A Tale of Two Narratives: Game 7 Sixers vs. Hawks
In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers, there were 20 lead changes and 19 ties, with the Hawks ultimately winning 103–96. Even though it was only one game, it was a perfect example of how outcome dictates the narratives we tell ourselves about a team, about a player and about basketball as a whole. This was the narrative we got after the game:
The Hawks won. Trae Young, the only All-Star on the team, shot 0–6 in the first half and 5–23 and 2–11 from 3 in the whole game. The Hawks were underdogs this entire series, and if you told me that Trae Young shot 5–23 from the field in a Game 7, I would have thought the Hawks lost by at least 20. But the Hawks continued to show why they deserve a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals: interim coach Nate McMillan is a legitimate coach, particularly on defense, Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari contribute meaningful offensive minutes, and Trae Young is a bona fide superstar who can impact winning even when his shot isn’t falling. Despite his lack of scoring, Young was still the driving force of the offense, creating opportunities for his teammates (especially Clint Capela), and ended with 10 assists. Kevin Huerter also had a career night, shooting 10–18 from the field and 2–4 from 3, and was more aggressive at the rim than ever. The Hawks simply outplayed the Sixers the whole game, continuing their somewhat improbable playoff journey.
The Sixers lost. Doc Rivers now has four straight losses in Game 7s, tying the all-time record. This loss, and his inability to make in-game adjustments in critical situations, raises the question that’s been lingering since his early days as a Clippers coach: Is Doc Rivers a good enough playoff coach? If you’re going off this game, or the last four Game 7s for that matter, then the answer in no. Joel Embiid played well, scoring 31 points and shooting 7–10 from 3. Despite his good game, it wasn’t an unbelievable performance, and he needed to be unbelievable (like Kevin Durant in Game 5) to win this game for his team. Granted, he never fully recovered from his small right lateral torn meniscus, but injuries are always going to be a factor in his ability to show up in the playoffs. He’s been consistently injured in every season since his rookie year. Joel Embiid is now 27 years old, the window of his prime is slowly closing, and the path forward for this team with him as the star remains unclear.
The overwhelming talking point after this game is Ben Simmons. Ben Simmons, a regular All-Star and First-Team All-Defense player, had 5 points in this game, shot 2–4 from the field, and didn’t take a single shot in the fourth quarter, including passing up an open dunk at the end of the game. The issue is too big to ignore — Hack-a-Ben a legitimate strategy, and Simmons becomes a liability on the court in a close game situation. And we’ve had this conversation before, because in every playoff game in The Process era, Ben Simmons becomes unplayable, and the Sixers fail to reach their full potential. He has not improved offensively since his rookie year, and it’s starting to become unclear if he will improve significantly at all.
From a narrative standpoint, this game was a signal of change: the Hawks went from a consistent lottery team to a legitimate contender for the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Sixers went from a young, promising team to a team that can never win the way it is currently constructed. But the game was close the entire time, and if the Hawks lose, the narrative changes. The Hawks become a team that, even though they surpassed everyone’s expectations, finally reached their ceiling against a more talented team. Trae Young, though he played well, couldn’t provide the offense needed in Game 7, proving that he needs some more high-stakes games to truly become a winning player. The Sixers, despite all their problems, are too talented to lose to the Hawks, and Doc Rivers might not be a bad playoff coach after all. I bet some people would have Sixers beating the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. The game was so close that this different narrative was still possible up until the final seconds of the game. But what’s interesting to me is that I think the narrative we got is more accurate than the narrative that could have been had the game outcome swung in the Sixers favor. Trae Young is a winning superstar, Nate McMillan is a good coach, Joel Embiid’s window is closing, and Ben Simmons is a real problem on offense. The Hawks winning allowed the correct narrative to thrive. I guess the saying is true: ball don’t lie.