The Sixers (5-7) hosted the Atlanta Hawks (8-4) on Saturday night. Philadelphia wanted to right its wrongs from a loss to the Hawks on Thursday. Atlanta wanted to sweep the home-and-home series with Philadelphia. Joel Embiid led the Sixers with 42 points as the Sixers outlasted the Hawks, 121-109.
Before we get to the game, allow me to set the scene.
The Hawks were without Onyeka Okongwu, who was out due to personal reasons. Bogdan Bogdanovic missed the game recovering from a right knee injury.
Nate McMillan started Trae Young, Dejounte Murray, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, and Clint Capela.
The Sixers were without James Harden, who is recovering from a strained tendon in his right foot. De’Anthony Melton was unavailable due to stiffness in the left side of his back.
Michael Foster Jr. and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were out.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Rivers tempered expectations a bit for Embiid, who was battling the flu and managing plantar fasciitis, before he returned to the court. But, the early results have been quite promising. He got to the line for 16 free throws against the Suns, asserting his physical supremacy throughout that game. His scoring was the only reliable source of offense for the Sixers in Thursday’s loss to the Hawks. The turnover habit has reared its ugly head in those first handful of games, with 11 giveaways between those first two games. But, Embiid continued the positive pattern in the first quarter, pouring in 14 points on 7 field goal attempts and 5 free throw attempts.
I thought the early offensive success bled into Embiid’s defense, the big guy making a point to lock in at various levels of the team’s defense. He stepped out to help trap on the perimeter and participated in team rotations to help teammates who sold out to contest shooters that had been left open. But, Embiid didn’t neglect the rim either, making a point to linger around the basket when he could to alter shots in the paint. It was a near flawless first quarter for the big man, who dished 4 assists against zero turnovers and pulled down 4 rebounds, in addition to his 14 points and excellent defensive activity.
Aside from a much improved offensive product thanks to better dribble penetration and ball movement, the Sixers jumped out to a fast lead in this one because of their efforts on the defensive glass. They stayed focused through defensive possessions, not mentally checking out for offense when the shot went up. They also didn’t just assume Embiid would be there to retrieve the ball as it careened off the rim. Everyone held box-outs and beat nearby Hawks to long boards. Much of Atlanta’s early offense was one-and-done possessions. And with 15 missed shots and the second of a pair of free throws missed, Atlanta was on its heels trying to get back in time to offer the Sixers some resistance in transition.
After struggling with efficiency and shot-making for three games, Maxey snapped out of his slump in a big way. The biggest thing was that he stopped trying to over-compensate for Harden’s absence. There were no pre-ordained or forced passes, and Maxey stopped trying to make complicated reads. He didn’t try to be a playmaker, instead simply catching and slamming his feet on the gas pedal. He didn’t fall in love with the triple, taking them when open but otherwise playing to his drive and zooming past just about everyone in his way for buckets at the rim. Maxey also stopped playing to contact, navigating traffic and focusing on getting the bucket rather than treating the rim as a decoy for his real goal of getting to the free throw line. The charismatic guard played freely, and his body language and burst reflected a much more satisfied guard.
It’s a shame Furkan Korkmaz departed the game with a left knee injury in the first half and never returned, because he was having a really nice night off the bench. He didn’t even have to use his jump shot. It seemed like he took advantage of being on the last page of Atlanta’s scouting report, the Hawks biting his ball fakes and leaving the ground. Korkmaz used that lack of discipline to get to the rim for a handful of floaters and layups.
Lot of foul calls on both sides early in this one. I wouldn’t even say they were bad calls, even if some were a bit soft. But, it really killed offensive rhythm and flow for both teams and made the game a boring watch in the first few minutes.
At some point, Thybulle is just what he is. After all that was made of him improving as a shooter, Thybulle is still as unwilling to shoot as ever. I actually think the Sixers have coached him up on dribbling the ball to the nearest capable dribbler if he isn’t immediately comfortable shooting when he catches the ball. That is supposed to serve as an “anything is better than nothing” cover-up for the fact that he’s completely unwilling to shoot. That way, his hindrance to the offense is a little less glaring. But, even that has a shelf life.
It was so bad in this game that he actually caught the ball in the corner, didn’t even look at the basket, and dribbled to Embiid. But because Thybulle also isn’t anything of a passer, any type of obstacle in the passing lane makes it difficult to get the ball to the desired recipient. So, Thybulle’s unwillingness to shoot ultimately pushed Embiid all the way out to the three-point line to retrieve a pass with his back to the basket with less than 10 seconds on the shot clock. At this point, believing that Thybulle has any development in the tank might just be a fool’s errand.
Maxey’s effort to make himself as little a negative on defense as possible is admirable. But, he has a bright bull’s eye on his back right now. Anyone and everyone is trying to back him down in the post. If not that, opponents are more than happy to isolate against him. His lack of size renders Maxey an easy matchup because they feel comfortable shooting over his outstretched arms. Even if it’s a good contest, Maxey has no chance because he lacks the height and length to alter shots. And to try to compensate for his shortcomings, Maxey becomes a bit too aggressive and physical as he tries to keep pace with his assignment, accumulating fouls quickly. Sometimes, trying too hard on defense can be a detriment. He has to find the happy medium between over-compensating for shortcomings and using the tools he does have to his advantage.
It wouldn’t be a Sixers game without them sprinkling in some seasoning to draw a flavor similar to the taste of their Game 5 loss to the Hawks in the second round of the 2021 playoffs. And in some regards, the way in which a 27-point lead was cut to 11 points late in the third quarter bore similarities to that infamous loss to the Hawks two playoff runs ago. Scoring became impossibly onerous for that team because the point guard shut down on offense due to free throw woes. With the adrenaline running out in the second half of that game and the team’s energy reduced to fumes, no one could make a shot to pour gas on Atlanta’s second-half surge.
That problem didn’t exist in this game. I generally thought the Sixers got good looks as the Hawks went on their run, Embiid getting a handful of shots at the nail and elbows and Maxey getting to the rim. The bounces were less gratuitous and there was less air under the ball. As the minutes piled up, the heliocentric nature of the offense became a detriment. Atlanta moved the ball from side to side, making Philadelphia exert energy to try to accumulate stops. The Hawks got contributions from numerous guys to get back into the game, while Philadelphia’s entire offense ran through Embiid and Maxey.
I feel like I’ve said this often in recent days, but off-ball actions and multi-level screening plays would’ve helped generate other sources of offense. So, while the Sixers didn’t get bad shots, they could’ve gotten much better shots if there had been any depth of offensive structure. That’s where Rivers comes into play. That’s where even a double-digit victory can leave a bad taste because of what it devolved into. The Sixers earned the win, but it didn’t have to be that close. Any diversity of offense would’ve helped keep people away from the edges of their seats.
The Sixers (6-7) will host the Utah Jazz (10-4) on Sunday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.