The Philadelphia 76ers (11-11) visited the Atlanta Hawks (12-10) on Friday night. Philadelphia was looking to right its wrongs from a loss to the Celtics on Wednesday. Atlanta was looking to establish a win streak following its victory over the Pacers on Wednesday. Joel Embiid’s jumper in the final minute of play sent the Sixers to victory, 98-96.
Before we get to what I saw, I owe you some context.
The Sixers were without Tobias Harris, who was dealing with a non-COVID illness. Ben Simmons, of course, is not mentally ready to play and missed another game.
Grant Riller, who is nursing a sore right shoulder, was unavailable. Jaden Springer, Paul Reed, and Aaron Henry (Two-Way) were on G-League assignments with the Blue Coats.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Georges Niang, and Joel Embiid.
The Hawks were without Bogdan Bogdanovic (sprained right ankle), De’Andre Hunter (surgery on tendon in right wrist), and Cam Reddish (non-COVID illness). Onyeka Okongwu, who is recovering from a right shoulder injury, was unavailable.
Sharife Cooper (Two-Way) and Jalen Johnson were on assignments with Atlanta’s G-League affiliate.
Nate McMillan started Trae Young, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Kevin Huerter, John Collins, and Clint Capela.
The ESPN broadcast introduced the game to the song Let It Rock by Kevin Rudolf. The beat, by itself, sent me back to middle school dances all over the Delaware Valley. Get your putrid Axe body spray, gum, and whatever the heck else you wore to those horrific gatherings and bask in the nostalgia. Side note — man, I’m old.
Tyrese Maxey stepped into an open midrange jumper early in the game, only to dribble out of the look and reset the possession. The Sixers already have one regular starter passing open open jumpers from a certain distance. To have another fall under that spell would be, well, Sixers-y.
The Sixers’ offense desperately needed someone not named Seth Curry or Danny Green to start acting like their normal selves. With Tobias Harris out, Joel Embiid was the one to answer the bell. Embiid was actively seeking positioning in the post throughout the first quarter. Attempting to establish position in the post by just walking your defender down to the block is one thing. Embiid planted his body down low, stretched his legs out to open wide stances, and stretched his arms out to demand the ball.
His teammates obliged, too. The shooting touch wasn’t there. But, he was utilizing his footwork and sense for contact to get Clint Capela in foul trouble early in the game. The MVP runner-up got to the line for 7 free throws in the first frame.
That’s as good a segue to my next point as any:
Might be wrong here, but looks like Embiid adjusted his FT mechanic a bit. Right foot no longer at the nail. Shifted his body a bit to the right. pic.twitter.com/koxcj1vc6K— Austin Krell (@NBAKrell) December 4, 2021
The early activity seemed to ignite some fire under Embiid, who was rolling to the rim off of screens with much more purpose in the first quarter on Friday night. Embiid has never been a good diver out of the pick-and-roll. Part of that is he hasn’t had much experience with traditional ball-handlers. The other part is that he just hasn’t trusted ball-handlers not named Jimmy Butler or JJ Redick to make the correct reads out of the action. At least with Ben Simmons, the logical — if not the most efficient — option was to pop. So, Embiid has always been one to pop more than roll. But, he made a noticeable effort to dive hard out of screens in the first quarter. If it didn’t yield direct scores or open up spacing, it got the big fella to the free throw line.
If only for one quarter, the Sixers completely unclogged their offense. Some will fairly point to Tobias Harris’ absence. When he’s not enduring a freezing cold stretch shooting the ball, he’s pounding the seconds off the clock with unproductive dribbling. While that theorem is fair and valid, the offense stagnated virtually every quarter after the first quarter. So, it isn’t all attributable to Harris. But without Harris’ aimless dribbling, the ball movement and player movement around the court was sensational. As a product of that flow, the Sixers were getting easy looks and cashing in.
There’s no denying that Harris is in a bad way at the moment. Part of that is his tendency to over-dribble and stall the offense. Might he recover from this poor stretch? You bet. Is he the primary factor in the team’s losing 9 of 13? Nope. His absence didn’t remedy everything on Friday night. But, the offense moved without him in the first quarter.
After I spent significant time explaining that Maxey’s scoring capacity should never truly evade him because of his ability to get to the rim, he went out and completely disproved me with his play over the last few games. He got significant run with the second unit, which is really Maxey’s opportunity to do whatever he wants with the offense. But, he wasn’t playing his game. He wasn’t playing with his quick bursts and gliding to the rim for simple finishes. Rather, he was playing as if there were Hawks defenders that weren’t actually present. Layups that could’ve been simple were made far too difficult due to unnecessary craftiness. He’ll learn to balance the craftiness with simplicity. But, Maxey left some points on the board that he usually has no problem redeeming.
When diagnosing why the Sixers were outscored 30-13 in the quarter preceding halftime, it’s really quite simple. First and foremost, you’re not going to win many games when your best player is as off the mark as Embiid is on his shots. Nothing is falling, and he’s taking way too many jumpers even when he gets the ball in his preferred spots. There’s nothing Rivers can do as the constantly-criticized head coach to solve that problem. He can’t make shots go into the basket. In a Simmons-less world, you need Embiid to be virtually unstoppable. Right now, he’s turning the key in the ignition and the engine is not responding.
Speaking of punishing defenses, the Sixers actually tried targeting Trae Young on mismatches for a change. The problem is, the mismatch was Danny Green in the post. Right idea, wrong guy. You cannot let Young get away with hiding on defense, though.
The other matter is that the team simply misses Ben Simmons. As much as the fans want to dehumanize and talk down upon “25”, 95 percent of the complaining the fans are doing right now isn’t there if Simmons is involved. Sure, the half-court offense is a slog, but he neutralizes runs by the opposing offense when the offense goes quiet. And when those deflections occur — those slight interferences that change the ball’s course as it travels through the air — it gets the Sixers out in transition and generates easy offense. Right now, Philly’s perimeter defense is horrendous. And they’re not getting any easy scores, either. So when you think about these horrendous quarters in which the opposition takes hold of the game, think of Ben Simmons.
Fault him for his lack of improvement, self-accountability, and handling of this whole situation. But you’re kidding yourself if you try to dismiss Simmons’ value.
For whatever reason, the guards in charge of bothering Trae Young decided to go under ball screens for the shooter. I don’t know if that was just poor coverage-calling by the big on the floor or coaching, but that’s just unacceptable pick-and-roll coverage. Your margin of error right now is so slim as it is. There is no way anyone should be going under screens on Young.
Embiid got it going in a big way in the third quarter, and he did it mostly under the basket. Some of it was being in the right place at the right time. But, he got a few baskets to go just by asserting his physical presence at the glass and over-powering Atlanta’s bigs.
If the Sixers’ ecosystem is going to be absent Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, the second unit offense must flow through Tyrese Maxey at all times. That should be the case whenever Embiid is not on the floor. The two absolutely have to build chemistry together. But for the sake of scoring points at all and saving viewers from bleaching their eyes, any unit not including Embiid has to run through Tyrese Maxey. He’s struggling badly right now, but that could very well be his adjusting to life with Embiid back. His speed and craftiness, alone, are major advantages when Philly is in a battle of second units.
The Sixers made their run in the fourth quarter, but of course it didn’t come without some incomprehensible offensive miscues. A word to the wise — if Danny Green is throwing jab steps and driving baseline, you’re probably not moving around him enough. Those are great opportunities for someone to flash to the post to relieve that pressure. Even if a post-up isn’t a favorable matchup, at least Green can make an entry pass and move away from the ball so that the play can reset.
While we’re on the topic of fourth quarter offense, the Sixers have played out their final possessions in two of the last four games without using timeouts to set their offense up. In both scenarios, the possessions went terribly. Against Minnesota, a bad turnover yielded Minnesota the game-winning shot. Against Atlanta, Danny Green was making an entry pass to Embiid from the logo with 5 seconds left on the shot clock.
At the start of training camp, Rivers mentioned that the team had the luxury of mostly picking up where they left off from last season. So with many of the concepts already in place, they were able to work on crunch time offense. It is something that they seem to put emphasis on in practice, so the execution must be better. At that point, the only question for Rivers is do they work on general schemes in practice, or executing actual plays in those simulations. They need to have better actions prepared for when they want to play out the final possession without calling a timeout.
I will assess some blame to Rivers for not running more looks for Curry to come off pin-downs for threes off the catch. I’ve written this time and time again, but Curry’s usage on the ball is exhausting. He can handle a bit and make some decisions, but he’s not a point guard. So, mixing in the occasional play for him to curl off a screen and pivot into a shot off the catch is so important to keeping him going while relieving some of his load. If Rivers feels comfortable with drawing such a shot up in an ATO, it should be a regular part of the offense, too.
Embiid’s ability to be a closer has been called into question before — and the criticism has been valid. But, he was masterful for the vast majority of the overtime periods against the Wolves and made a big jumper in the final minute of the lost to the Celtics. His struggles shooting the ball continued on Friday. But, he made two big plays when the Sixers needed them most. The first was a soft jumper that landed short but got the friendly roll to tie the game. The second turned out to be the game-winner with just under one minute to play in the fourth quarter. Even when they struggle for 67 percent of the game, superstars find ways to get the big hits when it comes to winning time. That’s just in their DNA.
The Sixers (12-11) will visit the Charlotte Hornets (13-11) for a two-game stay starting on Monday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.