Philly, stand up! The Philadelphia 76ers (49-23; 4-1) hosted the Atlanta Hawks (41-31; 4-1) in game 1 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series on Sunday. Philly was looking to take a 1-0 lead in the series and capitalize on its home-court advantage. Atlanta was looking to set the tone for the series and steal home-court advantage with a victory, as well. Doc Rivers’ failure to make in-game adjustments doomed the Sixers in the first half of the game, and they never recovered. Although Philly fought back to cut the deficit to two points late in the fourth quarter, they ultimately succumbed, 128-124.
Before we get to what I saw, let’s set the stage.
The Atlanta Hawks were without De’Andre Hunter (right knee soreness), Cam Reddish (right achilles soreness), Kris Dunn (non-COVID illness), and Brandon Goodwin (respiratory condition).
Nate McMillan started Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Solomon Hill, John Collins, and Clint Capela.
Despite the uncertainty regarding Joel Embiid’s status after he suffered a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee in game 4 of the team’s first round series against the Wizards. But, Embiid was cleared to play in game 1 on Sunday. Beyond his ‘Questionable’ status up until game time, there were no Sixers listed on the injury report.
Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Without De’Andre Hunter’s threat, the Sixers felt comfortable showing blitzes and hard hedges against Trae Young early in the first quarter. Rivers talked about the respect he had for Atlanta’s wings leading up to this series. But, with Solomon Hill starting for Hunter, Philly felt comfortable gambling on the pick-and-rolls with Young. They were willing to live with Hill burning them. That defensive coverage is predicated on Hunter’s availability throughout the rest of the series. If he can play, that certainly isn’t a coverage the Sixers can sit in on consecutive possessions.
“So, if the refs aren’t gonna call so many fouls and I can be physical and be 6’10”, then I’ll be 6’10”. But, we’ll see.”
Young got going early in this game in large part because the Sixers were willing to test out the waters with Danny Green on him. I wrote about the possibility of Green covering Young in my series preview and felt somewhat comfortable with that assignment because of Green’s size and discipline. But, Young’s shiftiness and ability to change directions on a dime left Green in the dust. With no one in front of Young to slow him down, the third-year point guard wrecked havoc with dribble penetration in the first quarter.
Ben Simmons certainly seemed up for the task of taking primary duties on Young. “I’ll probably do that [switching Danny Green off of Young]. I mean, I want to,” Simmons said after the loss. “So, if the refs aren’t gonna call so many fouls and I can be physical and be 6’10”, then I’ll be 6’10”. But, we’ll see.”
Once the Hawks got going, the Sixers lost their focus rapidly. Philly committed 9 turnovers in the first quarter and allowed Atlanta to jump out to a 15-point lead on nearly 73-percent shooting in the first frame. Some times teams are going to get absurdly hot. But, the Sixers did not help their own cause by giving Atlanta nine extra possessions.
In addition to the stubbornness with leaving Green on Young, Doc Rivers was way too lenient with the all-bench lineup in the first half. The gross disparity in the teams’ second units aided a 15-point deficit at the end of the first quarter in swelling to as much as 26 points in the second quarter. The Green stubbornness and second unit reliance combined for Rivers’ worst half of coaching in his first year at the helm in Philly.
“I just gotta keep managing it and hope for the best.”
There was one good thing that came from the first half. Embiid did not look uncomfortable at all. He was lingering on the perimeter perhaps a bit too much. But, his fluidity out of the post and ability to adjust to what Atlanta’s defense was showing were promising. You hope the first half was just a massive punch in the mouth. But, there is a lot to feel confident about seeing as Embiid looked healthy.
Embiid touched on playing through the knee injury after the game. “It’s alright. Playing on a torn meniscus is, I guess, not easy. But, it’s alright. I just gotta keep managing it and hope for the best.”
Even with an abysmal pre-intermission, the Sixers cut the deficit to 20 points at halftime. In the modern NBA, that’s a manageable deficit headed into the third quarter.
The Sixers made somewhat of a push to get back into this game early in the third quarter. But, a string of question shot selection aided Atlanta in restoring order. I don’t care if you’re flinging up triples when the attempts are good looks. But the Sixers were settling for them as first looks in transition when they were trying to mount a comeback. An occasional three to break the defense’s back and super-charge the momentum is great, but to rely upon threes is not wise. Take the two points and focus on getting stops. In a game in which the threes were not falling, the insistence upon settling for heat-check shots certainly bailed the Hawks out of executing on the defensive end of the floor.
“We absolutely can be better in the way we rotated.”
I want to re-iterate that I could not be more in favor of three-point shooting. In fact, the Sixers found themselves in this deficit from a box score standpoint because they lost the math battle. Atlanta connected on 20 of its 47 three-point attempts. Philly knocked in 10 of 29 attempts. The Sixers are not going to suddenly re-invent their offense to match Atlanta’s three-point prowess. But, they absolutely cannot allow Atlanta to get some of wide-open looks they were getting in this game.
Those looks stemmed from slow rotations resulting from having to help contain Young. With the rush to recover, all Atlanta really had to do was make the extra pass to whomever was in the corner. That’s how Kevin Huerter was able to burn the Sixers with open triples. Huerter delivered a number of back-breaking triples in this game. Rivers saw the same thing I saw, apparently. “Just us trapping and rotating. We absolutely can be better in the way we rotated,” Rivers said after the loss. “I mean, listen, we got a ton o looks, too. It’s one of those make-miss games in that department. They made them all, we didn’t make them. But, we can be better in the way we rotated for sure.”
Now look, the Hawks have enough weapons that you can’t realistically plan on shutting them all down. However, the Sixers simply cannot surrender open triples the way they did in game 1. Maybe the byproduct of more aggressive off-ball defense is that Young averages 40 points per game in the series. But, Young averaging 40 while his main shooters are neutralized is likely less damaging than him averaging 30 points and 11 assists in the series. Rivers has often talked about taking away the rim and taking away open threes. The eye test indicates that Philly did not do either all that well in game 1.
“But, we put ourselves in that situation at the end of the game.”
The Sixers, to their credit, fought their tails off to get back into game 1 in the fourth quarter. They made their inroads by applying full-court pressure and betting that Atlanta’s youth would show through with the heightened pressure in the backcourt. Ultimately, the adjustment came too late to matter. Still, the guts to stay with it despite being out of the game for its vast majority is a positive takeaway. That’s something the Sixers can take into game 2. However, the 1-seed shouldn’t need moral victories. In fact, moral victories for a 1-seed are moral losses, really. The Sixers were punched in the mouth early, and Rivers’ horrendous feel for this game were why the Sixers are left with moral victories. Now, the 1-seed has to salvage game 2 to avoid hitting the road down 2-0.
The fact that the Sixers were in that situation to begin with was not lost on Tobias Harris’ mind after the loss. He was not interested in ‘valiant effort’ victories. “That was disappointing. I mean, for sure, being on our court, game one of the second round, disappointing. But, we put ourselves in that position at the end of the game,” Harris said. “Lack of focus on correct plays defensively. We weren’t where we needed to be. They made shots, but we put ourselves in a position. Here we are, so we have to get our minds right. Go back to the drawing board, adjust on some things and come back for game two and be ready.”
The Sixers (0-1) will host the Hawks (1-0) on Tuesday. Game 2 will tip-off at 7:30 PM EST. You can catch the action on TNT.