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June 08, 2021

Instant observations: Joel Embiid drops 40 in Game 2, Sixers even series with Hawks

The Sixers rode a dominant Joel Embiid and a sensational second-half from Shake Milton to a 118-102 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, evening the series up as Philadelphia prepares to hit the road. Embiid would finish with 40 points and 13 rebounds in one of his best all-around performances of the season.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Think the Sixers were ready to exorcise some demons from Game 1? The very first "play" of the game — if you could even call it that — was Danny Green snatching the opening tip and soaring for a dunk. This time, it was Philadelphia who seized the game early, and when you have a raucous Wells Fargo Center behind you, a hot start is often all you need to put it to bed.

Leading the charge early was Tobias Harris, who managed to seize control of the game in spite of the extra motivation Embiid probably had after the release of MVP results. The Sixers simplified the game down to its most basic level, allowing Harris to go one-on-one against a series of Atlanta defenders who could not and cannot check him, from Solomon Hill to Kevin Huerter. The home crowd reveled in Harris taking guys down to the mid-post and going to work, something that would have seemed unthinkable just one season ago.

Unfortunately, Rivers made the call to sub Harris out early in order to stagger the lineups, something that many demanded after Game 1 and was ultimately done with good intentions. But with Harris in 07 Weezy mode, there was a perfectly good case to leave him in there until the Hawks proved they could stop him. Philadelphia ended up getting the worst of both worlds out of that decision — their scoring slowed down in the short term, and their bench ended up getting cooked with Harris on the floor to help them out. 

That doesn't take away from how good he was, mind you, but it did put a damper on what was a sensational start.

• Harris' excellent start was in a dead heat with their defensive adjustments for best part of the first half. Doc Rivers put Ben Simmons on Trae Young to start the game, and the Sixers brought the screener's man much higher on the average pick-and-roll. Those two things alone were enough to change the tenor of the opening quarter.

To no one's surprise, using Simmons on Young was a difference-maker all by itself. When you have a defender as good and as smart as Simmons is, you have to trust that he's savvy enough not to get baited into enough cheap fouls to take him out of the game. It's part of what made him so impactful on the defensive end all season, and Simmons ended up playing both ends of the Young pick-and-rolls, sliding over screens while guarding Young and showing high to disrupt Young on possessions where he guarded the screener.

The two-man Simmons/Embiid wrecking crew was absolutely sensational throughout this game. When Matisse Thybulle was in the game to take the Young assignment, Simmons made several highlight plays helping on Capela rolling, breaking up lobs when Embiid had to come up and show higher against Young. And Embiid was downright transcendent at times, getting in Young's face at the three-point line and somehow finding a way to get back to the rim and swat passes away from the rolling Swiss center.

Young still had some success finding open shooters and keeping the Hawks in the game as a passer, but the Sixers succeeded in making him focus on that area of the game instead of having his cake and eating it too. 

• Embiid has made his case for end-of-season awards time and time again this season, but after he finished giving stump speeches over the MVP trophy, he always made sure to emphasize that a title was the first and only prominent goal on his mind. Did he have extra motivation after Jokic was named MVP on Tuesday?  Maybe. But that's certainly not why he's playing through pain and on the floor with his guys right now.

The same competitiveness that has him out on the floor at all is shining through in his style of play right now. Sometimes that's a bad thing — upset with no-calls toward the end of the first half, he briefly risked ejection to lay his hands on Danilo Gallinari. Sometimes, it means mean-mugging Clint Capela after bodying him on a post-up and slamming it for two. It is a constant this season, and the rare moments where Embiid loses his composure are worth it to get the rest of what he brings to the table.

There was no chance Capela was going to hold him down on this night. Capela was forced to play through foul trouble basically all night, with Embiid exploiting his size advantage and forcing the issue even when Atlanta sent pressure his way. Using pass fakes to convince the help defenders he was going to hit a shooter, Embiid bought himself enough time and space to continue his solo battles with Capela, coming out on the winning end when it was all said and done. Hard to double a seven-foot center who simply cashes jumpers in your face when you 

I'd just like to reiterate this even though it was mentioned briefly above — this may be my favorite defensive performance of the season from the big fella. Dragging the team to respectability on offense for long stretches of the game, Embiid was nonetheless a dominant presence at the rim, and he looked as fluid and mobile as he has been in space all year. On several occasions, Young tried to make Embiid dance in space, and the MVP runner-up sent his smaller counterpart to the shadow realm.

They are heading to Atlanta tied 1-1 for several reasons, but the big man is at the top of the list. Sensational performance. 

• The unlikely hero of Game 2, Shake Milton, had been collecting dust and cobwebs on the bench after a brutal start to the playoffs. But with the bench in need of something different, and the game hanging in the balance, Rivers' trusted bench leader delivered one of his best halves of the season.

It is not an exaggeration to say Philadelphia's season was hanging in the balance when Milton took the floor. Going down 2-0 would have been a disaster for the Sixers, and Atlanta's bench mob was only down a single point when the second-unit had to step in for the Sixers. All Milton did from there was deliver a performance reminiscent of NBA Jam, containing everything except a BOOMSHAKALAKA from Matt Cord on the loudspeaker.

When Milton has it all working, he's a tremendously fun player to watch, tossing in scoop layups and off-balance leaners from odd angles. But this was a straightforward barrage from downtown, highlighted by his end-of-quarter heave to send the capacity crowd into hysterics.

There is something beautiful about Milton catching the holy ghost while standing across from Lou Williams, who has made a career out of dismantling bench units and leading his teams on improbable runs when they need them the most. Milton will almost certainly be back on the floor in Game 3, and the Sixers will hope this is the start of a hot stretch.

The Bad

• Rivers may have tweaked his rotation ever so slightly, but it did not change the fact that the bench has stunk out loud in this series. They are up against a team with a strong second unit, I will grant you that, but the Sixers are getting absolutely dominated as soon as this series is anything but the starters vs. the starters.

Part of the reason for that is that Atlanta's bench is capable of forcing the mismatches they want to get. Former Sixers guard Williams is obviously a master switch hunter who has feasted on getting the guy he wants in front of him for years, but the same can be said in a different way for Danilo Gallinari, who is happy to shoot over just about anybody shorter than he is. The Sixers handed him a bunch of those matchups, ranging from Tyrese Maxey to George Hill, and the Italian forward got going in the first half, helping to keep Atlanta in it.

On the other end, you could argue the bench was even worse. There was not a single bench scorer for Philadelphia through the first 24 minutes of action, with the bench Hawks outgunning the bench Sixers by a count of 32-0. That is hard to manage, but it was pretty obvious even if you weren't keeping track of the box score — Furkan Korkmaz tossed up multiple airballs, Hill got a layup attempt packed at the rim, and Maxey continues to search for a place in this series after a rough start. Dwight Howard isn't doing much either, and when the Sixers tried to bring Simmons back to hold the fort a bit longer, they ran into the spacing issues they've dealt with all season when those two play together.

There's not really an ideal solution here. Could Rivers make sure there are multiple staters on the floor at all times? Certainly. But the starters are playing heavy minutes as it is, and it's not as though the Sixers are getting killed because Atlanta is staggering Trae Young in order to let him attack Maxey and Co. The battle of the backups is being won by the Hawks in decisive fashion, and it puts more pressure on the starters to play inch-perfect basketball.

(Maybe the solution is just leaning on Milton, as the Sixers did most of the regular season. It certainly worked quite well on Tuesday.)

• Seth Curry's poor defensive showing in Game 1 was an underrated subplot underneath the headline issues, but we have been preparing for him to be a moving target all season. With the Sixers changing their coverage and their primary defender on Young, the next step for Atlanta was always figuring out where to go next. The easy answer is, "Wherever Seth Curry is on the floor."

Here's the thing though — Green's defensive disaster class (which was really just a continuation of his Game 1 stinker) is a lot more inexcusable. For the second straight game, Green was getting beaten by players rejecting screens in pick-and-rolls, slow to get around screens, and generally out of position far too often. Some of his biggest blunders came in transition, where Green outright missed assignments several times, leading to made threes for the Hawks on the fast break.

At least Curry is and was making up for it with his shot. Green is not just missing his looks on offense, he's putting up shots he shouldn't even be thinking about in the midst of a cold spell. I generally appreciate his ready-fire-aim mentality, and it is desperately needed on this team sometimes, but discretion is okay sometimes.

• Simmons' defensive contributions in this game are nothing to sneeze at. They are not an excuse for how impotent he was on offense, and his passive approach was a big reason the offense stagnated at times throughout the game.

When the Sixers get into late-clock situations where somebody has to hoist a jumper up with a hand in their face, often times that is because the best look they got during the 24 seconds was passed up by their point guard. It's not that Simmons can't create separation or get to the paint against the Hawks, it's that he actively avoided looking for the rim throughout Tuesday's game. You can insert your own explanation for why it happened, and I'm sure many will after the game, but it's an act we've seen in too many big games over the years.

If not for the bench's second-half explosion, this would have been a much bigger talking point after the game. Let's hope he finds his footing again as the series heads to Atlanta. 

The Ugly

• Seriously, I have to reiterate this because it seems impossible, your bench can't get outscored 32-0 for a half. That is embarrassing stuff.

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