Shake Milton looks to improve and increase his role on the 76ers this season. Photo by Wayne Terry, TPL.

The Philadelphia 76ers (0-1) hosted the Atlanta Hawks (1-0) in the second game of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series on Tuesday night. Philly was looking to even things up before heading back to Atlanta. The Hawks were looking to take a commanding 2-0 series lead before heading home to host games 3 and 4. Shake Milton’s heroic stint in the second half sparked the Sixers to victory, 118-102, and a 1-1 tie in their second round series.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Hawks were without De’Andre Hunter (right knee soreness), Cam Reddish (right achilles soreness), Kris Dunn (non-COVID illness), and Brandon Goodwin (respiratory condition). Nate McMillan started Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Solomon Hill, John Collins, and Clint Capela.

All Sixers were available to play in game 2. Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

First Half

Ben Simmons opened the game defending Trae Young after Young’s masterclass performance in game 1. Simmons was particularly aggressive when his hips were squarely in front of Young. But, like the smart defender he is, Simmons was quick to give Young rear-side space to avoid fouls when Young penetrated the lane. On the perimeter, Simmons held his arms high so as to avoid arm-to-body contact on the foul-grifting point guard. On ball screens, the Sixers were showing high so as to stunt Young’s desires to pull up for deep triples. The theme of Philly’s strategy was to defend Young with size and urgency, and it paid dividends early on as the Sixers jumped out to a ten-point lead quickly in the first quarter.

Feed The Pig

Philly did an outstanding job of controlling their offense. That sounds very simple, but it was what got Philly into a major hole in game 1. They lacked control and the Hawks were able to pounce on weak passes and poor shot selection in the first game. In the first quarter of game 2, the Sixers played with control over their offense. They ran their usual plays, were patient, worked the ball for high-quality looks. Philly scored 22 of its 33 first-quarter points in the paint, attempted just four triples, and got to the line for five free throws. The offense was effective largely because the Sixers did not commit nine turnovers like they did in the first quarter of game 1. But beyond that, they were making the most of their possessions by refusing to settle on their field goal attempts.

The offensive organization seemed to be quite refreshing to Doc Rivers, too. “We talked about it after game 1. My frustration level was quite high,” Rivers said after the game 2 victory. “We didn’t do what we’ve done all year and that’s what we call ‘Feed The Pig’. That means the player or the play. We would run a play and score and then go run something else, which, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out. Then, I thought in the first quarter, they saw Tobias had it going. They saw the set they were running. You saw Joel calling a set. I thought that was terrific. I mean, keep running the play until it stops and I thought our guys did a great job of that tonight.”

Game-To-Game Adjustments

I’ll give Rivers a bit of credit for not going all the way back to the all-reserve second unit. But damn, Philly’s bench is giving them zilch in this series. After the torrid “tone-setting” start to the game, Rivers’ second unit allowed Atlanta to climb back into the game. The unfortunate part is that there’s absolutely no reason to believe that Philly has the personnel on the bench to even escape from time to time. It seems the Sixers are going to have to rely upon their starters logging minutes in the high-thirties to win this series.

That isn’t to say the Sixers cannot play their bench players at all. The starters will need to breaks to continue to be effective. But, Rivers is going to have to work on staggering their starters with the second unit much better than they have most of the season. To be fair, they may be able to pull that off, as their three most featured starters are all in their mid-to-late twenties.

Not Himself

I’ve always been one to portray the positive side of Simmons’ game on both ends. But, he became entirely too passive within the transition offense towards the end of the first half. People understand that Simmons is pass-first by nature. But, being aggressive in transition plays into what makes Simmons so deadly in that context. He wasn’t playing like himself in the last few minutes before halftime.

Simmons wasn’t pushing the pace or applying downhill pressure on the middle of the floor to draw help defenders away from Philly’s shooters. Rather, he was almost a bit hesitant or timid with the ball in his hands. He was making passes ahead a bit too early. So, helpers didn’t really have to make the decision of stopping ball or shutting off their individual matchups. As a result, the Sixers were unable to drive the needed additional margin between themselves and the Hawks before intermission.

Second Half

The Hawks continued their push to make noise in this game over the majority of the third quarter. Much of the stagnancy on Philly’s end of the floor stemmed from their inability to get good shots. Ben Simmons was relegated to the dunker’s spot, where he was largely uninvolved in the offense. That’s a problem that Philadelphia has become all too familiar with. Rivers can talk down the importance of Simmons’ scoring all he wants.

I largely agree with him on the idea that Simmons’ value isn’t in scoring. But, he cannot be as absent in the half-court as he was tonight. It’s not fair to the other four guys on the floor. Simmons is a tremendous passer and that’s what makes him such an electric offensive player when he’s at his best. But, there were moments in the third quarter in which Simmons was simply standing and watching while the other four guys on the floor tried to make something happen. Beyond Simmons’ lack of involvement, the offense was a diet of Embiid isolations and low-quality jumpers. The Hawks, meanwhile, were getting everything they wanted. Then, Shake Milton checked into the game. But, more on that later.

Spreading Those Wings

I can’t downplay the absence of De’Andre Hunter through these first two games. Atlanta’s wing depth is quite impressive. They typically start Hunter, which adds to a wing presence of John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic. They then follow that up with Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Huerter off the bench. It’s not even their abilities as shooters that is going to be problematic in this series. It’s their respective playmaking skills. Huerter and Bogdanovic can handle and shoot the ball out of the pick-and-roll, Gallinari can make contested shots off the dribble, and Hunter and Collins are capable stretch forwards who provide versatility. That all makes Atlanta uniquely versatile. They have shooting and shot creation on the floor at all times. The Hawks can threaten you with small ball stretch lineups and force Embiid to step away from the rim to open up the driving lanes. 

I’ll say it again because I sternly believe this–Rivers will need to make some serious rotational adjustments to win this series. All-bench lineups are only passable in garbage time. Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, and Dwight Howard can never share the floor unless it’s the only option. Two starters must be on the floor at all times. To match Atlanta’s wing depth, the Sixers are going to have to deviate from their norm a bit. They’re going to have to play their core more minutes than they’re used to when games are tight. If they don’t, there is going to be another game 1 and second-and-third quarters of game 2. Unless Milton can repeat game 2’s performance, the bench matchup in this series simply is not survivable. 

“You gotta just play through a lot of stuff come playoff time.”

The Sixers would be staring at an 0-2 deficit if it weren’t for back-breaking three-point shooting from Seth Curry. Throughout the game, Curry lined up critical triples to extend the Sixers’ lead on the run they were currently on. A number of his triples came in fast-paced environments. Whether it was off a broken play, a tap-back from an offensive rebound, or a transition look,  a number of Curry’s triples pushed six-point leads to nine, extended the advantage to double digits, or responded to a triple from the Hawks to keep the momentum going. In some ways, that’s the underrated job of a sniper. Not just making threes at an efficient clip, but making the momentum shots at the right time, too.

Even with his three-point shooting volume and efficiency getting back to where the Sixers need it to be, Curry admits that he’s not exactly where he’d like to be from a physical standpoint. “I feel fine,” Curry said after game 2. “Once we get a full summer, I’ll be back to fully where I want to be. But I’m more than good enough and coach is doing a good job of getting me rest when I need it. Just constant communication with them about how I’m feeling out there on the floor throughout the game. You gotta just play through a lot of stuff come playoff time.” 

“It really shows what the playoffs is about.”

Aside from the obvious MVP-level play from Embiid, Doc Rivers’ feel for the game in the second half won the Sixers the contest. After yanking Shake Milton from the rotation, Rivers went with his gut and inserted the struggling Milton into the game in the waning stages of the third quarter. Inserting Milton was a risky gamble with the Hawks seizing the lead late in the third frame. But, Milton shook his slump in heroic fashion.

Milton scored 14 points in a ten-minute stretch from late in the third quarter to the early-middle stages of the fourth quarter. He sparked an 11-0 run from the bench–which scored zero points in the first half–to turn a one-point deficit into a double-digit lead. The injection of life from Milton enabled the starters to get an extended rest deep into the fourth quarter before closing the game out.

Tobias Harris could not praise Milton’s efforts enough after the victory. “It was huge for us. I’m extremely happy for him. Happy and proud at the same time. It really shows what the playoffs is about. You just need, as a whole team, every game is important. So, you never know who’s gonna be able to step up or when you have great efforts from guys who step up and are out there and making plays like he was making tonight,” Harris said.

“It just further pushes us along. For him, obviously, he’s been in and out of the rotation a little bit in the playoffs. Struggling a little bit at times. A lot of guys on this team work hard. But, he’s steadily in the gym and waiting for that moment and opportunity and he came and he took advantage of it. We needed it more than ever, too, so it was great to see.”

The Sixers (1-1) will head to Atlanta to visit the Hawks (1-1) in game 3 on Friday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM EST. You can catch the action on ESPN.