Ben Simmons had a chance to redeem himself on Sunday at the end of a series noted for his offensive stagnation.
The Philadelphia 76ers point guard posted his fourth single-digit scoring effort of the Eastern Conference semifinals and again not only looked unable to shoot the ball, but unwilling. His five-point, 13-assist, eight-rebound effort arrived as the Atlanta Hawks completed a stunning upset in seven games to topple the top-seeded 76ers and advance to the conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.
While Simmons' box score met the usual criteria cited by advocates who point to his defense, playmaking and rebounding as more than enough to overcome his shooting woes, the fact remains. Simmons is an All-Star guard who often can't and frequently won't shoot from the perimeter — and sometimes elsewhere.
Doc Rivers doesn't know if Ben Simmons can lead a championship team
With another disappointing early playoff ouster, the facade around Simmons in Philadelphia appears to be cracking. The top two voices in the 76ers' locker room both addressed Simmons after Sunday's Game 7 loss. Their words fell well short of an endorsement.
Head coach Doc Rivers went first. He was asked whether he believes Simmons can be the point guard on a championship team. Here's what he had to say:
"I don't know that question or the answer to that right now," Rivers said. "I don't know the answer to that."
Rivers was a fierce Simmons defender before Sunday's loss
Rivers' response was a stark contrast to to his repeated defense of Simmons throughout the regular season and playoffs as criticism amplified about his poor shooting from the perimeter and the free-throw line. Take for example Rivers' May 31 comments on Simmons after a Game 4 loss to the Washington Wizards in the first round.
“You want me to take Ben Simmons off the floor," Rivers said when asked if he would consider benching Simmons. "I will pass on that one. He’s pretty good. So I will pass on that suggestion."
When pressed that day, Rivers again defended Simmons.
“You guys keep this Ben Simmons narrative alive, which to me is freakin’ insane, how good this guy is and all the things he does,” Rivers said after the game. “Ben is not a 40-point guy, it’s not what he does. He does other things for your team. And I just don’t understand why that’s not sinking in, in our city. ...
"You guys keep the Ben narrative going. We're just gonna keep playing."
Now that the Sixers aren't still playing, is the narrative changing in Philadelphia's locker room?
Joel Embiid calls out Simmons decision as catalyst in loss
Joel Embiid also addressed Simmons' play after Sunday's loss. While he didn't name him by name, he pointed clearly to a Simmons decision as the turning point in Philadelphia's loss.
"I'll be honest," Embiid started before hesitating. "I thought the turning point was when we — I don't know how to say it — I thought the turning point was just, we had an open shot and we made one free throw, and we missed the other and then they came down and scored.
"And we didn't get a good possession on the other end. Trae [Young] came back and he made a three and then from there down four, it's on me. I turned the ball over and tried to make something happen from the perimeter. But I thought that was the turning point."
Embiid pointed to a lot of things that went wrong for Philadelphia in the game's pivotal final minutes. But he clearly alluded to Simmons' decision to forgo an open layup in the fourth quarter in favor of a pass to Matisse Thybulle.
Thybulle got fouled on the play and hit one of two free throws. Embiid covered the rest of the sequence in his quote.
Like Rivers, Embiid didn't directly blame Simmons for Philadelphia's second-round loss as a No. 1 seed. But he raised plenty of doubt about his confidence in Simmons on a team with championship aspirations.
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