The Philadelphia 76ers (3-2) hosted the Atlanta Hawks (3-2) in a rematch of Philly’s disastrous Eastern Conference Semifinal series on Saturday night. The Sixers were looking to get as much revenge as one can get in a regular season affair in late October. The Hawks were looking to build more real estate in the franchise’s head. The Sixers exorcised some demons, throttling the Hawks, 122-94.
Before we get to the observations, some context is due.
The Hawks were without second-year center Onyeka Okongwu, who is recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
Nate McMillan started Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, and Clint Capela.
The Sixers were without Ben Simmons, who has yet to play a game this season due to personal reasons. Grant Riller, who is recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, continued to be unavailable. Aaron Henry and Jaden Springer were also unavailable as they tend to G-League assignments with the Blue Coats.
Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
There was an obvious physical mismatch between the two teams’ starting lineups. With Atlanta sporting a significantly bigger first unit than the Sixers do, it was theirs to exploit. And to their credit, that’s exactly what they looked to do early in the game. The Sixers were without adjustment when the Hawks looked to exploit the Curry on Hunter mismatch. Whether it was out of the post or on a face-up, Curry had no chance of bothering Hunter enough to force misses.
That’s a scenario where you might like to see Rivers adjust by having his team use scram switches to avoid that mismatch. But, the problem is that each of the other three perimeter stars are lacking requisite size or athleticism to counter what Atlanta is looking to exploit. So while an exotic adjustment might alleviate the present issue, the Hawks are one singular pass away from ripping the band aid off and exploiting a new size advantage.
Fortunately for the Sixers, recognizing and briefly exploiting that opportunity was just about the only thing that went well for Atlanta in the first quarter. Make no mistake, Philadelphia didn’t make life nearly as bad as they could’ve in the first quarter. The Hawks missed 16 of 22 field goal attempts and committed 5 turnovers. Yet, Philly only led by 13 points after the first frame.
A big factor in that lead not being significantly larger was Joel Embiid’s shot selection. The big fella settled for a handful of jumpers in the first quarter. That being the case, especially after having started the game 1 for 7 from the field, was puzzling because he demonstrated a physical capacity to get to the rim on multiple possessions in the first quarter. Perhaps that reliance on jumpers is just part of playing through knee discomfort. But that Embiid was able to get to the rim indicates that the shot selection just wasn’t very good.
Matisse Thybulle injected some life into The Center with a pair of obscene blocks in the first half. One came off of a cross-court sprint to contest a Cam Reddish corner triple. Thybulle’s momentum carried him right into Reddish’s path, and the defensive specialist spiked the ball five rows deep.
The other rejection came against Reddish, as well. This time, the Duke wing tried to elevate on a midrange pull-up, and Thybulle devoured him:
It would ordinarily be too early to be concerned about anyone. But, Shake Milton’s jumper consistently falls well short of the target. He rarely ever rims out long; Milton either redeems the bucket or grazes the front of the rim when loading up from beyond the arc. Such was the case last season, as well, which is why it’s concerning.
Tyrese Maxey has made a habit of tossing up jumpers fading across the lane when he senses contact instead of going right at the defender in front of him. Perhaps it’s an issue of upper body strength. Maybe the young Maxey thinks that that’s his best chance of getting shots off against more chiseled NBA bodies when the contact is there. But, officials likely see that shying away from contact and won’t reward fouls for that. Maxey is certainly fast and crafty enough to generate fouls. He should be getting to the line at a high clip. But that one habit inhibits his ability to sell contact.
Embiid pushed Philadelphia’s lead to 20 points early in the third quarter on a quick seal-off under the basket and finish. Alas, the fanbase’s PTSD burned bright as the summer sun. And you bet the Hawks made a run, cutting the 20-point lead to a 14-point advantage in less than two game minutes. But, the Sixers responded on the defensive side of the ball first and foremost. The five on the floor communicated on screens, maintained the right positioning, and operated with urgency. The result was a team defense that took the paint away from Atlanta’s offense. The Hawks connected on a couple of jumpers to put a Halloween scare into the Sixers and their fans. But, the volume of makes wasn’t enough to control the momentum.
Having stopped the bleeding, the offense relaxed a bit, and suddenly the lead was expanding.
Milton’s pick-and-roll game was especially encouraging as the second half progressed. He was commanding the ball, navigating ball screens with poise and not falling victim to strips on slap-downs. Milton was getting to his comfort zones and leveraging the space afforded him by his screener to play without thinking. Having established comfort, Milton carved Atlanta’s interior defense to shreds with finishes around the rim and short midrange jumpers.
A victory in October surely does not equate to the letdown of the Sixers’ playoff loss to the under-manned Hawks. But, Philadelphia built a 20-point lead, let it slip, and then rebuilt it back up in excess of 30. It’s only game 6 of 82. But, some demons were surely exorcised on Saturday night.
The Sixers (4-2) will host the Portland Trail Blazers (3-2) on Monday night. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.