The Philadelphia 76ers (1-1) were back in action on Friday night. They were visiting the Hawks (1-1) in Atlanta for game 3 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series. Philly was looking to steal back home-court advantage for the remainder of the series. Atlanta was looking to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 showdown. The Sixers outscored the Hawks by 15 points in the third quarter to put themselves in control of the game and steal back home-court advantage in the series.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
All Sixers were available for game 3. Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Hawks remained without Cam Reddish (right achilles soreness) and Brandon Goodwin (respiratory condition). In the days between game 2 and game 3, the Hawks announced that De’Andre Hunter underwent surgery to repair a torn right meniscus. He will miss the remainder of the playoffs. Nate McMillan started Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Solomon Hill, John Collins, and Clint Capela.
It very well might just be a product of the attention that Trae Young warrants as a playmaker and shooter, but Bogdanovic was getting a fair share of open looks on corner triples early in the first quarter. Bogdanovic has been an assassin through the first two games of this series. He should be the second player accounted for every time the Sixers get back on defense. Making him catch the ball with minimal space beyond the arc is priority 1-B.
Fortunately for the Sixers, the ball wasn’t bouncing Atlanta’s way in the first frame. The Hawks could’ve very well piled up a double-digit lead in the first eight minutes of play. But, the basketball gods were not in the blessing mood on Friday. The Sixers got away with poor rotations defending the perimeter in the first quarter. That wasn’t something they got away with in game 1 or, for the most part, game 2.
Danny Green left the game in the first quarter with a strained right calf. He did not return. Doc Rivers did not seem too hopeful about Green’s playing prospects in the upcoming games in this series. “I have no idea, it’s a calf injury,” Rivers said after the victory. “Just my doctor’s degree, I would tell you that calf injuries aren’t great.” Rivers later added, “I’m not ruling Danny out, but I’m pretty much ruling him out. I doubt if he plays the next game.”
“Being on a team like ours, it could be a different guy every night who brings that added effort.”
The reason that game 2 was close at all was Philly’s second unit. They lost the bench battle 32-0 in the first half of that game. That was why Atlanta was able to stay competitive in a game they had trailed by 18 points in the first quarter. Ever since Shake Milton broke the lid off the basket for the reserves, the second unit’s offense has flowed without much problem at all. The Sixers’ second unit won the second half of game 2 by a 26-17 tally. In game 3, the momentum continued.
Furkan Korkmaz supplied a pair of triples and self-provisioned a tough floating layup in the first half. Dwight Howard finished through crowded spaces and cleaned up the glass in his first stint off the bench. Shake Milton knocked in a triple to put the Sixers up double-digits and played with a degree of poise that he had previously lacked in these playoffs. Matisse Thybulle was his usual handsy self on defense, but sprinted out for a pair of open-court finishes in his minutes.
According to Tobias Harris, that element of randomness is what makes the NBA playoffs must-watch television. “That’s the thing with the playoffs and the beauty of the playoffs. Being on a team like ours, it could be a different guy every night who brings that added effort,” Harris said after the victory. “You saw in the first half Furk get hot out there and got his swag and his confidence shooting the three out there. He made a big three, as well, in the fourth quarter. So, you just love to see it. He’s a guy who works his tail off day in and day out. I’m happy that the moment came and he really took advantage of it, for sure.”
The only member of the second unit to truly struggle in the first half was George Hill. He continues to be timid with the ball in his hands and is failing to cash in on opportunities at the charity stripe. It’s easy to wonder whether the thumb injury he dealt with this season is having some lingering effects that are influencing his production.
But, the Sixers didn’t trade for him because they needed a flashy live-dribble scorer. They needed a stabilizer to keep the second unit together. Philly just needs him to be a net positive in his minutes. But even then, he’s clearly passing up on open shots. That’s worrisome.
A Discouraging Response
After debatably being snubbed for Defensive Player of the Year (I thought he was), it was quite discouraging to see Ben Simmons respond with such a profound struggle in the first half. He was completely unaggressive, not even looking at the rim when he caught the basketball. Much of his early play revolved around watching the offense unfold in the dunker’s spot.
When he did have the ball, he was looking to get rid of it with hot potato urgency. There was one play in which he had a look at a reverse layup with less than 3 seconds remaining on the shot clock. Instead of taking it, he kicked it out to Seth Curry, who promptly committed a shot clock violation.
That was a flash from the Ben Simmons of playoffs past, the guy who will likely get traded in the offseason if the Sixers fall short of expectations. That guy is likely going to be one of the main reasons the Sixers’ offense is not good enough to win the title, if that ends up being the outcome when the season is over.
Furkan Korkmaz started for the injured Danny Green in the second half.
Whatever transpired at halftime obviously woke Ben Simmons up. After a disastrous first half, Simmons settled into the game and slowly took control of the affair. He scored 11 points in the quarter. Most encouraging was that none of them were cheap dump-offs in the dunker spot, either. Simmons was isolating Danilo Gallinari on the wings and blowing by him for finishes at the rim. If Gallinari could even stay with him, he was wrapping Simmons up and forcing him to make shots from the charity stripe.
The catch, of course, was that Simmons was actually able to convert some of the freebies. Simmons also leveraged his size, speed, and ability to change directions to manipulate Atlanta’s transition defense. With the Atlanta defenders in his way off balance and reeling to recover, Simmons was pushing the pace and zooming past them to get to the rim. Simmons came to play in the second half, playing entirely to his strengths as a conductor in transition. His dominance pushed a 5-point Philly lead to 20-points late in the third quarter.
“I always think when you start him out passing on the post, then he gets aggressive in the game.”
Simmons deserves all of the credit for taking it upon himself to play the way he did. But, the marked change in mentality in game 3 is just another example of how well this coaching staff has pulled the strings in these playoffs. Whether it be lighting a fire underneath the second unit, feeling out random rotational changes when the team needs a change, or motivating the starters to be better, the coaching staff has done a masterful job of adjusting and pulling strings this season and in these playoffs thus far.
After the victory, Rivers spoke about what transpired that changed the way Simmons approached the second half. “We told him we’re going to come out and feature him on the post and be aggressive, but to pass first,” Rivers said. “I always think when you start him out passing on the post, then he gets aggressive in the game. He was great for us, it’s exactly what we need. With his face and power, it was great.”
“I’m gonna keep getting back up, I’m gonna keep fighting.”
Joel Embiid landed awkwardly on his foot after securing a defensive rebound. He winced in pain for a moment and flexed his left leg, but was ultimately able to stay in the game. Embiid was re-inserted into the game in the middle of the fourth quarter and almost immediately tumbled to the deck after violently landing on top of Capela while trying to contest a finish at the rim. Embiid grabbed his knee and was clearly in a bit of pain. He was able to stay in game 3.
He might not feel great, but Embiid doesn’t plan on letting anything get in his way. “I’m okay. I’m standing up, I’m walking. I finished the game,” Embiid said after the victory. “So, I’m gonna keep getting back up, I’m gonna keep fighting. That’s been me since I started playing basketball. So, I’m going to keep fighting. That’s been my motto–whatever happens, get back up there and keep it going.”
Hawks fans took to cheering for the big fella’s pain for the second time in this game. Listen, I know Atlanta fans generally don’t know what winning looks like, but act like you’ve been there before. Every fanbase has bad seeds. But, cheering for an opposing player’s injuries is distasteful and classless.
Taking Care Of Business
The Hawks went on one final run to try to get back into game 3, but the Sixers remained calm and poised to capitalize on their opportunity. I was rather impressed by Philadelphia’s ability to get back to their core principles to close the game out. They weren’t trying to re-invent the wheel or play hero ball. They simply locked in on the defensive end of the floor and allowed that to create their transition opportunities on offense.
The Hawks were the victors in thirteen consecutive home games. They had won 21 of their last 23 games in Atlanta. Philly was unintimidated and controlled throughout. The Sixers (2-1) and Hawks (1-2) will play game 4 on Monday night. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM EST. You can catch the action on TNT.