Sixers-Hawks 2

The Sixers (16-15) hosted the Atlanta Hawks (14-16) on Thursday. Philly intended to extend its winning ways to two games. Atlanta hoped to snap a two-game losing skid. Bogdan Bogdanovic scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to send the Sixers to another defeat at the hands of a COVID-stricken team, 98-96.

Before we get to what I saw, some context is due.

Contextual Notes

The following Hawks were in health and safety protocols and were unavailable:

  • Trae Young
  • Clint Capela
  • Danilo Gallinari
  • Kevin Huerter
  • Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot
  • Lou Williams
  • Sharife Cooper

De’Andre Hunter was rehabilitating a right wrist injury and was out. Solomon Hill was also out with a torn right hamstring.

Nate McMillan started Delon Wright, Skyler Mays, Cam Reddish, John Collins, and Onyeka Okongwu.

The following Sixers were in health and safety protocols and were unavailable:

  • Danny Green
  • Shake Milton
  • Andre Drummond
  • Georges Niang

Ben Simmons is not mentally ready to play and was out.

Doc Rivers started Seth Curry, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

First Quarter

It was refreshing to see Matisse Thybulle attack a close-out from the corner and get to the middle of the paint early in the game. Even if that isn’t resulting in a score from Thybulle on the drive, it’s making the defensive move. On the play, he kicked to Seth Curry, who promptly imitated his teammate without a push into the driving lane.

More than anything, you want Thybulle to show life on offense. His shot is a lottery ticket on a night-to-night basis. So if he can punish a close-out and get to the teeth of a defense and make something anything happen, it’s a positive outcome. The problem with him — as it is with any non-Embiid Sixer doing anything — is consistently identifying and acting upon such opportunities.

It was a brutal first quarter for Tobias Harris. Aside from missing all three of his field goal attempts (granted, all were threes, much to the happiness of the analytics heads out there), Harris managed to tip the ball into Atlanta’s basket on a defensive rebound. Mixed in between all of that was the pace-crushing indecision that has cratered Harris’ play since his return from COVID. Whenever he caught the ball, Harris elected for dribbling the time off the shot clock until he eventually passed out of whatever he was attempting to do. With the dribble-itis raging, Philly’s offense ground to a halt.

Editor’s note: The Harris tip-in on Atlanta’s basket turned out to be the difference in the game.

Second Quarter

Tyler Johnson, who is undoubtedly from Delco, checked into the game and promptly attempted three triples in 5 minutes of play. He only made one, but that’s the mindset the Sixers need in their second unit. Quite frankly, they need it from the whole roster. The second unit, especially, lacks someone comfortable with calling his own number on offense. Many teams have players who will shoot their teams out of games. The Sixes have guys who are more inclined to commit turnovers than they are to chuck shots. It’s anyone’s guess as to what the future holds for Johnson in Philadelphia. But, the Sixes need reserves who merely need to see the rim to be encouraged to let it fly.

The Sixers, who trailed by as much as 19 in the first quarter, got back into the contest doing two specific things in the second frame. First, they put forth a concerted team effort on the defensive glass. Even if the ball popped off the rim and into no man’s land, smaller Sixers were there to secure it over out-stretched Hawks and deny Atlanta second-chance opportunities. The Sixers are 26th in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage thus far this season. Atlanta secured just 2 offensive rebounds in the second frame.

The other vehicle for Philly’s run before halftime was activity in the passing lanes. The defensive effort was obvious after a horrendous first quarter. With Atlanta feeling confident and the slightest bit careless with their passing, the Sixers took advantage and forced live-ball turnovers for run-outs.

Third Quarter

You will be hard-pressed to find a worse effort on both ends of the floor from the starting unit than the dreck they put out in this game. On the defensive side of the ball, they were content with allowing Atlanta’s wings — the only combo position of depth they had in the game — to clear ball screens and dribble into midrange jumpers as Embiid sagged back to the rim in drop coverage. Only after Reddish warmed up did the Sixers begin to blitz screens. But by that point, the Sixers were already facing a multi-possession deficit. The urgency came, but it didn’t need to take that long to arrive.

On offense, the Sixers just didn’t make meaningful passes. They love to use both sides of the court, but they run the same dribble hand-off nothingness that doesn’t actually progress the offense. You need to turn a corner out of the hand-off or screen, or show a roll in order for those actions to mean anything. For all intents and purposes, it was window dressing.

It’s been a brutal go for Isaiah Joe lately. He’s getting clean looks, but nothing is falling. It isn’t even as if the shots aren’t coming close. There were at least three shots in this game in which the ball touched two parts of the rim before popping out. Of course, his currency is three-point shooting. He doesn’t do anything else well enough yet to warrant minutes if shots aren’t falling. Unfortunately for him, “close” only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades.

Fourth Quarter

It was not the masterpiece Embiid painted in Boston on Monday night, but he saved his energy for the fourth quarter. It wasn’t so much his offensive focus that was great. Rather, he locked in on defense. Embiid danced between both the strong side of the lane and the weak side of the lane, shading Atlanta’s ball-handlers enough to stunt their drives while also recovering to the lurking Onyeka Okongwu in the lane. Atlanta bludgeoned the Sixers with midrange jumpers in the fourth quarter. But, they were the slightest bit hesitant to attack the rim.

Rivers and his team were left without the slightest idea of what to do once Bogdan Bogdanovic got going in the fourth quarter. They were perfectly comfortable letting Tyrese Maxey stand on an island against the bigger, more experienced shot-maker. And he burned them. Of course, that wouldn’t have happened if they had changed up their defensive schemes even a little bit. But, they kept switching screens with Bogdanovic as the ball-handler. As such, Atlanta just cycled through screens until Bogdanovic was isolated with Maxey. If Rivers had done anything — hard hedge, soft hedge, blitz, fight over, take Maxey off him — other than switching, one of those Bogdanovic isolations might’ve played out differently. 

The Sixers did get a stop on their final defensive stanza of the game. Even though Bogdanovic got the switch he wanted, Thybulle started the possession on him and aided in Atlanta’s not getting a shot off in time. The Sixers did get one final look — a kick-out to Embiid for a midrange jumper to tie the game at the buzzer. But just as most shots for Embiid on Thursday night, it was just a bit off.

That jumper summarized the whole night for Embiid, who never quite looked interested in willing his team to victory on the offensive end. Of course, it’s a bit different when Enes Freedom isn’t standing between you and the cup. Perhaps you can ask a seven-footer to take over games only so many nights per week, but Embiid never got anything going. He’s earned the benefit of the doubt with his clutch play this season, but he has to at least tilt his head towards the mirror in assessing why his team lost on Thursday.

The Sixers (16-16) will visit the Washington Wizards (17-15) on Sunday. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.