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It was London all over again. The Sixers poured it on the Celtics for the first quarter and a half of Game Two -- then all of a sudden, the faucet got turned off, and before you could yell "GODDAMN IT KEVIN HART SIT DOWN," the C's had gained control of the momentum, the lead, and the game. Almost comforting in its depressing familiarity, like going to a diner where the food is always underwhelming, but at least it's something you know you can rely on.
This was a tough one for a bunch of reasons -- namely that it kills to lose any game where your role players play over their heads but your stars don't show, and also because this happens to be the playoffs, where you only get to lose a certain number of games before you have to go home and they don't let you play anymore. But in the interest of maintaining some semblance of sanity in a series that, presumably, should have at least two more games before all is said and done, I was hoping to zoom out on the gruesome details of this one, and maybe find some serenity in looking at the bigger picture.
Worth a shot, anyway, so let's start pulling back.
Zoom Out 1x: They still made it a game
As usual when the Sixers start to give a lead away, the points started rushing out like a crappy juicebox with a hole in the bottom -- there's really nothing to do but let it all out and then try to clean up the mess. And to their credit, the Sixers were able to do that, at least for a while: After falling going from up 22 in the second to down eight in the third, the Ballers fought back to actually reclaim the lead -- an outcome I thought the ship had long sailed on -- and even once they gave that back, to essentially keep it a game down to the bitter end.
In some ways, that made the experience more painful -- no tuning out on this one with a quarter to go, as some fans were arguably justified in doing for the end of Game One. But at least it allowed the Sixers to salvage a little dignity, and not have to go back to Philly knowing they never had a realistic shot of winning in either of the first two games. They got outplayed again in Game Two, but one or two shots could've easily swung the whole thing. Beats the alternative, sorta.
Zoom Out 5x: Ben Simmons is, in fact, a rookie
You don't even need to get past the first comma in the "Here Come the Sixers" chorus to get to the number of points Ben Simmons had last night, the worst game of his short NBA career. But let's focus on the "short NBA career" part of that equation for a minute: This is still a guy playing in the postseason for the first time, facing a devious coach in Brad Stevens, who has devoted so much of his life to figuring out a way to neutralize everything he does well. After Simmons nearly averaged a triple-double for the Miami series -- and did a whole bunch of other cool stuff at the end of the regular season -- we figured he was impervious to such things; unfortunately, from the looks of his 1-5-7 night (call the cops on that stat line, yeesh), it appears his superheroics have their limits.
Simmons' night was woeful enough that Donovan Mitchell is probably still in the midst of taking his victory lap around the entire perimeter of the Beehive State. I'm still not any more convinced than I was two days ago that the Celtics have effectively found a way to Monstar our elite two-way point guard -- I think he missed a bunny early, he turned the ball over a couple times, and he quickly decided it wasn't his night and stopped attacking. The 0 made field goals ultimately isn't as big a bummer as the 4 attempted: Being unwilling to shoot is a lot more real a problem for Ben Simmons right now than being unable.
Of course, we forget that before Simmons' mentor was regularly skewering and eating rival teams' hearts in the playoffs like so many beef satay sticks, he had his own problems getting passive in the playoffs when the pressure was highest. It's easy to get frustrated watching Simmons in these games, like it was watching LeBron eight or nine years ago, because they seem so capable of bending the game to their will that when games like this slip away from them without them going into save-the-day mode, you wanna plead with them, WHY AREN'T YOU STOPPING THIS? But that's just not how Simmons is wired -- not yet, anyway -- and the downside of him always appearing calm and in control of himself and the situation is that sometimes when the house is on fire around him, it does feel like he's sitting there with his cup of coffee shrugging about everything being fine.
But again: Despite what Donovan Mitchell, the TD First Union Transfer Fee Center crowd and your Things Were Better in The Mike Gminski Days Uncle think, Ben Simmons remains a rookie. He did a very good job of hiding it for his first 86 games as a professional basketball player, but less so in the last two. He's not going to learn how to hit a pull-up three over the course of this series, but he will remember that he was still one of the 10 most undeniable players in the league this season without that ability at some point. Hopefully the WFC crowd does its job of reminding him in Game Three.
Zoom Out 10x: Brett Brown is also a rookie playoff coach
If it's not Simmons that gets scapegoated in this game -- though don't worry, it'll be Simmons, dude had one point -- it'll be Brett Brown. The Sixers coach was most frequently blamed when the team blew a mega-lead in the regular season, as if stopping the collapse was as simple as calling a timeout and smacking his guys in the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. But of course, Brown didn't call a timeout for any reason as the Celtics were in the midst of such a hostile takeover in the second quarter that every Sixers possession started to feel like a mere prelude to the inevitable 3-on-1 Boston break going the other way. It was a little strange that he didn't try to pause the action at that point, to break out the smelling salts, if nothing else.
But let's remember: This is Brett Brown's first playoff appearance as bench general, too. Even the great Brad Stevens got swept in his playoff debut, and while Brett has been pushing most of the right buttons with his squad in the second season so far, he was probably overdue for a miscalculation like this. Maybe he was trying to let his team dig themselves out, maybe he thought they could use the challenge, or maybe he just didn't want to give the damn home crowd the satisfaction, but he made the choice not to bail his guys out as they began to flounder, and it probably cost us in this one.
Some will say it was an equally big misread to bring Simmons back in the game for T.J. McConnell, when the latter was clearly the more aggressive, more effective player on the night. (Simmons ended a -23 for the game, McConnell was +16.) I can't quite get there; Simmons is still the guy, and I appreciate Brown giving McConnell extra burn in the early fourth to make a point, but still being ride or die with Simmons down the stretch. No single game is worth damaging the trust between coach and star player, and it's better to have Simmons suffer through these character-building moments on the court than on the bench. This was his Four Airballs Against the Jazz moment, and someday he'll thank Brett for letting him have it.
Zoom Out 20x: The Sixers haven't lost at home yet in this series
If you could see a representative spread of Process Trusters watching Game Two, it'd probably look like those montages in Armageddon of families across the globe watching the shitty news updates in silent terror and misery over their impending doom. But objectively, their extinction is nowhere near guaranteed yet: All they are right now is a lower-seeded team that lost the first two games on the road -- one close, one not so close -- which, strictly speaking, is how NBA playoff series are traditionally supposed to go. It's also how the Celtics' first-round series against Milwaukee went, which ended with the Bucks winning the next two at home and eventually taking the series to seven games.
Of course, we hoped Philly was gonna do a little better than Milwaukee in this series, and to do so, we'll ultimately need to win at least one in Boston. But they played better in Game Two than One, and now they get to have the revitalization of playing in a building where they've only lost twice all 2018 -- and only once with Embiid in the lineup. The Sixers' invincibility has definitely taken a hit -- going 16-0 would've been fun, if a little undramatic -- and the Celtics are probably better than we initially thought. But two wins at home and the Sixers essentially get a series restart. Nothing is totally fucked here. Not yet.
Zoom Out 50x: At least they're not the Raptors
If you want to talk fucked, there's an Eastern Conference playoff series for that, for sure. The poor, poor Toronto Raptors: Having been owned by LeBron James the last two postseasons, they seemed to finally decent odds of dragon-slaying this postseason, having won nine more games than Cleveland in the regular season and getting out of their first round with much greater ease than the Cavs did against Indiana. But after losing Game One in overtime, in a game they had approximately 223 chances to win, they also dropped Game Two last night -- both at home, by the way -- to LeBron almost single-handedly, as The King tortured his North of the Border constituents with 43 points (on 19-28 shooting), eight boards, 13 assists, and more ridiculous fadeaway second-half jumpers than some teams hit in an entire season.
There's no satellite on (or even in orbit around) earth that can zoom out far enough to make Toronto fans feel good about that one. Not only are they all but guaranteed to lose the series at this point, but they've also failed with an incarnation of their team already playing well above their heads, against LeBron, who may never be in this vulnerable a team situation again. They're an expensive team, and their best players are either approaching 30 or already on the other side. This was their chance, and now it's basically over -- maybe for good. Not only are they gonna be knocked out of the series, but they may have to rethink their entire franchise. They lost two basketball games, and now absolutely everything is in upheaval.
The Sixers aren't anywhere near there. Them losing two games does not damn them to losing the next two as well, or anything more big-picture than that. This chapter of Process history is still largely unwritten. The Raptors might need to start working a new book altogether.
Zoom Out 100x: This year still doesn't matter.
Remember this one? I know, we'd all forgotten after 17 wins in a row, after the three seed, after the Kyrie Irving news, after the Miami series victory -- but this seems like as good a time as any to check ourselves and recall that it wasn't all that many months ago that we were laughing about the Sixers' over/under being set at a ridiculously high 42.5 wins. Every week of 2018 has brought with it a recalibration of Sixers expectations, and it's at the point now where it will be considered a disappointment to some -- myself not totally excluded -- if the Sixers don't make the finals. That was never not absurd on some level, so yeah, let's pedal back and remember that the Sixers are still one and probably several years ahead of schedule, and that even if it feels like we're chewing on a pretty tough piece of steak right now, it's really been gravy since we won two in Miami, if not for well longer.
Of course, that doesn't mean that I'm not hoping the Sixers do get out of the East, or that I recommend a shrug and a Lipton's in response if they're unable to do so. When you have a chance to make the finals, you do everything in your goddamn power to do so, because it is never guaranteed that you'll be in a better situation next year. NBA history is littered with young teams who came up just short, and due to a variety of unforeseeable circumstances, failed to ever get that close again. It doesn't seem like there's anything that could derail these Sixers, but surely Magic fans felt the same way about Penny and Shaq, or Blazers fans about Oden and Roy. The Thunder drafted THREE FUTURE MVPS and only won one finals game for their efforts. You never brush off a chance to go all the way.
But we can still afford to zoom out this far on the Post-Process Sixers, because their view remains as panoramic as any team in the NBA's. Their three best players are all in their first or second years as pros, they have a top overall pick in reserve who showed enough at season's end to demonstrate what a terror he could be as soon as next year, they'll add another top 10 pick this summer and they have at least one ace still left to play in free agency. The Celtics, of course, can say they're right there with Philly -- they're doing all this with a bunch of young'ns, and have two perennial All-Stars on the mend who aren't even playing in this one -- but that's fine. If our biggest problem is that in three years we'll be mapping out postseason pictures and going "Ugh, we're gonna have to face the Celtics in the ECFs again?!?" I think we can agree we're doing all right.
Zoom Out 1000x: Who cares about professional sports, anyway? Trump is in the White House, families in Puerto Rico still don't have power, Kanye is losing his goddamn mind, Bowie and Prince are still dead...
OK too far. See you tomorrow on Broad Street.