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Doc Rivers pulled off another playoff choke job with the 76ers

Other playoffs, another early exit for Rivers.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Monday morning and every Sixers fan on the planet is playing the blame game. A season that held so much promise came crashing down once again, with the Atlanta Hawks taking their Game 7 matchup, 103-96, to move on to the Eastern Conference Finals and end Philly’s season.

Ben Simmons is firmly in the crosshairs after a five-point performance in a game the team desperately needed more from him. Simmons proved this series that he might be one of the most athletically gifted players in the NBA, but when it comes to leading a team it’s a little like getting rushed by a yapping chihuahua, albeit a chihuahua that can’t hit free throws either.

While it’s fair for Simmons to be a lightning rod, putting too much attention on him distracts from the elephant in the room: Doc Rivers. The veteran coach is known for blowing leads in the playoffs, and he did it again. Doc chokes so much he should come with a warning, like how you should cut up grapes for a toddler. Sunday night was the latest chapter in his book of choke jobs, and Simmons is merely a footnote when it comes to the coach’s playoff ineptitude.

Rivers also blew a 3-2 lead in the 2010 NBA Finals. So yes, it’s easy to blame Ben Simmons and turn him into the lightning rod for Game 7, but I’ll be damned if Rivers isn’t the key attached to the kite screaming “take me now, mother nature” before being struck by lightning.

The core issue seems to be that Rivers fails to adjust to what he’s seeing in playoff matchups. In the biggest moments of his season, his “strategy” often turns into hubris. At a time where every team condenses their rotations and focuses on their stars, Rivers is out there playing the same, regular season ball and getting punished for it over, and over, and over again.

The Sixers went 10-deep in their rotation on Sunday night, giving significant minutes to George Hill and Matisse Thybule, with nothing to really show for it. Meanwhile the Hawks played nine guys, but were able to lean more heavily on their core. This isn’t some kind of wild, new-fangled thinking. NBA teams have been shifting to a short rotation in the playoffs for years and years, but Doc is still stuck thinking his way is best — even when the results are showing otherwise. In Game 7 the Sixers were outscored off the bench 24-15, despite the Hawks using less players in their rotation, and giving their bench less minutes. That’s sad.

Keep in mind that Rivers was bounced from Los Angeles following the Clippers’ 2020 playoff collapse against the Nuggets because the feeling was he couldn’t adjust to get over the hump. Let’s look at those games, shall we?

  • Game 5: Clippers blow 16 point lead, lose 111-105
  • Game 6: Clippers blow 19 point lead, lose 111-98
  • Game 7: Clippers blow 12 point lead, lose 104-89

Now, for fun, what happened this year with the Sixers?

  • Game 4: Sixers blow 18 point lead, lose 103-100
  • Game 5: Sixers blow 26 point lead, lose 109-106
  • Game 7: Sixers are outscored in final three quarters, lose 103-96

Doc Rivers might as well quit basketball and became a trumpet player, because dude blows more leads that Dizzy Gillespie. When it came to breaking it down after the game, Rivers was given an out by shifting the blame on Simmons, and unlike the Sixers point guard, he didn’t pass up the shot.

One person wasn’t buying it: Josh Smith. Smith, who played for Rivers on the 2015-16 Clippers went on a tirade following the game, in which he not only torched his former coach, but peed on the ashes. Smith’s rant was explicit, but here’s a little snippet:

“Yeah Doc Rivers, you talked all that sh** about Paul George and how Tyronn Lue is gonna have the same offense. Shut your bum ass up man, your no in-game adjustments havin’ ass, man.”

It remains to be seen what happens now. Rivers was a hasty hired by Philadelphia, executed before Daryl Morey entered as GM — so it’s not like the team has a lot of motivation to move forward with the NBA’s biggest perpetual under-achiever, but if they do there’s a chance the whole roster could be blown up. Simmons, who is most to blame of the players for the team’s collapse, could be traded — and it seems likely, especially if Doc stays and doesn’t believe in him. It would officially end the dream of Simmons and Joel Embiid becoming staple stars of the NBA for the next decade on the same team, but at this point Simmons needs a career reinvention, because what’s happening right now isn’t working.

Doc won a championship in Boston in 2008, and he took the Celtics to the Finals again in 2010 before falling short in Game 7. At a certain point, these playoff failings are becoming as important as his triumphs.

Of course, maybe nothing changes. Perhaps Philadelphia enter next season with the same roster, the same coach, the same schemes and beat their head into the wall once again. It would be perfectly appropriate, because never changing and failing to get results is in Doc Rivers’ basketball DNA.