ATLANTA — This is the opportunity The Process was designed to take advantage of. This is the moment the Eastern Conference has opened up for the Philadelphia 76ers, with all their rivals looking injured and vulnerable. This is the time, after all those years building toward the NBA Finals, for the 76ers to finally cash it in.
But the 76ers find themselves at the precipice of fulfilling all those expectations with two problems: Their reliance on an increasingly gimpy Joel Embiid and an opponent in the Eastern Conference semifinals that refuses to go away.
Down 18 points in the second quarter of Game 4 and looking like a young team that might let go of the rope in its first playoff run, the Atlanta Hawks somehow fought back for a 103-100 win at State Farm Arena to completely reframe the series at 2-2 and ensure there will at least be a Game 6 back in this building on Friday night. The way this series turned on Monday, the 76ers should be slightly worried they’ll be coming back here hoping to keep their season alive.
“We missed so many opportunities,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “I can't wait to watch the film, but my eyes told me we blew a golden opportunity tonight.”
The fact that the 76ers couldn’t effectively snuff out the Hawks in Game 4 bodes poorly on several fronts. Not only have they handed some belief to a team that had lost six straight halves fairly decisively in this series, but they’ve done it in a way that casts significant doubt on whether they’ll last another month.
The reality is that Embiid, despite moments of absolute domination against the Hawks, is playing on a torn meniscus in his right knee. It’s hard to know whether it’s getting better or worse or how much it’s bothering him, but Embiid did not look like a healthy basketball player in the second half when he went 0-for-12 from the field and just flat-out missed a go-ahead layup with 8.8 seconds left because he couldn’t explode off his right leg.
Maybe Embiid will come out in 48 hours and physically manhandle Clint Capela like he’s done for much of the series. Maybe he’ll easily plow through the traps and doubles the Hawks have tried to throw at him. Or maybe the knee is a time bomb that did not need this series extended to at least six games.
All we know is Embiid didn’t look right in Game 4, and when he was neutralized, the 76ers didn’t have much of a Plan B through which to run their offense down the stretch.
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Joel Embiid and his 76ers teammates leave the court following Monday night's Game 4 loss to the Hawks. (Photo: Brett Davis, USA TODAY Sports)
Ben Simmons? He wasn’t even on the floor in the final 6.6 seconds when the 76ers needed a three to send the game to overtime, a possession that ended with a rushed look from Seth Curry that missed long but officially didn’t come off his hand in time.
In fact, it’s hard to pick out a moment in the fourth quarter where Simmons was even impactful. In the final 24 minutes of basketball, which the Hawks won 54-38, Simmons took just one shot — finishing an alley-oop — and two free throws. One field goal attempt in a Game 4 where you have a chance to all but wrap up the series.
That feels like a bigger problem for the 76ers than just this game or this series. The luxury of having two star players is that when one of them is trying to play through injury or fatigued or simply having a bad night, it’s incumbent on the other one to at least try and make something happen. Instead, Simmons tried to blend in. It didn’t work.
Meanwhile, the Hawks keep showing new levels to their progression in the playoffs. When they got blown out in Game 3, it felt like the narrative on Atlanta was destined to be that they did well to win a first-round series against New York but they just weren’t ready to hang with a playoff-hardened veteran group like Philadelphia.
“It was a mental challenge for our guys,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “We talked about that after Game 3 when we looked a little beat up.”
That certainly seemed like the case again in Game 4 as the Hawks missed 26 of their first 33 shots, including a ton of layups. Even worse, their star point guard Trae Young came out of his warm-ups displaying an elaborate tape job on his right shoulder and missed some shots he normally makes early on, including two free throws.
It seemed like a prime spot for a young team to mentally check out.
“We’re down 18, we could have folded, didn't make shots in front of our home crowd,” Hawks wing Kevin Huerter said. “We came together and just slowly got back in the game.”
If nothing else, Philadelphia now understands the kind of effort Atlanta is willing to give to stay alive in the playoffs. Perhaps because Young is a small, skilled guard and their offense is capable of lighting up anyone on a given night, the Hawks have been labeled as a finesse team.
But in both the New York series and in Game 4, the Hawks showed they’re capable of playing physical basketball. On Monday, they had to because not much else was working. Atlanta made just 12-of-40 from the 3-point line, and Young shot just 8-of-26 overall. But forward John Collins finally became a physical force in this series with a series of athletic put-back dunks and blocks, while Capela’s plan to challenge every Embiid catch and dribble was designed to test his conditioning.
Even if Embiid wasn’t hurt, by the end he was absolutely dragging up and down the court.
“Whenever you wear him out, everything becomes tougher for him,” Capela said. “When the fatigue comes in, it's a different ballgame.”
And now, so is this series. Perhaps the 76ers have enough left in the tank to eventually get by the Hawks, but it’s going to be a longer, tougher job than it looked like when Game 4 began.
If Philadelphia is going to get where it wants to go, it needs at least another month of elite-level basketball. Whether the 76ers can last at this rate now seems very much up in the air.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.
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