Teams normally don’t come back from what the Philadelphia 76ers just did — an epic choke job that saw them squander a 26-point lead in Game 5 at Wells Fargo Center against the Atlanta Hawks to suddenly find their backs against the wall, trailing 3-2.
There’s no other answer to the collapse other than that the Sixers got complacent with a healthy lead, took their foot off the gas pedal, and couldn’t get it back going when they suddenly drifted into dangerous waters.
It’s a move that an inexperienced team might encounter in the playoffs — not the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed that should be making a far more serious push to get to an NBA Finals. And it left the Sixers searching for answers on a deflating evening in Philadelphia after being outscored 40-19 in the fourth quarter.
“At the start of the fourth is when they started to gain momentum,” Sixers veteran forward Tobias Harris said. “We didn’t get any movement offensively in what we were doing, and then defensively, we were just non-existent out there for their run.
“That was really the game shifting and into the fourth quarter where we’re trading baskets, and then they ended up making good plays, making threes down the stretch, and scoring pretty much every single time down. That just hurt us.”
It all went wrong. Whether it was offensive ineptitude or a sieve-like defense, or horrendous free-throw shooting that cost them down the stretch — most notably when Joel Embiid missed both when trailing by three with 10.9 seconds to go — the Sixers gift-wrapped momentum, and potentially the series, to an underdog Hawks team that continued to defy the odds on Wednesday night.
“We just slowed it down too much,” star guard Ben Simmons said. “I think we got too comfortable with that lead and slow it down too much. The spacing also, when I run, it is hard, so I think if we do those things, it’s gonna open up and then give me my lanes to be aggressive.”
Now the 76ers are headed back to Atlanta to try and steal Game 6 on Friday night (7:30 p.m. ET) the road just to force a Game 7.
“It’s on us,” head coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s on all of us. It’s on me, it’s on the players, and we have to figure out how to get back up.”
And it’s on them if they bow out of the playoffs much earlier than expected this weekend — which will only set up another dizzying offseason of speculation and questions surrounding the legitimacy of this team.