The Sixers (5-6) visited the Atlanta Hawks (7-4) on Thursday. Philadelphia wanted to build on Monday’s win over the Phoenix Suns. Atlanta wanted to right its wrongs from Wednesday’s loss to the Utah Jazz. A late third-quarter run from the Hawks doomed the Sixers, who were stuck in an abysmal offensive night, in a 104-95 defeat.
Before we get to the game, some context is due.
The Sixers were without James Harden, who is recovering from a strained tendon in his right foot.
Jaden Springer is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was not available. Michael Foster Jr. and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way assignments with the Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Hawks were without Bogdan Bogdanovic, who is recovering from a right knee injury.
Nate McMillan started Trae Young, Dejounte Murray, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, and Clint Capela.
Embiid made a concerted effort to play a more traditional game under the basket in the opening quarter, using his size to attack the basket and establish himself inside for shots at the rim and fouls. He’s vacillated away from three-point shots in his first two games back from the flu, playing a 15-feet-and-in game. And his early aggression and physicality was rewarded, Embiid getting to the charity stripe a handful of times in the first frame.
Aside from a nice wing triple at the third quarter buzzer a few games ago, it’s been a brutal start to the season for Shake Milton. He telegraphed a cross-court pass that was picked off for a live-ball turnover and then was completely dusted by Young on a drive to the rim in his first few minutes of this game. But, Milton responded well. While not exactly lighting it up in the scoring column, Milton pulled down 7 rebounds in 17 minutes of action. Good to see him use his physical traits to find ways to help the team when struggling elsewhere.
I was pretty unsure of what to make of Georges Niang becoming more of a driver out of the shot fake. Probably mostly because I didn’t buy it. But, he had Hunter jumping out of his shoes on the shot fake on Thursday. Better than that, he was comfortable trying to take him to the basket for finishes. I guess if Hunter, one of the better-regarded 3-and-D wings in the league, is falling for it and actually unable to recover back in front of Niang, maybe it’s a legitimate growth point.
It wasn’t the same inspiring start on the defensive side of the ball as the Sixers had against the Suns. In the first 5 minutes of the game, Philadelphia allowed Young to retrieve his own deflected lob pass and fouled him on the ensuing shot at the rim, surrendered an offensive rebound to the small guard, and permitted him to walk into a pair of short floaters just beyond the paint.
It’s one thing if even a moderately athletic and average-sized offensive player has that success early in a game by doing the non-glamorous work. But, to let the smallest guy on the floor outwork you to loose balls is unacceptable. And to give up uncontested floaters to one of the most dynamic ball-dominant guards in the league is a dead giveaway that your head isn’t into it on the defensive side of the ball.
The Hawks’ offense pretty much revolves around Young, despite their assortment of talent around the roster. Their style of play is such that keeping Young out of the paint or cutting off his dribble penetration can really silence Atlanta’s offense. The halftime numbers inflated the appearance of the Sixers’ defense because the Hawks just missed tons of open looks. While they were quite strong defending in transition, the Sixers had no answer for such a heliocentric offense.
That sounds like I’m downplaying how skilled Young is. Don’t get me wrong, he’s easily one of the best point guards in the NBA. But, he’s not an incredible vertical athlete or big in size. So, it shouldn’t be totally impossible to contain him. Atlanta doesn’t play with a ton of shot-creating counter-punch. So, that the Sixers didn’t seem all that invested in containing his dribble penetration was jarring.
Embiid was essentially Philadelphia’s only engine on either end in this game. But, he was incredibly sloppy with the ball. A bunch of nonsensical turnovers. They ranged from losing the ball while he was dribbling to making poor kick-out passes and playing to contact rather than executing his decision. There was one play in particular in which Embiid had Maxey open in transition, but decided to take it all the way himself. A questionable offensive foul call, but Embiid bowled right into Hunter. He tried to save a turnover by chucking the ball at the backboard in hopes of drawing a blocking foul.
Maxey has hit something of a wall over these last two games. It was as if he fell victim to the Space Jam curse in this one, none of the shots that he usually hits falling. It seems he’s trying to replicate Harden’s playmaking, electing to make passes in space that would typically be shots for him. The trouble at the rim is persisting, too. His reaction to contact and his own misses at the rim is somewhat combative. That makes it seem like Maxey is stuck in trying to play to and sell contact. Of course, that usually comes at the expense of actually making shots at the rim. The slump in his jumper is inevitable because no one can sustain shooting as well from the perimeter as he was. But, the scoring at the rim is supposed to sustain him through slumps, and it’s a problem right now.
The best thing he can do for himself right now is stop trying to be Harden. Just because the ball is going to be in his hands doesn’t mean he’s a point guard. He needs to get back to that shooting guard mentality, something he displayed consistently last season and had tremendous success in that frame of mind.
I almost think it would be better if Rivers used Melton as the de facto point guard while Harden is out. He’s shown that his playmaking in space is underrated. That would simplify Maxey’s job in some respects. The trouble with prescribing that idea is that perhaps Rivers has already done that. If so, it’s more on the players to buy in and execute that strategy. Of course, Maxey isn’t getting double-teamed the way Harden was. That can make it difficult to recreate the same environment Melton had success in while Embiid was out.
Speaking of Rivers, I’m not even sure a championship would win the fans back over. The approval rating seems like it can’t get any lower than it already is. I am pretty comfortable saying that Thursday’s outcome was far more about the proverbial lid being on the rim than it was anything else. A new coach doesn’t make you better at making layups and shots within 14 feet of the basket, which the Sixers couldn’t buy in this game. You factor in the putrid night of three-point shooting, and a fair judgment has to mention the fact that guys flat-out couldn’t hit the water if they fell out of a boat.
On the other hand, the effort on offense was absolutely horrendous in this game. And when the Hawks finally pushed out to a sizable lead, the lack of spirit flooded over to the defensive side of the court. Effort has to mostly fall on the players, who are paid millions of dollars to play basketball. It’s their professional obligation to show up and act like they care. If that isn’t happening, they’re overwhelmingly deserving of the ripping.
Although, it’s fair to look at the head coach and blame him for failing to command his players’ ears. I think the one thing that really falls on Rivers is the offensive structure. I don’t see any pick-and-roll game with Harden out. There are no off-ball actions, second-side actions, or creative sets. It’s a boring offense right now, and that’s on the administrator who installs those schemes.
One last thing on Rivers, he put the all-bench lineup in halfway through the fourth quarter and watched that group make strides. They got the deficit to single digits with less than three minutes to play. Rather than stick with what worked and reward those bench guys for their efforts, he inserted a couple of starters.
Disregard talent for a moment. What message does that deliver to those guys who fought to make the game competitive? What does it say to those starters you put back in? They lost their right to be in the game with their effort. Rather than continue the momentum that that bench group built, the new lineup flat-lined, ending any chance the Sixers’ had of a comeback. It truly made no sense. Roll with the guys who got you there.
This matchup will shift back to Philadelphia on Saturday when the Sixers (5-7) host the Hawks (8-4). Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.