NBA playoffs 2021: The Philadelphia 76ers are running short on excuses after another early playoff exit

DOC RIVERS WASN'T having it.

The Philadelphia 76ers had just suffered their first defeat of the 2021 playoffs, a 122-114 loss to the Washington Wizards in Game 4 of their first-round series. The catalyst for Washington's victory had been intentionally fouling star point guard Ben Simmons three times in the final three minutes of the game.

When Rivers was asked afterward whether he'd considered taking Simmons out, the 76ers' head coach was indignant.

"No," Rivers said flatly. "You want me to take Ben Simmons off the floor? I'll pass on that one. He's pretty good, so I'll pass on that suggestion."

Two weeks later, Rivers was addressing similar questions after another loss. The Atlanta Hawks had just overcome a 26-point lead in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead. And they had done so in part by utilizing the same tactic: exploiting Simmons' free throw woes.

Atlanta employed the "Hack-A-Ben" strategy to perfection -- Simmons went 4-for-14 from the free throw line to fall to 22-for-67 in the postseason.

With Philadelphia's season suddenly on the line, Rivers' tone was more muted.

"When Ben makes them, we get to keep him in," Rivers said. "When he doesn't, we can't. That's just the way it is."

Since the start of a fast-tracked 2020-21 NBA season, the 76ers did all they could to put Simmons and Joel Embiid in the best position to succeed, beginning with the hiring of Daryl Morey and Rivers in the offseason. And when the playoffs began on May 22, it looked like the moves had worked to perfection: Philadelphia was healthy, had the top seed in the East and would have to beat only one of the Brooklyn Nets or Milwaukee Bucks to reach the NBA Finals.

Instead, after falling 103-96 in Game 7 to the Hawks, the Sixers are left only with questions about how another postseason painfully thin on excuses could end so abruptly.

DARYL MOREY SAT down for the virtual news conference a happy man. The new president of basketball operations had just completed his first draft for the 76ers and wasted no time acting on his vision.

His first step? Repudiating the moves of the prior summer, when Philadelphia had replaced JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler with Josh Richardson and Al Horford. In separate deals consummated on draft night, Morey dismissed both Richardson and Horford in favor of Danny Green and Seth Curry.

Morey was blunt when asked for the reasoning behind the draft-night moves.

"If you go back, it's completely insane how good some of these Joel-Ben lineups were," Morey said. "Lineup analysis is pretty terrible in general, I'll just be honest, but when you get to like 1,200-minute lineups that are playing at a historically great sort of ability to build a lead, it became pretty obvious [it was] the right path for the roster."

The lineup Morey was referring to was the one featuring the two Sixers stars surrounded by Redick, Dario Saric and Robert Covington in the 2017-18 season -- one that had outscored teams by over 20 points per 100 possessions in 601 minutes in the one full season together.

The newly formed Philadelphia starting five that added Curry, Green and Tobias Harris became nearly as dominant, outscoring teams by 14 points per 100 possessions in 656 regular-season minutes, pushing the Sixers to 27-5 in the 32 games featuring that starting quintet.

Yet twice this season, Morey explored dramatic moves -- looking to acquire James Harden early in the season from the Houston Rockets and then trying to wrest point guard Kyle Lowry from the Toronto Raptors at the trade deadline.

But Houston preferred the multitude of draft picks Brooklyn offered to a deal built around Simmons, while Toronto went down to the wire with three teams for Lowry -- the 76ers, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers -- before ultimately opting to do nothing.

Instead, the Sixers made a smaller move, snagging veteran point guard George Hill. After the deadline passed, Morey remained optimistic.

"We upgraded ourselves a lot today, and we'll be one of the top five or six teams with a chance to win the title," Morey said.

"And hopefully, we'll win it."

WHILE MOREY OPTIMIZED the roster, Rivers spent the season utilizing a well-worn playbook: unrelenting praise.

In his two decades as an NBA coach, Rivers has become well-known for giving over-the-top praise to motivate his players: repeatedly stating that the Boston Celtics' championship starting five had never been beaten in a playoff series, that DeAndre Jordan was the best defensive player in the league. The 2000 Coach of the Year's strategy often gets the best out of them.

Embiid responded with the best season of his career, garnering serious consideration for MVP before suffering a bone bruise in his left knee in mid-March. Harris turned in his best and most consistent campaign, deservedly earning All-Star consideration.

Simmons proved to be more of an enigma.

On Feb. 15 in Utah, playing without Embiid and going up against then-two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, Simmons was dominant as a small-ball center, scoring a career-high 42 points to go with 9 rebounds and 12 assists.

The Sixers lost the game, but Simmons' stunning ability was on display.

"I feel like I'm figuring it out," Simmons said. "Obviously, my scoring has been a lot higher the past five, six games. So as long as I can keep doing that and stay locked in and keep working on my mental [game], I think it's scary."

But that game proved to be a wistful anomaly. In the remaining 33 games Simmons played after that performance, he averaged 13.6 points, 6.1 assists, 6.4 rebounds and shot 56.8% from the free throw line; numbers worthy of another All-Star nod but not equal to the dominance he showed in Salt Lake City that Monday night.

Former 76ers coach Brett Brown tried to nudge Simmons to shoot more 3-pointers. Rivers scoffed at the idea. He repeatedly said that Simmons simply needed to be who he is. He championed Simmons as the NBA's best defensive player.

After the Game 4 loss to Washington, the team that famously put Simmons on the line 24 times in one quarter in 2017, Rivers used the postgame news conference as a bully pulpit to prop up his young star.

"Ben is not a 40-point guy. It's not what he does," Rivers said. "He does other things for your team. Everybody on the team does not have to be a scorer to help the team. Ben scores, but Ben creates scoring for us. That's what he does.

"If I'm Ben, at some point, I'd just get tired of it. I just would. Because he's just too good and does so many good things for this basketball team. I keep saying, 'Celebrate him. Celebrate all of the stuff he does well.' We don't do that enough."

In Games 4 and 5 against Atlanta, Simmons didn't attempt a single field goal and had one assist in 16 minutes and 38 seconds of action in the fourth quarters of both games. After the Game 5 collapse, when Embiid and Curry were the only two 76ers players to record a field goal in the second half, Rivers could bury the Simmons free throw concerns only so deep.

"I would say the fouls in the first half actually helped us -- we actually increased the lead when they were doing it," Rivers said. "And the beginning of the third quarter [Bogdan] Bogdanovic and [Kevin] Huerter were at four or five fouls. So in a lot of ways it really helped us.

"The missed free throws in the fourth quarter hurts. So I would say that's where it affected us for sure."

IN THE CLOSING minutes of Game 7, Simmons, posting against Danilo Gallinari on the left side, made a quick spin to the baseline and found himself with nothing but open space for what would've been a game-tying dunk.

Instead, Simmons rifled a pass to a cutting Matisse Thybulle, who was fouled. An easy dunk became two free throws. Thybulle made only one and the Sixers never got closer.

There are always attempted explanations and pointed fingers when a title hopeful exits too soon.

Yes, this is another Rivers-led team that has melted down in the conference semifinals. His tenure with the LA Clippers ended after a similar disaster last year against the Denver Nuggets. No, Morey didn't add another reliable shot creator. Yes, Harris disappeared in the second half of Game 4, and all of Game 5.

But this season is ultimately a referendum on the Simmons-Embiid partnership. When the Sixers lost each of the past three seasons, there was a reason.

In 2018, Philadelphia was a youthful team learning on the fly in its first trip to the playoffs. In 2019, it lost a razor-thin series to the Toronto Raptors by virtue of the ball -- literally -- bouncing the wrong way on Kawhi Leonard's series-clinching jumper. Last year, Simmons exited the bubble with a knee injury.

This year, though, no such excuses exist. In 11 playoff games, Embiid posted 28.1 points and 10.5 rebounds. He played on a partially torn right meniscus, but his production matched the moment. Simmons averaged 11.9 points, 8.8 assists, 7.9 rebounds and shot 34.2% from the free throw line in these playoffs. He posted single-digit points in Games 5, 6 and 7 against Atlanta. And in a postseason with almost every team remaining dealing with injury, the 76ers had otherwise been fortunate in health.

There will be a lot of blame to go around Philadelphia in the offseason -- and there won't be a lot of excuses.