June 20, 2021. It’s a date 76ers fans won’t soon forget.
At the end of the last quarter of Game 7 of the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals, Sixers star Ben Simmons had the ball in the post against Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari. Simmons pushed Gallinari back toward the block, away from him toward the baseline, and found himself standing right in front of the edge. With just Trae Young (6-1, 164 pounds) in the overall vicinity of Simmons (6-11, 240 pounds), it looked like Simmons had two easy points, and maybe one shot and one if Young hit the ball.
Oh! Simmons threw a surprising pass to Matisse Thybulle, who was fouled and made one of two free throws. Instead of tying the game with less than four minutes to go in regulation time, Philadelphia trotted back to defense down by one. Atlanta never lost the lead after that possession, eventually winning by a final score of 103-96 and advancing to the Eastern Conference finals.
“I mean, I’ll be honest,” Embiid said after the loss. “I thought the tipping point was when we, I don’t know how to put it, but I thought the tipping point was just that we had an open shot and we took a free throw. And we missed the other, and then they came down and scored.”
Simmons’ pass served not only as a turning point in Game 7, but also as a turning point in his relationship with the 76ers organization. Post-game comments from Embiid and Doc Rivers, who stated they didn’t know if Simmons could be a point guard on a championship team, couldn’t be dismissed as outside noise from fans and analysts. This was the best player and coach on the team officially speaking.
Constant business rumors and speculation followed Simmons throughout the summer. And yet, as of early December, he’s still a member of the Sixers, more or less. He’s not playing now despite being on the roster, which just made the situation even more complicated.
But what if Simmons had just spiked the ball and avoided that infamous moment? What would that alternate timeline look like? Let’s open three magic doors and find out.
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Gate n. 1: Ben Simmons dunks, but the 76ers keep losing
Apologies to the Philadelphia faithful, but your squad still falls on this stage.
On possession before Simmons’ crucial play, Hawks guard Kevin Huerter hit a jump shot to give Atlanta an 88-86 lead. The Hawks had a 59.7 percent winning chance at the time, according to ESPN, and it only increased down the stretch as they outscored the 76ers 15-10 in the final three minutes. Game 7 wasn’t just about a dunk that didn’t happen.
However, there is a big difference here. By eliminating the pass to Thybulle, the 76ers also eliminate comments from Embiid and Rivers. They offer more generic statements about the tough loss, and even compliment Simmons on his aggression on that play.
Simmons would not have been suddenly excited to return. Let’s not go that far. But would he have been on better terms with the organization? Would the communication channels have been more open?
Hey, the actual offseason couldn’t have been much worse, so, uh, maybe! (Also, Adele rejects Rich Paul. Too bad, buddy).
Gate # 2: Ben Simmons dunks and the 76ers advance
In this timeline, Simmons explodes for a dunk and propels his team into action. The Sixers proceed to recite their own 15-10 streak after tying the game, and advance to the Eastern Conference finals to face the Bucks.
Unfortunately for Philadelphia, the journey stops there. Giannis Antetokounmpo is too much for Embiid, and Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday slightly outperform Simmons. While the ending is disappointing, losing to eventual champions is much more palatable than collapsing against the Hawks.
Everyone in the 76ers organization still feels good about the season overall, and Rivers and his players enter the 2021-22 campaign motivated to show they can knock the Bucks off the throne. (Adele and Paul are dating, and everything is fine!)
Gate n. 3: Ben Simmons dunks and the 76ers win it all
Keep in mind that this is an exercise in thinking, and this is the best scenario for Simmons and the 76ers. It may sound completely unreal, but let your imagination take over.
Simmons hits Young with the ball and ends with a weak free-kick attempt. He then drains the free throw, electrifying the Wells Fargo Center crowd. This is a new turning point. It’s Simmons ‘version of LeBron James’ Game 6 blast against the Celtics in 2012. He’s finally ready to launch the narrative about his late-game fights in the dumpster and set it on fire.
A new and improved Simmons and MVP-caliber Embiid dispatch the Bucks in five games, and they enter the 2021 NBA Finals against the Suns as the favorites to win the title. Embiid dominates Deandre Ayton in the painting, and Simmons smothers Chris Paul and Devin Booker on the perimeter. Tobias Harris and Seth Curry exhaust a few timely shots, and the 76ers are their NBA champions. (Caught up in excitement, Adele and Paul get married in Las Vegas!)
Okay, that probably had no chance of happening, but it’s nice to dream about, right? At the very least, it’s a break from the reality the Sixers currently live in.