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For Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, these playoffs have been quite the roller coaster

What we’ve learned about the Sixers over six days and three games

Walking toward his bench after fouling out of a game that his team had “gifted” the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid removed his goggles and forcibly flung them into the base of the scorer’s table. As he reached his dejected teammates on the sidelines, a fan near the bench raised a sign that simply read:

“It Ain’t Over.”

Nearly two weeks ago, a lot of basketball experts and Sixers fans believed the Sixers’ season wouldn’t be over anytime soon. The red-hot Sixers had ended the regular season with a 16-game winning streak and crushed the Miami Heat in the first round. With LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers appearing vulnerable in a tough opening-round series against Indiana, Philadelphia appeared positioned to extend its season into June.

Now the season could end as early as Monday. And here’s what we’ve learned about the Sixers over six days and three games:

  • While Ben Simmons has already been anointed a future star by James, he’s shown in the second round that his potential will be reached only when he demonstrates the ability to be a better decision-maker under pressure and learns how to shoot a jumper.
  • While Embiid claims he’s “the best center in the league,” he’ll only become the dominant force that Charles Oakley believes he can be when he learns he can influence games by starting his offensive possessions in the lane instead of 15 feet away from the basket.

Simmons has all the tools to be a future NBA great, but he was involved in several crucial plays that led to the collapse May 5 and 101-98 loss to the Celtics in overtime:

With the Sixers setting up for a potential game-winning shot in regulation, Simmons and Embiid got tangled up at the high post, leading to a J.J. Redick turnover and Boston’s go-ahead score:

With the Sixers up one in overtime, Simmons rebounded a missed fadeaway jumper by Embiid and could have run the clock down by dribbling away from defenders or passing to a teammate. The Celtics would have been forced to foul, putting the Sixers on the free-throw line.

Instead, Simmons shot. And missed:

Simmons’ explanation on the rebound and missed shot: “I got a shot that I practice a lot,” he said. “I had a wide-open shot that I make a lot of time. And I missed.”

What’s odd about that rationale: Simmons rarely takes shots outside of the lane. And when he does, he’s not confident. That’s the only explanation for a starting point guard taking just 11 3-point attempts during the regular season and making zero.

Sure, that failed 7-foot shot after Embiid’s miss is still considered a short-range shot. It was ill-advised not just because Simmons shouldn’t have attempted it but also because, according to an analysis of his shots in this series via Second Spectrum, it was out of range for Simmons. Of the 47 shots Simmons has made this series, 40 have come from a distance of 5 feet or less. That’s an astonishing 85 percent of his playoff field goals at close range.

Simmons is not comfortable taking jump shots, and that unwillingness to shoot from the outside often has defenders, such as Al Horford here, sagging in the lane:

Simmons, who was the first rookie in the NBA to record a playoff triple-double since Magic Johnson did it in 1980, is confident he’ll win the Rookie of the Year award when it’s announced next month. Adding a jump shot — Kobe Bryant said in a recent radio interview he needs to start anew — would put Simmons in future MVP conversations.

For Embiid to truly be considered a dominant NBA big man, he’s going to have to show more of a willingness to dominate the paint. Embiid is most effective when he establishes deep post position and makes quick decisions:

But instead of setting up down low and posting up opponents, Embiid is often content to set up farther from the basket and attempt to walk opponents down.

It’s good when it works, as he scores here over Celtics center Aron Baynes:

But Embiid likes to catch the ball outside the lane, which causes problems. Here, Embiid lets Baynes push him out of the post and then holds the ball nine seconds. That allows a second defender to dig and forces an off-balance, contested shot:

Here’s where Embiid catches the ball in the biggest possession in overtime, which leads to that ill-advised shot attempt by Simmons:

The missteps by Embiid and Simmons in the Game 3 loss reflect Philadelphia’s inexperience. “It’s the playoffs, I’m here for the first time,” Embiid said. “Every game we go out, we learn something.”

Simmons and Embiid will, no doubt, learn and grow from having these flaws exposed. They would learn even more if the Sixers could add an All-Star veteran to the mix: a guy like Horford, whose experience and leadership has helped in the development of young Boston players such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

There’s still a Game 4 to be played on Monday, and we all know an NBA team has never come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a series.

At the most, the Sixers hope they can defy history. At the least, the team wants to win a game at home this series.

“We know that we let that one get away from us,” said Sixers forward Robert Covington. “Everyone is locked in, and everyone believes this can still be done.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.