Watching the massively disappointing Philadelphia 76ers fall to the upstart Atlanta Hawks in the NBA postseason hammered a fact home: the deeper a team goes in the playoffs, the more important perimeter players become.
Joel Embiid was the league’s MVP runner-up and is a commanding two-way force. He averaged more than 30 points per contest in seven games against the Hawks, but the Sixers weren’t able to put away Atlanta, a disheartening display for a top seed with championship aspirations. If Embiid is that good, why wasn’t it enough?
As the decades have worn on, it’s becoming increasingly hard for big men to generate offense in halfcourt sets come playoff time, necessitating dominant perimeter play if a team dreams of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy one day.
Ben Simmons is a power forward masquerading as point guard. His disinterest in shooting jumpers has become one of basketball’s biggest running gags. Coupled with an uneven performance from forward Tobias Harris, the Sixers had little in terms of shot creation to balance out their superstar big man.
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It’s no surprise that the team that took the Sixers out deployed a 6’1” gunner who will launch threes from a step or two past the center court logo without a moment’s hesitation. It turns out a guy like Trae Young who can create his shot and is a pure bucket-getter is important in the playoffs!
Just look at the team Atlanta will be facing in the Eastern Conference. Giannis Antetokounmpo will never be known as a “shooter,” but acting as the de facto ball-handler for the Bucks, he went off for nearly 32 points per game against the Nets in the second round. That includes a monster 40-point effort in a road Game 7 against Kevin Durant.
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Devin Booker, relegated to scoring “empty” points in the desert for years with a subpar supporting cast, might lead Phoenix to the Finals in his first ever postseason. The “Suns in Four” dude will live in the minds of basketball fans for years to come, but it was Booker, with the addition of a true point guard in Chris Paul, who sent the Nuggets (and MVP center Nikola Jokic) home with a sweep. He averaged more than 25 points per game that round before putting up a whopping 40 points in the first game of the Western Conference Finals against the Clippers.
The Suns have an ascendent guard who eviscerated his way through the early playoffs with mid-range jumpers, threes and everything in between. Pair him with one of the best point guards of all time itching to get his first ring too and basketball fans are left looking at the best backcourt remaining in the postseason.
Not even some stitches and a bloody face can stop Booker from lighting up the scoreboard.
Sixers fans, on the other hand, may have no recollection of a guard hitting an outside shot in the playoffs since Allen Iverson stepped over Tyronn Lue 20 years ago. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, it just amplifies the fact that fans of teams starving for perimeter scoring will be scouring YouTube to see the last time their squad won big in the playoffs.
This isn’t to pronounce the death of the big man. Pairing Embiid with merely an above-average offensive initiator and scorer would’ve had the Hawks packing their bags for Cancun. Jokic’s Nuggets were bounced in four games due in part to craft guard Jamal Murray being out with a season-ending injury. They can be franchise linchpins, but without some firepower on the outside, it simply won’t be enough the deeper you get in May and June (and July for this year specifically).
The NBA Draft is next month. For teams dying to be a perennial contender, they better hope they snag a dude on the perimeter who’s ready to rack up points in the postseason.
Shamus Clancy is a freelance writer from Philadelphia. He is a diseased Eagles fan, an emo concert attendee and a loyal follower of the X-Men.
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