Matisse Thybulle’s reaction above says it all after the 76ers stunning Round 2 defeat to the Atlanta Hawks. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Pain.

Just over two years ago, I began my analysis of the Sixers’ stunning Round 2, Game 7 defeat to the Toronto Raptors at the hands of Kawhi Leonard’s improbable buzzer-beater with that one word. Pain. P-A-I-N. It’s a word all sports fans are familiar with, but it’s one Philly fans know better than most. The Eagles recent Super Bowl championship erased some of that agony, but it persists to this very day. After all, this is the third straight year I’m writing about a Philadelphia team falling in Game 7 of the Conference Semi-Finals; the 76ers this year and 2019, and the Flyers in 2020. A 76ers win tonight would not have totally erased this feeling from Philadelphians’ memories. But this loss amplifies it to an incalculable degree.

If you’re a frequent reader of our NBA coverage, you’ve probably never heard of me. I’ve written over four hundred sports articles since I created my own blog in July 2018 (and later joined Vendetta in October 2020). I know a lot about hockey and baseball and a decent bit about football. But I only possess a basic understanding of basketball and what makes teams and players good and which ones are good. Hence why this is only my third article about the sport; Game 6 against Toronto, Game 7 against Toronto, and now this. It’s by far the big four sport I understand and care about the least. But a loss of this magnitude, on this stage, in such stunning fashion draws the ire, frustration, and downright sadness of even the most casual fan. So that’s why I’m sitting here writing this article tonight.

The 2020-21 Philadelphia 76ers were supposed to be different. Anyone reading this is probably very familiar with “The Process,” but a brief refresher anyway. In 2013, new Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie decided to send the team into an extremely aggressive tank known as “The Process.” The goal was the same as any tank. Bottom out for a few years, accrue elite young talent via trading existing veterans and high draft picks “earned” from finishing in the basement, and eventually churn out a contender. The 76ers were hardly the first team to tank, and they certainly won’t be the last. But a historic 26-game losing streak and three consecutive sub-20 win seasons made Philadelphia’s tank, and its simple yet loaded nickname, one of professional sport’s most infamous.

Eventually, things started to turn around. Led by dominant center Joel Embiid and 2016 #1 pick Ben Simmons, the Sixers more than doubled their win total from 2016-17 (28) to 2017-18 (52), then added five more victories in the playoffs. Hungry to take the next step, the 76ers went all in by acquiring pending UFA veterans Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris in the 2018-19 season, exchanging much of the young talent and draft capital that came from The Process. I’ve already touched on that team’s fate; I don’t think I have the stomach to mention it again.

Philadelphia tried to run it back in 2019-20, hoping to build off their prior success and capitalize on their stars’ growth. But swapping the dynamic Butler for aging and somewhat redundant Al Horford panned out poorly. Head coach Brett Brown’s message and tactics appeared to be growing stale. And after a Simmons-less Sixers team was swept out of the bubble by Boston, it was clear sweeping changes needed to be made to the supporting cast.

The Sixers entrusted former Houston Rockets president Darryl Morey with the task, and he stepped up. Morey acquired a lights-out shooter in Seth Curry, one of Philly’s most consistent scorers all playoffs, on draft day. Two-time NBA champion Danny Green also entered the fold. Tobias Harris went from disappointing to borderline all-star. The 76ers used their first-round pick on the dynamic Tyrese Maxey; the 76ers wouldn’t have even reached Game 7 without his Friday night heroics. They acquired veteran George Hill at the deadline for a reasonable sum. New coach Doc Rivers worked wonders on the bench. Led by near MVP and DPOY seasons from Embiid and Simmons, respectively, the 76ers won 49 games in the shortened season, good enough to be the East’s number one seed for the first time since 2001. AKA the last time the Sixers advanced to the NBA Finals, four months before I was born.

The Washington Wizards offered perhaps a bit more resistance than expected in Round 1, but the Sixers pushed past them in five games. An Embiid injury scare aside, so far so good. Yes, they were immediately put on notice by the Atlanta Hawks with the first-half shellacking in Game 1. But a near-heroic comeback that game followed by outstanding performances in Games 2 and 3 appeared to put the 76ers back on track. An Eastern Conference Final going through Philadelphia felt like a guarantee.

And then, without warning, the bottom dropped out. An 18-point lead in Game 4: gone. A 26-point lead in Game 5: vanished. Joel Embiid’s health: concerning, to the tune of an 0-for in the fourth quarter of Game 5 thanks to that meniscus injury suffered against Washington. Ben Simmons’ free-throw ability: non-existent, to the tune of about 30% shooting and with more misses than nearly the Suns and Nets combined. He didn’t even so much as attempt a field goal in five of seven fourth quarters in the series. Eking out a Game 6 victory on the road set up a golden opportunity to advance; a Game 7 on their home court in front of a raucous fanbase. And yet the Sixers simply couldn’t get the job done. They lost. Fair and square.

You rarely recognize your best chance at success when it’s happening; usually, such certainty can only be known by hindsight. And while it isn’t a certainty that’s what the 76ers had this year, it sure felt like it. An elite team with tremendous chemistry, better depth than in their 2019 loss (at least in my opinion; far smarter people than me have called the 76ers bench a liability all over my timeline, so I should probably defer to them), and two outstanding talents that The Process centered around.

Not to mention what may be their easiest path to the ECF with home-court advantage awaiting them there. Look, the Atlanta Hawks are a tremendous team, earned this victory, and will no doubt give the Bucks an incredible fight. Congratulations to them — they absolutely deserve it — and best of luck the rest of the way. But for the first time in the Embiid-Simmons era, it felt like every factor was leaning towards Philly’s favor in a playoff series… and they still lost. It’s an incredibly tough pill to swallow. It seems like every Sixers fan out there is simply going to flush it down the toilet; and honestly, it’s hard to blame them.

Every player, coach, and management member deserves criticism for this defeat. But let’s address everybody’s favorite scapegoat right now: Ben Simmons. As I said, I don’t know a ton about basketball. I never played the sport above first grade and watch very little of it during the regular season and non-76ers playoff games. But even I know Simmons’ performance simply was not good enough. There are a lot of different ways you can say it, but I don’t think there’s any point in saying it any other way. He simply was not good enough. He knows it. I know it. Everybody knows it.

Your best players have to be willing to run towards the spotlight, not shrink in it. Plenty of star players across all sports have come up short in big games. But I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one cower in the face of the bright lights like Simmons. It wasn’t that he kept trying and failing, it’s that he stopped being Ben Simmons. Want a perfect example? Late in the 4th quarter, Simmons took a wide-open pass down low with an easy basket starring him down. And yet he made an unnecessary extra pass to Matisse Thybulle, who barely managed to get off an attempt and only knocked down one of two free throws. Give me the Ben Simmons that missed that wide-open dunk late in a crucial Game 3 against Boston in 2018 over that one any day. At least I could have confidence in the latter version.

I’ve long been a fan of Simmons, appreciative of his skills and understanding of his shortcomings. Over the coming days, weeks, and months, you’ll hear countless cries for him to be traded. I’m not sure that’s the right call, mainly because selling low on a player with a max-contract in the (hopefully) last days of a pandemic that’s ground the salary cap to a halt sounds like a bad idea. But considering how much Simmons let the team down, it may be the only move.

Simmons is only 24; it’s not like it’s too late to improve. Then again, this is his fourth NBA season, and I (remember, an extremely casual fan with limited knowledge) haven’t seen any meaningful development when it matters most. He no doubt took a step back this year, and while that’s not necessarily a permanent development, it’s concerning at best and unacceptable at worst. But then again, you rarely win a trade when you’re moving the best player involved, and that’s certainly what the Sixers will be doing in any potential Simmons deal. That especially pertains to players with elite talent, which Simmons does have, even if he was incapable of showing it for almost the entire playoffs. Few players can do what Simmons does and many that can do what Simmons can’t. It’s an incredibly weird conundrum that I’m happy I don’t have to solve.

Overall, this is such a challenging loss to handle. And it’s certainly a different one than any of the others I’ve alluded to, which is probably what makes it the toughest. The 2018 team was just happy to be there. The 2019 team I felt rushed into contention too quickly, but even they got to go out by pushing the eventual champs farther than anyone else. The 2020 76ers felt like a bit of a mess, but a fixable one thanks to their two stars.

Even the last Philly team to reach this stage, the 2019-20 Flyers, had a different feel. Unlike this year’s 76ers, a team expected to contend since Day 1, those Flyers came out of nowhere and were lucky to get as far as they did due to poor playoff performance from their best players. Ok, maybe that last part sounds a little bit familiar, right down to one of them dealing with an injury relapse. But their expectations simply weren’t as high as this year’s 76ers. And that one detail changes everything about the aftermath.

Right now, I don’t think anyone is interested in hearing about what went wrong. Mainly because most people already have (or at least think they have) a good idea. All that matters is what happens next. As previously stated, I’m not ready to drive Simmons to the airport yet, but for trading him to sound like a legitimately great idea to most of the fanbase (and at least an acceptable one to myself) is incredibly concerning. Joel Embiid is a borderline generational talent and (rightfully) there’s no way he’s going anywhere. But there will be some who think his durability (or lack thereof) is too much of a liability. Last offseason, the 76ers shook a lot up. The year before, they mostly ran it back. The 2021 offseason could fit either extreme, which usually means it’ll be somewhere in between, leaving everyone disgruntled for, at best, 11 long months.

And that brings us back to the very first word of this article: pain. It’s what every single Sixers fan is feeling right now. Even as a casual fan, it seemed like this year’s team was such a genuinely great group, one that felt capable of going the distance when the playoffs began. Heck, just a playoff run that lasts longer than a month, something that isn’t possible in the MLB or NFL and therefore hasn’t been seen in Philly since the 2010 Flyers (first playoff game: April 14, last playoff game: June 9) was seemingly a gimme… and now it’s gone.

Most Philadelphia teams suffer heartbreak coming from scratching and clawing only to come up a little bit short. This Sixers team suffered a different kind of heartbreak; one coming from having something within your grasp, only for it to be stunningly snatched away at the last moment. It’s hard to say which hurts more (I want to say the latter, but that may just be recency bias).

All night long, the Sixers were unable to take control of Atlanta, the East’s number five seed. They couldn’t take advantage of a rare poor night from the field for Trae Young. They couldn’t string together so much as a three-possession lead. And they couldn’t even find the “firing on all cylinders” level they’ve reached for at least a portion of every playoff game. When all they needed was their best game of the playoffs, the Sixers chucked up their worst. Anyone who watched tonight’s game saw just that. The Sixers were sorely lacking the killer instinct you need to win games like these, and flat-lined as a result.

I approved of the 76ers’ decision at the time, but it’s a fascinating “what-if” to think about now. If you have the stomach for it, that is (you probably don’t if you’re a Sixers fan).

There’s no good way to end this. No poetic justice. No valiance to take from the defeat. Nothing to quell the frustration and anger boiling in the streets of the City of Brotherly Love, a nickname that certainly feels ironic right now. Maybe one-day things will be different. The Sixers will win the big game. Simmons and Embiid and whoever is in the supporting cast will be heroes. And days like these will be forgotten. But that day is not today. So today, we sit and stare in anguish, wonder what could have been while dreading the reality of what is. That’s true pain: not just suffering, but being unable to stop it. And that’s where the 76ers are right now.

Follow Us on Twitter! Also check out the Vendetta Shop and our partnership with SimBull (learn more here)!