Home Basketball Atlanta Hawks Embiid’s last-minute heroics secure victory over Hawks in his return: Likes and...

Embiid’s last-minute heroics secure victory over Hawks in his return: Likes and dislikes

John Collins at the free throw line in Sixers-Hawks 11-28-22; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers (11-9) hosted the Atlanta Hawks (11-9) on Monday. Philadelphia wanted to extend its winning streak to three games. Atlanta wanted to snap a three-game losing streak. Joel Embiid made a clutch jumper and orchestrated a defensive stop in the game’s final minute to clinch a victory for the Sixers, 104-101.

Before we get to the action. some context is due.

Contextual Notes

The Hawks were without Bogdan Bogdanovic, who is recovering from a right knee injury. Jalen Johnson was out with a sore right ankle. Tyrese Martin was on assignment with Atlanta’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.

Nate McMillan started Trae Young, Dejounte Murray, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, and Clint Capela.

The Sixers were without James Harden, who is ramping up for a return from a strained tendon in his right foot. Tyrese Maxey was out with a small fracture in his left foot.

Jaden Springer has a strained right quad and was unavailable.

Joel Embiid returned to the starting lineup after missing four games with a sprained left mid-foot.

Doc Rivers started Shake Milton, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

Likes

The Sixers tested Atlanta’s resistance to dribble penetration often in the early-goings. Philadelphia ran the same Chicago action to get the likes of Milton and Harris going downhill on hard drives to the rim out of DHOs with Embiid. Speaking of Embiid, you could see the big guy buying into the offensive trends that earned Philadelphia a 3-1 in last week’s slate without the team’s three best players available.

Rather than clog up the offense and eat the shot clock with a little post-Thanksgiving feasting on the defender in his way, Embiid actively sought to be a creator for others. The Sixers’ superstar approached his positioning at the elbows and higher as a chance to weaponize his teammates as cutters and perimeter movers. Philadelphia ran numerous Chicago actions (pin-down screen into a DHO) on either side of the floor to create misdirections and ball reversals just to test how sensitive Atlanta’s defenders would be to shifting their positions on the floor. Embiid also kept an open mind in other types of plays. He spotted Harris with size mismatches down low and Milton and other teammates cutting when their respective Hawk defenders stepped out of position or fell asleep.

There were questions to be asked about how the Sixers would balance the great ball movement they played with during last week’s short-handed stretch while also featuring their star power. The early results were promising.

Paul Reed, probably for both the better and the worse, is displaying something new on offense — with confidence — every game now. Monday’s game featured a 12-foot isolation jumper in the first quarter.

Just when the Hawks made a push to gain separation in the third quarter, the Sixers unleashed a zone defense. They got back to what was so dynamite for them in last week’s games. It paid dividends immediately, the Sixers making Atlanta hesitate before driving long enough for helpers to close the pocket of space they were going to attack or forcing the Hawks to make extra passes leading into shots that just weren’t there.

That activity, and, really, the connectivity and communication that catalyzed it, helped the Sixers equalize the game and even take a brief lead before the fourth quarter. It was the latest adjustment in a line of recent coaching from Rivers that, if we’re being fair, has been quite excellent. His game strategies have been strong. He’s quickly carved offensive principles to counter the absence of the team’s best players. Rivers has also adjusted well on the fly and inspired total buy-in from his available players through adversity. The head coach and his staff have been nothing short of sensational lately.

Speaking of sensational, Harris didn’t just sit in the passenger seat with Embiid back in the middle. Harris, arguably the central figure to Philadelphia’s recent success, was the only one capable of putting the ball in the basket in the first half. It didn’t fade as it often does for him in the second half. Harris was the aggressor on drives to the basket, high-low actions, and post play. He even stuck a pair of triples, one coming from the right wing to beat the shot clock in the fourth quarter and punch Atlanta’s defense just when it seemed like they’d gotten a big stop. Some refuse to separate the contract from the player. But, Harris has been perhaps the most flexible Sixer through all of the team’s ups and downs.

Of course Reed is the only Sixer who knows to use jump-stops in traffic around the rim. His are exaggerated, as if he’s box-jumping into a plant. But man, he gets up when he wants to stop his momentum.

It was as much of a signature Embiid game as he could’ve had — well, besides scoring 59 points. He read the floor beautifully throughout the night, but also asserted himself when the game hung in the balance. When his team needed its best player to step up late with everyone else running dry on the second night of the back-to-back, the big guy answered the call. His midrange jumper was off throughout the night. But, he had a bullet left for when it mattered most, sticking one to give the Sixers a one-point lead in the final 30 seconds of the game.

He wasn’t done. On the very next defensive stanza, Embiid stepped up to bait a lob from Young, only to retreat back to the basket to disrupt a lob for Collins. He then retrieved the loose ball to secure the stop for the Sixers. It was one of his best two-way moments of the season, and it came when the Sixers needed one more string of big plays to win the game. 

Dislikes

I thought Embiid was almost selfless to a fault in the first quarter, sometimes blind to the the reality that the shots his teammates were making last week weren’t falling in this game. That’s when you need to assert your talents a bit to calm the oceans while the opposition is making waves off of your team’s missed shots.

A pretty stark contrast between the guard play and commitment to defensive rebounding from two of the Sixers last three opponents and the Hawks. Capela was all over the glass on both ends. He created extra shots for Atlanta when the Sixers watched the ball instead of boxing out. He and his Hawks teammates also took advantage of a brutal first half of shooting for Philadelphia. They limited the Sixers to one shot and kept them running to defend in transition to take a double-digit lead after both teams got out to hot starts.

As simple as it may sound, one of the sneaky inhibitors to Philadelphia’s first half offense was having to make entry passes to Embiid. The four other players on the floor really struggled to deliver passes that were on time with Embiid’s reach and on target with his hands. They threw a handful of passes out of bounds, ate up too much time trying to get the ball to him, or made him work too hard to establish himself for post-ups. You could tell that they hadn’t played post-up basketball in nine days.

The Sixers trailed at halftime because of their inability to make shots (42 percent from the field at intermission). A combination of unlucky bounces and rolls, with some poor touch. Having said that, I wouldn’t describe the first half as being officiated evenly. Young’s foul-baiting set the tone early. Atlanta got ticky-tacky calls the rest of the way. No problem with calling the game that strictly, just do it on both ends.

The Sixers didn’t settle for a bunch of outside shots, either. They got to the rim all half long. Yet, they only drew seven free throw attempts. It seems unlikely that the team tied for last in the NBA in opponent free throw rate somehow stayed disciplined with contact to the effect of only seven free throws for the offense ranking 10th in the NBA in free throw rate, especially when that offense attacked the interior as much as Philadelphia did. The Sixers were less than great defensively, but they also weren’t allowed to defend all that aggressively. Meanwhile, the whistle on their end didn’t do much to counter their offensive woes. 

The Sixers had an ATO play in the final two minutes of the game that I didn’t love. They swung the ball to the left side, eating up clock before getting the rock to Embiid. With such little time left and pressure coming, Embiid kicked out to Harris for a partially-contested three that missed the mark. A possession that started with promise as the ball moved from left to right ended up in the same old sticky nothingness that the Sixers would’ve produced only a few short weeks ago. Luckily for them, it didn’t prevent them from winning the game. 

The Sixers (12-9) will visit the Cleveland Cavaliers (13-8) on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.

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