Tuesday night was not normal at times, but the Philadelphia 76ers found their groove Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
They picked up a 118-102 game two victory over the Atlanta Hawks, evening their second-round series at a game apiece.
Joel Embiid guided the Sixers to the win by posting 40 points and 13 rebounds. Tobias Harris had 22 points, six rebounds, and four assists. Seth Curry scored 21 points and was 5-for-6 from three-point range. He limped off the floor in the third quarter but returned to the action in the final few minutes.
Here’s three takeaways:
Key matchups cause early lead
The Sixers had a 23-6 lead thanks in large part to how well they took advantage of Harris’ matchup against veteran forward Solomon Hill. With De’Andre Hunter (right knee soreness) out again, Hill wasn’t able to handle Harris, who scored four quick points in transition and 12 overall on 6-for-7 shooting within the first 5 minutes and 10 seconds.
Curry had the hot hand early in the third quarter against Hill, persuading the Hawks to place Kevin Huerter and put Bogdan Bogdanovic on Curry. In general, the Sixers have run their offense through Curry and his Allen Iverson cuts more in the playoffs than during the regular season. That’s a great idea when he’s playing with confidence and shooting so well.
Though the Sixers lucked out a bit with missed close-range shots early on by John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic, their defensive effort and execution was much improved. The Hawks missed their first five three-point tries and 11 of their opening 14 field goals, looking badly rattled by the Sixers’ run the same way they’d been during the fourth quarter of game one.
Embiid drew two first-quarter fouls on Clint Capela. Backup Onyeka Okongwu had two soon enough, as well. Atlanta sent a bit of help defensively in Embiid’s direction throughout the night, although not a ton.
It seemed the most significant obstacle for Embiid might be foul trouble. He picked up his third foul with a minute remaining in the second quarter. The runner in the MVP race attempted to power through Danilo Gallinari, who hit the ground. Both Embiid and Gallinari then were called for technical fouls for a contentious post-whistle exchange.
Capela is a well-regarded defender, but it almost never appears the man guarding Embiid matters. His strength, outside shooting skill, position of offensive tricks and instinctive sense of how to use them is a tremendous package. All of those qualities are still in abundance even as he plays through a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee.
An unlikely hero
Instead of getting an all-second unit lineup, head coach Doc Rivers kept Harris on the floor with his bench late in the first and early in the second quarter.
Still, not for the first time, the Sixers’ bench looked shaky and strained offensively. The defensive weak spots were obvious, too. Dwight Howard is a natural target for opponents in the pick-and-roll, Furkan Korkmaz isn’t known as an exceptional defender, and Tyrese Maxey, though always game, is a 6-foot-2, 20-year-old rookie.
Rivers subbed Maxey out for Simmons, but that didn’t help as the Hawks cut the Sixers’ lead down to two points on a Lou Williams jumper. Danilo Gallinari’s size and jump shooting were problems for the Sixers as the veteran power forward scored 15 points in the first half.
The Sixers’ starters punched back right away, creating three turnovers, profiting with sharp transition offense and re-establishing a nine-point advantage.
Kevin Huerter (20 points on 8-for-10 shooting) also caused trouble for the Sixers. The Hawks had an absurd 32-0 bench scoring advantage at halftime, the main reason they trailed by just two despite the Sixers’ dominant start.
A Shake Milton three-pointer and Matisse Thybulle fast-break layup were the first points from the Sixers’ bench. They were important contributions, too, coming during a chaotic stretch of the game late in the third quarter.
Milton drained a 32-footer at the third-quarter buzzer, a massive lift for the Sixers heading into the final quarter. He was still rolling to start the fourth, hooking up with Howard on a lob, sinking a mid-range jumper and making another three.
Though he shot 4-for-19 from the floor in the first round against the Washington Wizards, Milton wasn’t doomed to playoff failure. The 24-year-old, who finished with 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting in 14 minutes, was too good to be stuck in a funk forever.
Simmons gets what he wants, and does well
Rivers made the unsurprising adjustment of starting with Ben Simmons on Trae Young. Danny Green guarded Bogdanovic.
Determined not to allow Young to speed up freely off of the Hawks’ double drag actions, the Sixers seemed more willing than in game one to switch.
“We can’t let them turn the corners,” Rivers said Monday. “It’s usually a 1-4-5 on the double drags, and what we do with the 1-4 part has to take him out of the quick turn of the corner. Trae Young going downhill is not good for any team, and he did that too much yesterday. So we have to slide him off a little bit. That’s not really being more physical. That’s just body position. A lot of our problems were due to bad body position.”
When Simmons and Thybulle share the floor, the number of good defensive switches available for the Sixers increases. With Thybulle guarding Young late in the first quarter, Simmons switched onto the 22-year-old and blocked a long three-point attempt.
Embiid still played mostly drop coverage. He did his best to toe the line between blocking Young’s path to the hoop and giving himself a chance to get back to the rolling big man. Not an easy task, especially for a player dealing with a knee injury. Again, he didn’t move as if the injury was foremost on his mind or affecting everything he did. He was downright spry at times, in fact.
Simmons said after game one that he wanted to guard Young. Indeed, it made sense for the Sixers to put their two best perimeter defenders on the opponent’s top perimeter threat. Stopping him isn’t that simple, of course, but it’s a start.
Young had 21 points on 6-for-16 shooting and 11 assists.
Simmons recorded four points and seven assists. The Hawks intentionally fouled Simmons with 3:10 left and he missed both free throws. Interestingly, Rivers then subbed Simmons out, putting Milton into the game.
At this point, it’s clear Simmons free throws aren’t usually producing efficient offense for the Sixers. He’s now at 32.5% in the playoffs.
Game three will be Friday night in Atlanta.