June 19, 2021
Rising from the dead like a George Romero movie, the Sixers found a way to shake off a brutal Game 5 loss to win in Atlanta on Friday night, pushing their second-round series to seven games and providing a flicker of hope for a fanbase that seemed ready to check out. The No. 1 seed is still alive and kicking, and they have a rookie point guard to thank for that.
Let's run through the big developments from Philadelphia's Game 6 win over the Hawks.
Picture this: you're a 20-year-old rookie, you played just 1:20 in your team's heartbreaking Game 5 loss, and your head coach comes to you and says you need to be ready to play real minutes in a do-or-die elimination game. How exactly do you handle the news and get ready for the biggest game of your life?
"Got done with shootaround, got me some pasta, called my mom, and then I went to sleep," Maxey said after Philly's Game 6 win. "Woke up, and then came to the gym. Was ready to go."
If the pressure impacted him in any way, Maxey never showed it on Friday night, pouring in 16 points off of the bench and leading the entire team in plus/minus with a +12 for the evening. That was representative of how the game changed with Maxey on the floor, who provided the spark his teammates needed with a belly full of pasta and a mother's wisdom as the fuel.
You could tell Atlanta was caught off guard by his pace and confidence. Heck, even ESPN seemed to be caught off guard by the Kentucky product — Maxey's first bucket of the game came so quick that the TV cameras hadn't yet re-focused on the play when he blew by Trae Young, picking up the action with Maxey in the lane and ready to score. It was a stark contrast to Game 5, where the Hawks were able to get away with a Young/Lou Williams backcourt, a defensive nightmare that Philadelphia couldn't find a way to exploit. Evidently, all they needed to do was put the ball in Maxey's hands and let him go to work.
A guard who can create his own shot is always going to be valuable when the chips are down and defenses tighten in the playoffs. But even by his standards, Maxey had some special moments against Atlanta, including one sensational reverse layup after blowing by Williams and needing to figure out a backup plan once he was met with length at the rim.
After he began to get rolling as a scorer, the Hawks finally started committing bodies toward Maxey when he had the ball in his hands, bringing their bigs higher in an attempt to defend him in the pick-and-roll. Though he didn't suddenly become a creative engine for the Sixers, he took care of the basketball in Game 6, committing zero turnovers across almost 30 minutes of action in a do-or-die effort. Maxey's reads were sharp, and though not all of them were rewarded, he was able to find his guys in advantageous positions and give them a better chance to score.
By the time the second half rolled around, Maxey was in full bloom, hitting pull-up threes when the Hawks sagged and wearing a massive, ear-to-ear grin on the floor as the Sixers inched their way closer to a win. But it was not his offense that impressed Philadelphia's head coach the most.
“I actually thought, other than Ben, Tyrese did the best job on Trae, because of his speed," Doc Rivers said Friday. "I keep talking about him, he struggled in a lot of ways defensively this year, but he keeps working. He keeps watching film with [assistant coach Sam Cassell]. I thought tonight was probably, I know everybody is gonna shine on the offense, but I thought this was the single best defensive night of the season."
I'm not sure I would go as far as the coach on that front, but it is undeniable that Maxey made Young work hard for his points. The insane stepback three Young hit with time winding down in the fourth came after Maxey hounded him for most of the possession, matching him step-for-step and forcing Atlanta's star to make an unholy shot to beat the shot clock. This kid is picking up invaluable experience in his very first year as a pro, experience that should help him ascend to a larger role by the start of next year.
Why wait until next year? The Sixers are clearly going to need young Maxey in Game 7, with the starting point guard in a state of disarray and many of their vets playing scatterbrained basketball. He has more than earned his chance.
"Without Tyrese, we also don't win that game," Joel Embiid said after the game. "Maxey was huge tonight. He made plays for others offensively and defensively, pushing the pace when Ben was in foul trouble. So that was, I'm really happy for him."
Maxey is the No. 1 story of this game because of the element of surprise, but it was Seth Curry who ultimately landed the decisive blows for Philadelphia on Friday night. Already in a groove during the first half — when hasn't he been in a groove during this series? — Curry came out of the tunnel at halftime shooting lasers out of his eyes, putting together a one-man stretch to push the Sixers out in front and build a cushion that would ultimately withstand Atlanta runs throughout the second half.
"Man, he's been huge," Embiid said after Friday's win. "Just his shotmaking ability, he's been making a lot of things happen, opening the floor for everybody else. Like I said, he's been huge. Tonight, a lot of credit goes to him."
One of the best parts of watching this time all season have been the moments where Curry begins to feel it and nothing you can do on defense seems to bother him. His first make out of halftime came with Hawks big man Clint Capela in his grill contesting the jumper after Embiid screened Curry's man (Kevin Huerter) to stop him from getting there. It didn't make much of a difference, with Curry hitting nothing but nylon on the jumper despite the efforts of the Swiss center.
I don't know if it's fair to say Curry has been the guy "running" the offense as Simmons melts down on national television since a lot of Curry's work is being done off-ball and coming around screens. But the Sixers have handed him plenty of responsibility, even busting out some double-drag screen actions to free Curry, mirroring the plays Atlanta has used to spring Trae Young throughout the series.
To let Curry tell the story, there's no extra work being put in, no added importance being placed on his pre-game routine, no secret sauce to his success. This run is the product of a high-level player on offense sticking to what got him here, trusting that his preparation as a shooter, physically and mentally, is going to be enough to carry the day.
"I do the same thing I do I hear, watch the film of our game, watch the other game, watch the other playoff game, chill with my family, get my work in at the gym, and just approach it the same way as I would a game in January, to be honest," Curry said Friday. "I don't want to change the process when it's a big game in the playoffs, that means I wasn't preparing throughout the season. The process is the exact same as any other road game.
The results speak for themselves.
Tobias Harris had a year that left him just short of an All-Star berth, losing out on the honor to Knicks forward Julius Randle. In a twist of fate, it's a former Knicks star who Doc Rivers believes Harris should be trying to replicate when he steps on the floor.
"We really showed him a lot of film on the ways to go at guys [with] quick decisions," Rivers said Friday. "I thought the last two games, we've gotten back into that old, you know, sluggish hold the ball [offense]. Tonight, it was quick, it was attacks and downhill. That's who he is, and when he gets to that, I keep telling him, 'Bernard King, Bernard King,' I don't know how many more times I can use that name to him, because that's who he plays like and that's what we want him to be."
If you watch old film of King, one of the most lethal scorers of the 1980s, you can see what Rivers is getting at. King was the sort of player who knew what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go before the ball even reached his hands, ready to drop a turnaround jumper or beat his man off of the dribble the second he got an entry pass in the mid-post. We often discuss how quick a player's first step is when attacking from the perimeter, but King's first step in and around the paint was electric, making him an extremely tough cover even after a devastating knee injury altered his career.
When Harris has been at his best this season (and under Rivers generally), he is playing decisively. That doesn't always mean the shots are falling — there are plenty of NBA players who are decisive and bad — but good thing tends to happen when the ball comes his way and he gets to work immediately instead of giving defenders a chance to get their feet under them.
It was a much better game for Harris on this front Friday after a clunker in Game 5. Deep into the fourth quarter, you saw a guy who was already preparing to make his move before he got the ball:
(Worth noting here is the double drag action with Curry as the ballhandler once again, which sets off a chain of events to send Atlanta scrambling. Expect to see this more in Game 7.)
There were a few keys to Harris getting back into the groove. For one, he told reporters he turned his phone off as a method to block any outside noise from weighing him down in the days between games. In a city where missing posters with his face went up, that was probably a wise choice from Harris.
Ultimately, though, that was part of a larger theme of not overthinking what went wrong. Harris wasn't interested in beating himself up too hard for his four-point effort in Game 5, mostly because they were winning quite comfortably with him sliding into the background for most of the night.
"We had a 20 point lead, pretty much throughout the game, and we were flowing through other guys, and honestly, there just weren't that many looks there for me over the course of the game, and I'm not going to disrupt the team's rhythm by trying to force [my] game," Harris said. "Nobody really was in our locker room worried about my play. It was just like, hey, we got to get you more involved earlier in the game, so at the end of the game, we're not trying to get you into a rhythm in the fourth quarter...guys on the team trust me as a player and want me to be successful, want our team to be successful. We all pick each other up in every different facet of the game."
A charitable way of framing the Game 5 clunker? Sure. But there's some truth to that.
If you'll excuse me for a second, there's one video that is required by law to get posted when a team goes seven games:
With that out of the way, the Sixers have arrived at their season-defining moment. All the work that was done, all the surprising performances that stole regular-season wins, they spilled blood, sweat, and tears for the right to be able to play their most critical games in front of a Philadelphia crowd. Their moment has arrived.
"I'm excited, you know, this time around it's at home," Embiid said Friday night. "That's why we worked so hard in the regular season to get the homecourt advantage. Playing in front of our fans, I know we blew that lead last game, that's something we should have never done. But tonight we just kept telling each other 48 minutes, you got to be focused for 48 minutes. That's what we have to do and we'll be fine."
Since the turn of the century, the Sixers are 2-2 in Game 7 efforts, with both of those wins coming at home during Allen Iverson's infamous run through the 2001 playoffs. To underscore the importance of getting this game at home, the franchise is 6-10 all-time when they go to a seventh game, an abysmal 1-9 when they play those games on the road. Whether you want to chalk that up to the comforts of home, friendly whistles, or some other factor, it's impossible to escape. The only Game 7 win on the road in Sixers franchise history was an all-time classic, featuring Andrew Toney's 34-point outing that cemented his "Boston Strangler" nickname and served as the origin story for the "BEAT L.A.!" chants that have persisted for decades.
Heading into Game 7, the Sixers' vets know better than to expect a lot of whistles in the final game. If playoff basketball is a more physical game, generally speaking, Game 7 is an amplified version of that. But that didn't stop Embiid from doing a bit of politicking in the moments following their Game 6 win, complaining about a disparity in officiating that may draw a fine from the league office.
"I was hacked all night, and I don't think I got to the free throw until the fourth quarter," Embiid said. "I told them they had to call it both ways. We had a bunch of guys, whether it's Ben or Tobias, in foul trouble. I just felt like it wasn't called both ways, especially because of the minimal contact that they get on the point guard when he comes to us. We don't get the same thing, so I just want it called both ways. If we're going to call, like nothing on their point guard, it should be the same way, they call the same thing on me when I get or if I get touched."
Whether it helps Embiid and his guys get a fair whistle on Sunday remains to be seen. The spotlight of Game 7 tends to reveal the truth about a lot of players, which is something to look forward to regardless of the whistles and the result.
If Simmons hadn't come out and admitted himself that his free-throw issues are mental, it would have been abundantly clear from how he has responded to a slump that has changed his importance in the series. Foul trouble was a legitimate excuse for his role diminishing on Friday night. It does not hold up as a justification for what he is doing when he's actually on the floor.
Being hacked wasn't actually a big problem for Simmons on Friday night, Atlanta choosing to send him to the free-throw line just four times in the fourth quarter after basically ignoring him all night. The coverage they're playing against him should be familiar to anyone who watched this group in the playoffs in 2018 and 2019 — the Hawks are dropping deep and walling off the paint, which Simmons is responding to by making no attempt to hunt his own shot. The ball is crossing over halfcourt in his hands, and then it's outta there at the first moment of convenience.
What is probably more significant is that the head coach has no confidence in Simmons at this point. Just weeks following his proclamation that anyone who would remove Simmons over the free-throw issue doesn't know basketball, Rivers did exactly that, rolling with Maxey and George Hill for extended run in crunch time, parking Simmons on the bench. Even when he would return to the game under the two-minute mark, Simmons was a non-entity on offense, and they were so in fear of Simmons deciding the game at the line that Rivers used their final timeout to get Simmons out of the game in the final minute.
Mind you, this happened during a decent response from Simmons to the free-throw problem — he split two trips to the line in the fourth quarter, even if one of those seemed like a fortunate bounce for a wounded duck that fell flat on the rim. Getting a point per possession would be enough to satiate a lot of coaches in this scenario.
Not Doc Rivers, who no longer trusts Simmons to be able to work through the issue everybody in basketball is talking about. Can Simmons respond in Game 7? So far, he has no answers.
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