Photo by Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

It’s do-or-die time, Philadelphia. The Sixers were back in Atlanta to visit the Hawks on Friday in game 6 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series. Philadelphia (2-3) was looking to avoid a colossal series meltdown and season failure by forcing a game 7. Atlanta (3-2) was looking to put the Sixers to bed and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Tyrese Maxey with a flurry of energy off the bench, helped the Sixers force a game 7 by beating the Hawks in Atlanta, 104-99.

Before we get to the main event, allow me to set the scene.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers remained without Danny Green, who was nursing a strained right calf.

Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Furkan Korkmaz, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The Hawks did not have De’Andre Hunter (right meniscus surgery), Cam Reddish (right achilles soreness), and Brandon Goodwin (respiratory condition).

Nate McMillan started Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, John Collins, and Clint Capela.

First Half

Whew, boy. The Sixers certainly played like a team that was terrified of losing. But, they weren’t scared of losing to the Hawks. Rather, they were scared of losing amidst the lofty expectations of this season. Embiid was getting stripped from weak-side helpers in the post and on the face-up. Even when he wasn’t getting stripped, the MVP runner-up was forcing unnecessary shots way too often. Simmons committed early fouls that he hadn’t committed in the previous five games. Harris was missing both short and long on looks that he’s knocked down all season. In the first quarter, Seth Curry was the only Sixer who calmed down and started to focus on his job. He knocked down a pair of triples in the opening battle.

“I talked to him this morning and told him, ‘You’re going to be alive because you’re going to be the first guy off the bench’.”

It feels like nine out of every ten times Tyrese Maxey gets minutes, I’m writing a section of my game story on “where would the Sixers be without Tyrese Maxey?”. It certainly held true in the first half. The key, of course, being that Maxey didn’t play afraid. He was his typical agile, speedy, energetic, and confident self. The rest of the team started to respond to his play, too. Philly trailed by 12 points when the starters left. The Maxey-led second unit brought the Sixers back to tie the game. They could’ve used such positive output in games 4 and 5. But given the horrendous first half from most of the starters, the second unit kept the Sixers in it through halftime. 

According to Doc Rivers, the move to insert Maxey was not a last-ditch effort, though. “The first two games I thought he struggled. They game-planned him. He’s young, you could tell he didn’t know what to do,” Rivers said after the victory. “They were taking him away from the basket. We showed him a bunch of film. I talked to him this morning and told him, ‘You’re going to be alive because you’re going to be the first guy off the bench. Tonight, we’re going to go to a different lineup.’ But then, the fouls kind of killed us actually early on.”

“So, someone is going to be open, so we just got to stay connected as a team.”

I can understand Joel Embiid being distraught after putting everything he had into game 5 and still losing. But, his body language and general disengagement in the first half was the difference between Philly trailing and leading at halftime. He looked a step slow on both ends of the floor and was settling for jumpers against matchups he had taken to the rim earlier in the series. Defensively, he was over-playing the pick-and-rolls with Young and forfeiting lobs to Capela at the rim. It could very well have been related to his knee. Such would be understandable after the amount of work he had to do in game 5. But again, the body language and engagement did not give Embiid the benefit of the doubt.

Embiid insisted that those rotations that left the lane vacant for lobs were supposed to be part of a grander defensive adjustment. “He [Trae Young] made two or three threes in the first quarter. So, we had to adjust by me coming up or by me trapping the pick-and-roll,” Embiid said after the game. “Obviously, if you’re going to do that, they’re going to get a lot of lobs. So, someone is going to be open, so we just got to stay connected as a team. Whether it’s when I’m trapping or if I’m coming up, we got to help each other and trust that someone is going to help.”

Sixers Fans Blaming The Coach? I’m Shocked!

The Sixers fanbase is very eager to blame Doc Rivers for this meltdown. But, they already blamed one coach for everything. At some point, it’s not the coach causing all the problems. I think Ben Simmons’ play in this series has circled the underlying issue in bright colors. Simmons’ issues continued in this game. He was barely looking at the basket to score and did very little in the way of providing tangible value in the first half. To his credit, he was a bit more active off of the ball as a screener. But, he was saddled with foul trouble for much of the pre-intermission.

Whether the Sixers win this series or not, none of the problems go away. It’s very hard to run a very good offense because Simmons kills Embiid’s spacing at spots were the MVP runner-up should be most lethal. I believe people underestimate just how different the offense would look with another handler and creator. Hell, look at how things opened up with Maxey on the court.

It’s not even the lack of shooting development from Ben Simmons. The lack of touch around the rim is the part that cannot be excused. When Simmons goes through these lulls of incredible passivity, Rivers is severely hamstrung with what he can do. You can’t just bench Simmons because he does bring value as a transition facilitator and defender. But, Rivers doesn’t seem to have the tools to re-program Simmons’ mindset. Every season, it becomes likelier and likelier that this is just who Simmons is. So, instead of firing another head coach, the changes will need to involve the personnel on the court.

Off The Schneid

It was certainly nice to see Tobias Harris let all of his frustrations out in the first half. Harris finally started connecting on the perimeter shots that had evaded him in the previous two games. The Sixers would’ve put this series away already if he had just given them anything in the second halves of games 4 and 5. They will need him to rediscover that rhythm to pull off what has slowly begun to feel like a miracle. 

Second Half

Seth Curry came to the rescue once again in the third quarter. He knocked in five triples in the post-intermission frame and injected some oxygen into an offense that had begun to find a rhythm in the second quarter. To be fair to Ben Simmons, he aided in some of the looks Curry was receiving. Simmons was more aggressive in pushing the pace in the third quarter and was able to generate a number of open looks for his shooters just by pressuring the middle of the floor in transition. Obviously, Simmons’ moments of brilliance have been few and far between this series, but he rediscovered a bit of that intangible offensive value that has been the identity of his career.

The George Hill acquisition has been a disaster since the moment the team told the public that he’d be out indefinitely as he recovered from the thumb injury. He hasn’t been able to find an offensive rhythm at all since stepping on the court for the team, and he’s done almost nothing in this series. I don’t know that it’s fair to blame Morey and his brass for trading for him because the team desperately needed a secondary ball-handler to smoothen the bench. However, they gave up perhaps their best backup center as well as future second round draft capital to get him. While it certainly wouldn’t take an unconscious level of play to win back the balance of that trade, it certainly seems to be a loss at the moment.

Hill is rarely looking at the basket when he catches the ball and is very quick to acquiesce to what the defense is showing and turn back on the angle he’s already created with his drives. He’s become very passive as a shooter and as a scorer in general. Other than for some quick movement within the flow of the offense, there’s really no value derived from Hill being on the floor. There’s no excuse for Maxey to not receive his minutes come game 7.

“That’s something you gotta do when you got a team with a lot of shooters out there.”

Seth Curry was sneakily massive in the Sixers’ defensive rotations all game long. When the Hawks got out in transition or when there was a slippage in Philly’s half-court rotations, Curry did a phenomenal job of hustling to the close-out and recovering from the first pass to contest the recipient of the second swing pass. His urgency locked up Atlanta shooters on a number of occasions and saved relatively open three-point looks. Maybe those shots don’t go down anyway. But, you don’t leave questioning whether they would’ve anyway, you leave questioning whether you could’ve defended better when those shots fall. 

According to Curry, he was just playing desperately on Friday night. “That’s something you gotta do when you got a team with a lot of shooters out there. You got to guard multiple things,” Curry said after the victory. “You want to take away the threes, but you can’t just take away the threes. They can beat you in the paint with the dribble penetration. So, there’s going to be a lot of scrambling situations and guys who were desperate tonight. We played with that desperate energy on the defensive end.”  

The Hawks implemented the world-famous hack-a-Simmons defense in the fourth quarter. Simmons went 2-for-4, and Rivers was forced to take him out of the game so that Philly could retain some continuity on the offensive end of the floor. While 2-for-4 is nothing special, I credit Simmons for not completely falling apart at the line after the playoffs he’s had and the memory of game 5 still fresh in his head. It’s a very low bar to begin with. But, he at least showed some ability to rebound under pressure instead of just completely falling apart when once again facing the center of his current terrors.

“We also told him down the stretch of the game. We’re going to need him on the floor with Ben because we needed a ball-handler.”

The Sixers were faced with a bit of a flashback to game 5 in the fourth quarter. The game dangled in the balance in crunch time, and the Sixers were begging to just score enough to keep the Hawks at bay. Rivers went back to Tyrese Maxey, who had given the Sixers an incredible lift off the bench throughout the game. I thought it was the obvious and perfect decision to close the game.

Even though Maxey has fallen into and out of favor with Rivers throughout the season, the head coach trusted his rookie guard to do what he’d done all game. Maxey responded perfectly, playing the part of a secondary shot-creator and quick-burst guard to alleviate some of the offensive slog that the Sixers fell into when their backs got tight. That’s something they will need to be quick to go to in game 7 if the flow of the game dictates so, fourth quarter or not. Maxey has proven too quick off the dribble and too effective around the rim to not do so.

Rivers’ inside look at his conversation with the rookie guard didn’t just stop at the first rotation of the game. “We also told him down the stretch of the game. We’re going to need him on the floor with Ben because we needed a ball-handler,” Rivers said after the victory. “You know, when Ben brings it up, they foul. Even under two because they have the ball. So, by putting it in Tyrese’s hands and making Ben a picker, it allowed him to stay on the floor and allowed us to still run our offense. So, it worked out for us.”

Crunch Time

Unlike on Wednesday, the Sixers did a better job of getting into offensive sets quickly in crunch time. They ran a number of elbow screen actions to get Embiid positioned on either block down the stretch. His shot selection down the stretch wasn’t producing baskets, though. He was settling for a number of difficult jumpers whilst moving to create his own space. Some of it was hero ball, which Rivers tries to steer the team clear of. Some of it was Embiid just going to naturally difficult-looking moves he’s developed over time. But, the plays ran didn’t yield much in the way of scores because Embiid was going for unnecessarily difficult shots. Fortunately, it didn’t matter in game 6. 

The Sixers are the 1-seed for a reason. They earned some credit by taking care of business throughout the regular season. Therefore, they shouldn’t need credit on a night-to-night basis in a second round series against an inferior opponent. But, they could’ve easily been sent packing with their heads still in a fog from game 5. They faced many of the same patterns as game 5.

Philly could’ve shrunk in the moment again. But, they collected themselves and focused on the task at hand this time around. After the first quarter, they were the ones playing to win. Meanwhile, the Hawks were the ones playing not to lose. This game was entirely a mental battle, and the Sixers powered through to force a game 7. It’s undoubtedly their own fault for reaching this point. But, many people–fans, local media, national pundits–were ready to write them off, and for good reason. Philadelphia fought through the ups and downs of a road game in which they were the prey, and they get to go home with a chance to escape a near death.

The Sixers (3-3) are headed home to try to close this thing out. The Hawks are headed on the road to try to do the same thing. Coverage of game 7 will begin at 8 PM EST on Sunday night. You can catch the action on TNT.