That’s Pretty Interesting: What exactly did we expect from the 76ers without Ben Simmons?

The Philadelphia 76ers looked listless and lost for much of their 128-101 loss to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, falling behind 2-0 in their first-round series and inspiring Philly Voice’s Kyle Neubeck to light the entire franchise on fire. It was a tidy metaphor for the season: They built a 25-11 lead that was gone within minutes, and Boston led by 19 halfway through the third quarter. Hope, anguish, resignation.  

Joel Embiid posted up twice as many times as he did in Game 1, like he and everybody else wanted, and The Process finished with 34 points on 11-for-21 shooting, with only two turnovers. The result, however, was much worse than it was in the opener, in which Philadelphia had a chance to win down the stretch. If there was ever real optimism among Sixers fans that Gordon Hayward’s injury would give them an opening, it evaporated along with the early lead.

To cast this loss or the state of the series as a disappointment, though, is to suggest that Philadelphia fell short of expectations. This is dubious. How’s that take, Russ? 

The Sixers and Celtics both entered this season talking about competing for a championship, but, when it stopped on March 10, Boston had a top-five offense and Philadelphia’s ranked 18th. The Sixers’ purportedly dominant defense was worse than the Celtics’, and, more importantly, 12 days before the playoffs started they lost their most versatile defender and the engine of their transition game to a season-ending knee injury.

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The absence of Ben Simmons does not absolve management for its mistakes, nor does it excuse poor effort in the second half of a playoff game. But the relative absence of Simmons’ absence from the discussion of Philadelphia’s shortcomings is not entirely fair. Typically, if a No. 6 seed loses one of its two All-Stars, an All-NBA-caliber player, a first-round loss will be a seen as a fait accompli.

Embiid, who is among less than a handful of players for whom posting up is a consistently efficient play, has a screamingly obvious matchup advantage against 6-foot-8 center Daniel Theis. To exploit that, though, the Sixers have to get him the ball against not only an elite defense, but a defense that is elite precisely because it shrinks the floor, closes passing lanes and disrupts flow with deflections. That was always going to be difficult, especially for a team without deadly shooters and missing their most proficient passer, a team that has been fighting against its inherently clunky composition all season. 

By replacing Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick with Josh Richardson and Al Horford last summer, the organization made a bet on bully ball. The plan was for Philadelphia to clamp down on defense and scrounge up just enough points through matchup-hunting and easy buckets on the break. This old-school (or, arguably, antiquated) style did not work reliably in the regular season, but, as coach Brett Brown said after the Sixers mauled the Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas Day, they believed they were “designed for the playoffs.”

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The approach left little margin for error against a team as good as Boston even with Simmons, and absolutely none without him. It is unfortunate that the injury robbed us of the opportunity to see Philadelphia’s giant gamble succeed or fail on its own merits, and I am deeply skeptical that it would have succeeded. Its recent losses, however, are only the most likely of outcomes, and acting otherwise is a bizarre exercise that simultaneously damns the front office and overrates what’s left of the roster it built. 

Previously on That’s Pretty Interesting: The Lakers’ awful shooting in Game 1 is a Rorschach test

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