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November 28, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers outduel Hawks late behind Joel Embiid heroics

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The Sixers struggled to score early but used zone defense and Joel Embiid's dominance to claw back into the game, ultimately outlasting the Hawks in a 104-101 barnburner. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Going down 16 points to Atlanta could very well have been a death sentence for this Sixers team. Philadelphia had basically nothing going for most of the first half — hitting the rim was honestly a bit of a struggle, if you want to know how ugly the shooting was to start the game. But they dug in and climbed their way back, giving themselves a chance to win the game in the second half.

There were a few keys to that happening. I didn't think Philadelphia's halfcourt defense was bad prior to Matisse Thybulle being subbed in, with Atlanta just shooting over some good contests on the perimeter, but Thybulle getting in the game allowed the Sixers to be a more disruptive team out of a zone look. By stringing together stops, the Sixers were able to get out and score in early offense, with Tobias Harris and Shake Milton leading the way when Philadelphia got out on the break.

It felt like the perfect spot to weaponize Thybulle. Philadelphia was already shooting poorly as a group, so they weren't really losing anything on offense by trying to inject his defensive chaos. Better yet, Thybulle scored on his very first possession on offense, depositing a lobbed entry from Joel Embiid when Trae Young left him alone after a screen. Credit to Doc Rivers for spotting the opportunity to shake things up, and certainly to Thybulle for his role in their turnaround.

The biggest difference late in the first half, though, was Embiid himself. He did not have the midrange touch that he has used to burn down the Nets in recent weeks, mirroring the slow start to the game for his teammates. When he finally got going, it was not because his jumper started to drop, but because he refused to be denied space in the painted area, moving Clint Capela around basically whenever he wanted. Even when Capela beat him to a spot, Embiid did well to use pump fakes and feints to get the Swiss big man moving, immediately floating past him for layups when Capela bought the fakes.

Even before some late heroics, this was a good return game from Embiid, as he continued to embrace a playmaking role in the middle of the floor while trying to find his own offensive rhythm. A better shooting effort would have been helpful, but I think the best/most encouraging thing was Embiid's activity on defense. He has been pretty transparent over the years that it's hard for him to stay in proper shape without actually being able to play in games, and he showed plenty of energy and activity in his first night back after a small layoff.

He found a way to punctuate a good all-around effort with the shot that mattered most, a jumper over Dejounte Murray that gave Philadelphia a one-point lead with 18 seconds to play. Despite whatever struggles he had there most of the night, he was not going to waste this opportunity:

When Trae Young had the ball with the game on the line on the ensuing possession, it was a cat-and-mouse game between the pick-and-roll maestro and Philadelphia's minister of defense. The biggest dude on the floor came out on the winning end, breaking up Young's entry pass and ultimately sealing the game by forcing a turnover on Young.

Had they dropped this game, I think you would have been able to say the Hawks simply shot better than Philly, shrugging your shoulders at a tough loss to a talented team. But they went out and took this win instead, riding their best player during the biggest moments of the game. It helps to have star power on call when you need it.

• How good has Tobias Harris been in the last week? He has been the perfect offensive chameleon for Philadelphia, moving around the floor at a moment's notice to fill whatever need the Sixers have. One moment, he's playing hi-lo basketball with Joel Embiid, sealing off a defender and catching a lobbed entry from the biggest guy on the floor. Then he's spotting up for three, using the attention paid to Embiid in the middle of the floor to knock down a catch-and-shoot jumper.

Every time there has been a moment where a game could swing in the direction of the opponent for good, it has felt like Harris was there to step up in one way or another. Monday night's example was a possession early in the fourth quarter, the Sixers in dire straits with the shot clock after Paul Reed and De'Anthony Melton dug out a possession with extra effort. Searching for a lifeline, they threw the pass to Harris on the wing, and he made one of the most incredible bailout threes of the season, barely even seeing the rim before earning a loud ovation for the make.

And it was what came next that exemplified Harris' commitment to the team this season — he immediately went back on defense and helped break up a Hawks possession, getting the stop that sent Philly back the other way for another bucket and, ultimately, an Atlanta timeout.

• One thing I liked out of Philadelphia early in this game — they made it a point of emphasis to involve Trae Young as much as possible. Failing to attack Young was arguably the worst part of Philadelphia's gameplan in their 2021 playoff series, and it was a roster issue as much as a coaching decision, Young able to hang out on Danny Green in either corner of the floor. In Monday night's game, the Sixers made Young work quite a bit on offense, putting him in lots of ball screens and attacking him whenever they got the opportunity.

That didn't always end up working in their favor early, but the process deserved better results. Milton was able to get clean-ish looks in the paint when he went downhill at Young, and if not for some good rim protection from weakside Hawks defenders, Harris probably would have picked up another bucket or two in the first half. 

• This did not look like another starring performance for Shake Milton early in the game. Seemingly every time he tried to take a runner or floater inside the arc, Milton came up way short, including on a possession where he front-rimmed one and then air-balled the subsequent attempt on the offensive rebound. Not exactly a flying start.

Eventually, Milton would find his way. He started with some easy buckets in transition, exploiting Young's desire to avoid fouls and get out of his way with Philly on the run. It didn't take long for that to turn into Milton working the pick-and-roll with Embiid, slithering to the hoop and scoring with his left hand over outstretched arms for Atlanta. And you could tell when Milton really started to feel it, the SMU product hitting a spinning runner with bodies draped all over him.

Even before Milton found the touch, he was leaving an imprint on this game, making smart reads as a passer and getting back to work in the pick-and-roll with Embiid in the game. Though the big man didn't capitalize on a lot of his pocket passes early, the Sixers' average shot quality was pretty good, and they would eventually start to capitalize on his distribution.

• I understand that you can't be an intense, red-faced coach for 82 games if you're going to lead a good NBA team, but Doc Rivers is certainly capable of showing the attentiveness he did in this one every single night. Rivers tried to squeeze every last drop out of this game — there were several offense/defense subs in the span of about 15 seconds of game time at the end of the third quarter, Rivers valuing each and every possession with his team locked in a tight game.

This is the sort of approach I think more people have wanted to see from Rivers in playoff games, the head coach being proactive and reading the game that's in front of him rather than trusting in his Plan A and hoping his team would eventually reward that faith. There's certainly a middle ground between what the fans expect and how Rivers has historically gone about things, and I thought this game was a good example of a firm, intelligent touch. 

The Bad

• It should have come as a shock to absolutely no one, but it can be hard to get a high-volume star back in the flow of an offense after playing a week with a completely different lineup with a collection of guys picking up the slack. The Sixers didn't abandon the concepts they used without the big man on the floor, but of course you're going to have to change things up to accommodate the seven-footer at the heart of your lineup.

I know this is going to sound absurd, but the difference in the game in the first quarter was entry passing. The Sixers were comically bad at trying to throw passes to Embiid on the block, leading to some scattered possessions that nearly always turned into runouts for the Hawks. Philly has all the incentive in the world to turn a game against the Hawks into a slower, more methodical affair, but they helped Atlanta's quest to push the pace and get some easy looks in early offense.

It's hard to believe a team with Embiid on it can be this bad at entry passing, but in fairness to the rest of the group, Embiid had a terrible turnover of his own on an entry pass in the first quarter on Monday. Have to try to lead by example, big guy.

On the other hand, a lot of Philadelphia's early issues came down to a combination of sloppiness and poor shooting, so you might just chalk that up to the back-to-back. Even reliable shooters like Georges Niang were missing jumpers by a foot or two, the Sixers crawling into halftime with a 4/13 mark from deep. When shots don't go down, it gets tougher to get stops on the other end, and Atlanta has two guards who can attack you with ruthless efficiency in early offense if you afford them the opportunity.

• A bad time for De'Anthony Melton to forget how to make shots and play offense in general, not that there's ever a good time for either of those things. Though Melton did his best to make up for offensive shortcomings on the other end — he disrupted quite a few pick-and-rolls despite the Hawks having a killer backcourt — it would have been helpful for him to exploit matchups with Young more on offense. 

• I mostly agree with Doc Rivers' assessment of P.J. Tucker, who brings a lot more to the game than the box score can show. But we can set aside the lack of scoring on Monday and just say he had a miserable night on offense across the board. Terrible passing was a bigger crime than his non-existence as a shooter/scorer, and they do need him to do something well on that end to make an impact.

The Ugly

• Congratulations to Danuel House Jr. for being the leader in the clubhouse for the  Dumbest Technical of the Year Award. After spiking the ball high enough that it nearly cleared the shot clock, House acted surprised when the officials gave him a begrudging tech. If you're going to do one of the end-of-play blocks we see in every NBA game, don't try to spike the ball to the ceiling. It's never going to fly.

• Trae Young nearly snuck in as the free-throw shooter on a play where Matisse Thybulle fouled Clint Capela late in the second quarter. I respect the grift, but the officials were asleep at the wheel on that one.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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