunk was ‘turning point’ in loss to Hawks

The 76ers' Ben Simmons walks away after missing a pair of free throws during Game 5 against the Hawks. (Matt Slocum/AP)
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Immediately after the Philadelphia 76ers’ Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday night, Joel Embiid gave credit to his opponents, criticized the officiating and said he had to improve his game. When offered a chance, though, to find fault elsewhere, the 76ers’ all-star center pointed to his team’s other all-star, guard/forward Ben Simmons.

Asked if there was a moment Sunday when his belief in his team turned into resignation that the 76ers were not going to advance, Embiid replied, “I’ll be honest: I thought the turning point was when we had an open shot, and we made one free throw and we missed the other, and they came down and scored.”

“From there … it’s on me,” he added. “I turned the ball over and tried to make something happen from the perimeter. “But I thought that was the turning point.”

From the details Embiid provided, he was clearly referring to a sequence that began with less than four minutes to play and Atlanta up by two. Simmons had the ball on the low block and spun past the Hawks’ Danilo Gallinari. At that point, there was nothing directly between the basket and the 6-11 Simmons, but he passed up what appeared to be an easy chance for a dunk and instead tossed the ball to teammate Matisse Thybulle, who was standing near the paint. Thybulle got fouled on a layup attempt and, as noted by Embiid, made 1 of 2 free throw attempts.

Trading a dunk for a free throw only cost Philadelphia one point, but Simmons’s unmistakable reticence also cost his team what could have been an uplifting, momentum-shifting play down the stretch. Moreover, it elicited a frustrated reaction from Embiid on the court and encapsulated why many are blaming Simmons for the 76ers’ loss and speculating that he may have played his final game for them.

The No. 1 pick of the 2016 draft, Simmons has displayed superior skills as a passer, defender and finisher in transition, but he also has fallen into some alarming tendencies as a shooter.

In 275 regular season games, he has taken 34 three-point shots, a remarkably low number in this era for a perimeter player getting heavy minutes. Over six playoff series since 2018, he has taken just two three-pointers, a nearly impossible feat of gun-shyness. Simmons has made just five of those 36 combined attempts, which partly explains his hesitance in taking them, but his inability or unwillingness to stretch the defense has been a persistent issue for the 76ers.

At least as big of a problem, if not greater, has been Simmons’s descent into uncharted waters of free throw futility. During this postseason, in which Philadelphia defeated the Washington Wizards in five games before falling to the Hawks in seven, he made just 25 of 73 attempts from the stripe. For players with a minimum of 70 free throw attempts in a given postseason, Simmons’s 34.2 percentage is the worst in NBA history.

Not only was Simmons costing his team points at the line, but his apparent fear of being sent there also rendered him an offensive non-factor late in games. During the fourth quarters of Games 4 through 7 against the Hawks, a span in which the 76ers lost three times and twice blew huge leads, Simmons played 34 minutes and took zero shots from the field.

“Obviously, he struggled from the free throw line, and that became a factor in this series, there’s no doubt about that,” Philadelphia Coach Doc Rivers said of Simmons after Sunday’s season-ending, 103-96 home loss. “I still believe in him, but we have work to do. We’re going to have to get in the gym and put a lot of work in.”

Asked if the 76ers could expect to be a championship-caliber squad with Simmons as their point guard, Rivers replied, “I don’t know the answer to that.”

As a “positive” for Simmons, Rivers noted his defense on Hawks star Trae Young, who made just 5 of 23 shots Sunday. Simmons did the same himself, telling reporters that Atlanta’s offensive catalyst “had a tough night.”

As for his performance in other areas, Simmons told reporters: “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.”

Asked about passing the ball to Thybulle while near the basket late in the game, Simmons said he thought making that play would lead to “a wide-open dunk.” He “assumed” Gallinari was looming for a possible block from behind on him and thought Atlanta’s John Collins had moved out of the way of Thybulle’s path to the basket.

“I feel like I found my guys tonight, which I do in the regular season,” said Simmons, who finished with 13 assists Sunday. He did not agree with a reporter’s suggestion that he was a different, less assertive player in the postseason.

“Nah, I’m not going to let you say that,” he retorted. “We lost. It sucks. I am who I am. It is what it is.”

Pointing to the Brooklyn Nets’ agonizing, seven-game loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Simmons added, “It’s not easy to win.”

With a lot to think about during an offseason that arrived much sooner than the top-seeded 76ers would have liked, Simmons said the first thing he would do is “clear my mind and get my mental right.”

It remains to be seen if Simmons is still on the 76ers when the offseason ends. In the wake of their loss, there has been plenty of discussion about whether the team should trade him and, if so, what kind of return he could fetch. A complicating factor is his contract, which owes him approximately $146 million over the next four seasons. One thing seems clear: As a player with glaring limitations on offense, Simmons’s perceived on-court value is lower now than at any previous point in his NBA career.

“You can’t have a guy on the court who’s afraid to shoot the basketball,” TNT analyst Charles Barkley said after Sunday’s game.

Embiid praised his team as a group of “great guys on and off the court,” but after his comments about the game’s “turning point,” he was asked if he wanted to see the same group return next season.

“That’s a tricky question,” Embiid replied, declining to elaborate.

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