The Philadelphia 76ers made the reputation that they were one of the NBA’s best defensive teams this season. They didn’t play like that team in the first half Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center, losing game one of their second-round series by a 128-124 score against the Atlanta Hawks. A fourth-quarter surge wasn’t enough to pull out an unbelievable win. 

Trae Young posted 35 points and 10 assists. 

Joel Embiid had 39 points, nine rebounds, four assists, and three blocks. Tobias Harris posted 20 points and 10 rebounds. 

Embiid was a game-time decision, playing through a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. Hawks forward De’Andre Hunter was sidelined by right knee soreness and replaced in Atlanta’s starting lineup by Solomon Hill.

Here’s three takeaways:

Awful 1st half defense kills Sixers

The Sixers’ start was disastrous defensively. The Hawks took a 42-27 lead after the first quarter by shooting 16-for-22 from the floor and 6-for-12 from three-point range. 

Danny Green started on Young, and that matchup did not go well, at all. Young killed them with deep threes, drives into the paint with sparse resistance, lobs to Clinch Capela, and floaters. 

He recorded 25 points and seven assists in the first half. Both the on-ball defense from Green and the rotations once Young snuck into a dangerous area were poor. On top of that, the Hawks sunk some tough looks. Perhaps the most memorable was a contested 27-footer from Young with 29.7 seconds to go in the second quarter.

Ben Simmons began on Bogdan Bogdanovic, who nailed two quick threes. 

Turnovers were the other big problem for the Sixers. They committed 12 in the first 14 minutes, leading to 16 Hawks points. Atlanta extended its lead to 20 early in the second quarter when rookie Onyeka Okongwu slammed in a fast-break dunk off of a Dwight Howard turnover. Playing loose, free and fast sounds great, but that style obviously can’t correspond with so many giveaways in a playoff game. 

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers called a timeout but, despite his bench’s woes, didn’t rush the Sixers’ starters back into the game ahead of schedule. By the time the first unit was back on the floor, the Sixers trailed by 26, a situation worse than the greatest pessimist could’ve imagined. 

Rivers trimmed his rotation to 10 players in the first half, leaving out Shake Milton until the fourth quarter, but the more relevant fact is that he played all five bench players simultaneously as the Hawks’ lead ballooned. Not the only reason why the Sixers lost the game, but a curious call nonetheless. 

Embiid played tremendously through injury

The Sixers made seven of their first eight shots, with the only miss an Embiid three-point attempt from the top of the key. He converted another shot from the same spot, drew an early foul, and threw down a dunk when Capela tried and fail to pick off a post entry pass. 

Embiid also fired a cross-court skip pass to Seth Curry for a three when the Hawks sent a double team. The Hawks seemed comfortable giving him that pass as long as Embiid turn over the ball, although they didn’t find it necessary to double team him much.

Overall, Embiid didn’t look like a player dealing with an injury. His first stint lasted 9:32 and exhaust wasn’t an apparent issue.

The good news for the Sixers is, as long as Embiid doesn’t suffer any setbacks, he seems capable of producing as he did all season. The bad news is he just played 38 minutes on an injured knee.

Late rally comes up short

To no one’s surprise, Simmons defended Young to start the third quarter. He picked up two fouls playing tight defense well behind the three-point line, though, which led Rivers to turn back to Green.

Rivers doesn’t want Simmons to spend all of his energy chasing Young from the beginning, but the Sixers’ best bet is the man playing the majority of minutes against him.

Matisse Thybulle was the other Sixers defender of note on Young, one who should arguably be on him more. Rivers unsuccessfully challenged a third-quarter foul on Thybulle that Young sold effectively. Of course, Sixers fans didn’t like it as they chanted “ref you suck” at the referee.

If the Sixers repeat their second-half defense on Young for the remainder of the series, they should be stylin’ and profilen’. Young had 10 points on 3-for-10 shooting and two assists after halftime. 

Simmons and the Sixers played with more confidence and focus to begin the third, finding transition opportunities. Curry and Green each had three-point tries that would’ve cut Atlanta’s advantage to 12 points. 

The Sixers kept the outcome in suspense until the final seconds as an Embiid layup with 1:01 remaining made it a three-point game. Bogdanovic hit a dagger of a three with 28.7 seconds left.

Give the Sixers credit across the board for not quitting on the game and giving tremendous effort to make the Hawks sweat late. Atlanta was shaky at times in the clutch as losing a 26-point lead appeared to be a real possibility.

Even once it seemed safe for the Hawks, Simmons came up with a steal and dunk to trim Atlanta’s lead to 126-124 with 10.5 seconds to go. Bogdanovic then made two foul shots.

It’s not a victory, but the Sixers will head into game two having shown they can significantly outplay the Hawks for long stretches.

For the game, Simmons had 17 points, 10 assists and four steals. He made 7-of-7 field goals but was only 3-for-10 from the foul line. Excluding his 5-for-8 performance in game five of the Sixers’ first-round series against the Wizards, he’s 8-for-30 on free throws in the playoffs.

Up next

Game two will be Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Center.