Following the Sixers 26-point, second half collapse against the Hawks—the second ugly collapse in as many games—the fan base and larger NBA community have spent the ensuing hours scrambling for answers.
The Sixers are the first team in 25 years to blow consecutive 18+ point leads in the playoffs, and if you even remotely paid attention to the regular season, blowing double-digit leads in the fourth quarter is more the norm than exception for this team (though they were often able to hold on and win in the majority of these occasions).
So what gives? This is clearly a pattern for the Sixers, and it’s biting them in the ass at an inopportune time—as is wont to happen in the playoffs.
It takes a village to blow a 26-point lead in the second half, and the fan base has been quick to point out Ben Simmons’ struggles at the free throw line as a major factor in this two-game losing skid (nobody debates that) and with Tobias only scoring 4 points, the criticism around him is equally obvious and universal.
But what about Joel Embiid?
When a team consistently fails to close out games, and more specifically fails to close out huge playoff leads, the first place you ought to look is the coach, followed by the team’s best player. Sure, basketball is a team sport, but out of any major league, success and failure are overwhelmingly driven by top-end talent in the NBA—it’s almost always as simple as: who has the best player, that team will/should win.
So why do Sixers fans and media so frequently look past that player when allocating blame for a team falling short of expectations?
While the fan base willingly acknowledged that Embiid was at fault for the team’s Game 4 loss—his stat line didn’t leave much room for interpretation—Joel has seemingly evaded criticism for his performance in Game 5. I hear refrains that range from, “the big fella had to do it all himself,” to, “37 points on 20 shots, what’s the problem?” Both points are sound when taken at face value, but neither is actually relevant to this conversation.
The suggestion that ‘without proper help, of course Embiid won’t win’ ignores the fact that that’s precisely how most Finals are won—under duress, and often with the star player taking outsized control of each game. The second notion, the idea that ‘he scored 37 points, therefore he can’t be blamed for this loss,’ ignores the actual criticism—if he doesn’t deliver in crunch time as the best player on his team then it doesn’t matter what sort of numbers he records. Nobody is suggesting that 37 points is bad, but rather, that not scoring when your team needs it most is not good—the concept of clutch or being a “closer” simply isn’t reflected in the box score.
Individuals who would argue that closing isn’t/hasn’t been a problem for Embiid should consider the following: on the regular season Embiid shot a measly 43% (24/56) with 7 assists and 11 turnovers in 93 “clutch” minutes—defined as the final five minutes of games within a five-point margin. In these playoffs he’s shooting 14.3% (1/7) with 0 assists and three turnovers in “clutch” scenarios, on a usage rate of 43% no less.
On top of that, he’s shooting just 3/21 in the past two second halves combined (Games 4/5), and when excluding the 8/8 shooting mark in the first quarter in Game 5, Joel is shooting just 25% (7/28) across the other seven quarters of these past two losses. Those are jarring numbers, and the fact that they were capped off by 0/4 shooting and 0 points in the final 7:01 of the fourth quarter in Game 5 should be all the proof you need of Joel’s culpability in last night’s collapse.
In the aftermath of Game 4, Hawks center Clint Capela revealed his preferred strategy against Joel Embiid:
“Whenever you wear him out, everything becomes tougher for him. When the fatigue comes in, it’s a different ballgame.”
Capela, much like you and I, knows that you can’t stop Embiid for four quarters (if at all). The Hawks know Joel will get his, and the last thing they want to do is desperately try to stop him (ultimately fail) and allow him to also get others involved. Instead, Atlanta wants let him operate at a high-usage early in the game, and force him to deliver each and every possession.
It may sound paradoxical, but the strategy here is actually to keep the ball in Embiid’s hands as much as possible. Because Capela is physical enough to bang up Embiid a little bit, and because they know the Sixers need to ride his production in the half court on both ends, they’re taking the calculated gamble that a dominant solo performance from Joel through three quarters will a) prevent other Sixers players from getting in rhythm and involved on offense, and b) deplete him of the energy he needs to carry the team through a fourth quarter.
It’s a long play, but it ultimately paid off for the Hawks in these past two games. Capela was mocked for expressing that strategy in the aftermath of Game 4, and while Embiid had the early fun in Game 5, Clint got the last laugh.
This obviously goes hand-in-hand with the clutch discussion. Anytime you suggest a player isn’t a closer, the implication is that they simply shrink in the moment, but that’s not always the case. A player may have all the ability in the world, but if they’re not able to sustain their energy for a full four quarters then closing out games will inevitably be an issue—that’s where I’m coming from with Embiid. His inability to consistently close isn’t an indictment on his skill or competitive mettle, but rather on his conditioning—a familiar slant for Joel.
For reference, here’s each of Embiid’s final four shot attempts in those closing seven minutes of scoreless basketball in Game 5:
This look actually isn’t bad. He gets Capela to nibble at the fake, takes two hard dribbles to get in deep, then turns to the lane for a 10-footer—it’s a good look that he makes more difficult by trying to draw contact with his legs (for some reason).
Pairing this with a pin-in from Ben on Tobi’s man (Collins) and a hammer screen from Tobi on Curry’s man (Lou Will) would free up a wide-open corner three from one of the most accurate three-point shooters in league history—but Doc doesn’t want to make things too easy, right?
This is similar to the last play, only instead of making a hard move and elevating, he opts for a fade-away at a spot of the floor where there isn’t help defenders lurking. While it’s an okay shot for Joel, the decision to shoot a fade-away jumper with just Capela on him is a clear sign of fatigue.
The lack of creativity is on full display here. Curry-Embiid actions have simply replaced the Redick-Embiid DHO’s of seasons past, and to see Joel settle for the three despite getting the ball with plenty of space is disgusting. Attempts like this one at this juncture of the game is a wicked combination of fatigue, laziness, and poor shot IQ.
More stale offense—no movement, no screening, just Iso Jo. This is what most end of game possessions look like for the Sixers, and Embiid taking a big step away from the rim to shoot a fade-away jumper is par for the course for a player who simply never has legs at the end of games.
A big part of the “closer” conversation is as simple as his position: the league is perimeter-oriented, that’s not new, and the strategy of closing games with a big will always be less efficient than an equally-talented wing would. Between having to feed a big the ball instead of a wing bringing the ball up himself, and the fact that help defense is more readily deployable inside the arc than on the perimeter, makes it incredibly difficult to run late game offense through someone like Embiid—despite how talented he obviously is.
This is the essence of what I’m getting at. Embiid isn’t some choke artist who shrinks under the brightest moments—at least not yet—but he is a post player with conditioning problems (as much as Sixers fans pretend that’s not the case). The reality is he’ll never be the ideal candidate to close out games for a Finals team, and it’s okay to acknowledge that. We’ve always known the Sixers would need an elite perimeter scorer to pair with Joel to close out games, and these playoffs are the latest proof of that.
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