Joel Embiid couldn’t have scripted a better start to Wednesday’s Game 5 against the Hawks. He couldn’t imagine a worse ending, either.
Through the first half, Embiid looked invincible, notching 17 points on a perfect 8-for-8 from the field in an electrifying first quarter, seemingly unaffected by his partially-torn meniscus. Led by Embiid, the 76ers opened up a 26-point lead and carried an 18-point advantage into the fourth quarter.
Then everything spiraled downwards. Embiid limped to the finish line, going just 1-for-5 in a quiet fourth quarter, missing his final four shots from the field. The Hawks, led by Lou Williams and Trae Young, caught fire to pull off a stunning 109-106 victory.
“We got too comfortable,” Ben Simmons, who finished with eight points and missed ten free throws, said. “We didn’t play the way we should be playing.”
Suddenly trailing by 3 with just 10.9 seconds left, Philadelphia had one last chance to avoid one of the more catastrophic collapses in playoff history. Embiid, driving to the basket, hunted contact and drew a foul. Yet the 86-percent free throw shooter promptly missed both, sealing the 76ers’ fate.
“Listen, we scored 19 points and gave up 40,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said of his team’s fourth quarter choke-job. “So, it’s on us. 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.”
They’ve left themselves with no room for error.
The series shifts back to Atlanta with the upstart Hawks up 3-2 with a chance to clinch a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals with a win.
“We’ll be back here for Game 7,” Rivers said. “I believe that.”