Photo by Wayne Terry, TPL

Your Philadelphia 76ers (41-21) were back in action on Friday night, hosting the Atlanta Hawks (34-29) once again. The Sixers demolished the Hawks in the first game of their two-game series in Philadelphia on Wednesday. Philadelphia netted 60 points off its bench and pulverized the Hawks once again, 126-104.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Hawks were without Bogdan Bogdanovic (sore left hamstring), Kevin Huerter (sprained left shoulder), De’Andre Hunter (sore right knee), and Cam Reddish (sore right achilles). Nate McMillan started Trae Young, Tony Snell, Solomon Hill, John Collins, and Clint Capela. 

The Sixers were fully healthy for a second consecutive game (no, you’re not dreaming). Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid. 

First Half

The Sixers opened the game hedging pick-and-rolls to stunt Trae Young’s angle to push downhill. I thought it was the right strategic decision, and then they inexplicably went away from it. Young was able to crack the interior and connect on a barrage of floaters. The drop has become quite the popular coverage around the league because it funnels ball-handlers to the basket against bigger rim protectors. The drop also isolates the handler against the big, thus reducing free throw attempt rate because the lane isn’t as crowded and that ultimately translates to less contact. So, it’s excellent for preserving fouls and forcing quick ball-handlers into a vacuum against a big.

“A lot of times, it’s feel of a game and what you’re reading.”

The negative end of the spectrum is that it invites dribble penetration and floaters. In the modern game, floaters are basically layups for the game’s best lead guards. Trae Young did precisely that to burn the Sixers early in this game against the Hawks, and it allowed Atlanta to build a 13-point lead in the first quarter.

Danny Green talked about the decision-making behind the defensive schemes after the game. “I don’t know if it was communicated through our lines because sometimes guys make a mistake, some guys don’t get the call, sometimes they don’t get the communication right,” Green said.

He continued, “Sometimes we’re just throwing different things at guys, what we read. Sometimes Trae [Young] will come off aggressively, sometimes he won’t. John Collins will hurt us from the arc so we have to get back to him. Or, Clint Capela is rolling hard and we get a lob, so it’s really not always set in stone. A lot of times, it’s feel of a game and what you’re reading. Sometimes the bigs read, Jo will read or Dwight will read how hard a big is rolling and how much a guard is coming up and hurting us. So, it’s a quick call you have to make or decision you have to make out on the floor. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

The Capela Effect

The feng shui changed for the Hawks when Clint Capela picked up his second foul just five minutes into the game. Without the imposition of Clint Capela to stalk the paint, the Sixers were noticeably aggressive hunting the rim. Simmons was isolating his mismatch and pushing the lane, and Thybulle was purposefully cutting to the rim. The vacated interior gave the Sixers new life, and they got themselves back into the game before the end of the first frame.

The dismissal of Capela, although temporary, also invited the Sixers to feed Embiid for deep catches around the rim to create easy scores. The Hawks had absolutely no answers for that, and Embiid was able to accumulate 15 points before halftime. Those deep catches have become the foundation of the Simmons-Embiid high-low relationship. When Embiid has mismatches down low, Simmons’ first look in the halfcourt and in transition is to lead his big to the rim with a pass over the extended arms of the former’s defender. If all goes right, it’s an easy pivot and score for Embiid. With Capela sitting with early foul trouble, the Sixers punished the Hawks that way early and often.

“So, when you have three solid defenders out on the floor, it allows all the other guys to play.”

Philadelphia’s second unit was actually able to build some distance largely because of the presence of George Hill. While Hill did not light up the box score, he still sparked some of the layered passing that Philly utilized to create open looks on offense. Beyond that, his activity and leadership on the defensive end of the court were critical in Philadelphia registering stops and building momentum with sequential scores and defensive stands. 

Rivers lauded his bench’s recent play after the victory. “I love it. I mean, I think they’re all playing well. Dwight’s playing really well, really focused right now,” Rivers said. “Our guys, we have speed, man. I mean, think about it. That’s even including Tyrese, which we can throw him in at times, as well. So, when we have shooting and speed and able to defend the way they are doing it right now, you know, George is a helluva defender, Matisse is a helluva defender. Dwight’s a rim protector. So, when you have three solid defenders out on the floor, it allows all the other guys to play.”

Simmons At The Block

When Simmons catches the ball on the block, he tends to push the middle of the lane instead of going towards the glass. He will pivot into a face-up and have a clear angle to go either way, as he does here:

Ben Simmons/Screenshot via NBC Sports Philadelphia

That’s confounding for a player who shoots squared jumpers and free throws with his left hand. It almost defies basketball intelligence, as he is actively chooses to go where multiple help defenders can converge. If he goes to his left, he can push the rim with one helper potentially rotating over. Even then, he has the luxury of using the glass. Obviously, Simmons admires that right-handed baby hook in the middle of the lane. From the position above, he actively chooses to get to a spot where he can comfortably fire with his right. My point is that this tendency is yet another sign that Simmons is more right-handed than left-handed. I don’t know if we’ll ever see that change, but it certainly makes you wonder if there would be any difference in his willingness to attempt jumpers if he took them with his right hand instead of his left.

The Sixers took control of the affair when they began showing on pick-and-rolls with Young. Atlanta’s offense stagnated in the face of Philadelphia’s swarming rotations, and a three-point deficit at the end of the first quarter turned into a seven-point lead. That then escalated to a twenty-something-point advantage. Young got his in the first half, but the Sixers effectively controlled his damage as a playmaker. The guard out of Oklahoma scored 16 points in the first half, but the Sixers led by 19 at intermission.

Second Half

Furkan Korkmaz’s off-ball movement is a development that you see on a nightly basis but don’t always consciously realize you’re seeing it. Korkmaz isn’t just floating around to the vacant spot on the perimeter and finding himself catching the ball. Rather, he’s intuitively misdirecting defenders and proactively searching to get open with off-ball movement. He’s not agile enough to scare anyone, but defenses cannot forget about him. His constant movement, by itself, stretches defenses because they cannot gamble in help out of fear that he might sneak away from their reach.

Dwight Howard’s strength is simply preposterous. It feels like you see him go up around the rim with defenders draped all over his shoulders every game and he simply powers through that gravitational pull. That’s a wonder that hasn’t escaped Howard with age, either. He’s done that his whole career, and it’s been instrumental in his ability to be an and-1 machine. In this game, he had three of them.

Just when it seemed as though the Hawks had finally wrangled him, Howard found ways to lift the ball just over the top of the rim to complete the basket. He may pick up silly technicals (which sometimes aren’t even warranted) or commit unnecessary fouls. But, dammit, he’s still as strong as he was back in his ‘Superman’ days. It’s still a wise business decision to get out of the way whenever he pivots to face the rim, too, because there is no hero out there capable of protecting the rim when Howard has the advantage for a punch.

“I’m gonna stay with what we have.”

This was the second consecutive game in which Mike Scott did not get any run until the game was already decided. It seems as though Rivers has finally reached the point in the schedule where he’s comfortable relying on his top nine players for minutes at multiple positions. You weren’t always sure it would reach this moment. But, Rivers watches the same thing all of us do at the end of the day. Scott cannot be in a playoff rotation, and the team is young enough to play guys a few more minutes here and there to make up for the lack of depth at the backup four spot. It appears it was really just about extending those minutes for everyone else at the right time so as to not tax the regulars too much. 

Rivers spoke to his reserve rotations going forward after the victory. “I’m gonna stay with what we have. That doesn’t mean we won’t [whittle down the rotation],” Rivers said. “But, this is a group that has proven that they can do that. Now, there may be a mixture more, where there’s always a starter with that group. But, for the most part, I’m not skipping this group on the floor.”

Another Bball Paul Highlight

Paul Reed gave everyone another glimpse of that two-way ‘unicorn’ play that people crave. He rejected a Hawk at the rim, pushed the rock in transition himself, and flushed one on another Hawk to break Sixers Twitter. That really was a perfect encapsulation of the whole game for Philadelphia. Once they got the lead back in the second quarter, they executed to a tee on both ends. The Hawks simply were not equipped to keep pace.

The Sixers (42-21) will head to San Antonio to visit the Spurs (31-31) on Sunday. Tip-off is set for 8 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.