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June 20, 2021

What to watch for in Sixers' Game 7 showdown with the Atlanta Hawks

With the Milwaukee Bucks punching their ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday night, there's only one game left to determine the NBA's final four. All roads lead through South Philly on Sunday night, the first time the Sixers will host a Game 7 since they beat the Bucks 20 years ago to book a trip to the NBA Finals.

Throw out the X's and O's and everything you know about the series up to this point. Okay, maybe not everything, but a lot of it. The Sixers and Hawks know each other inside and out at this point, and everyone's nerves will be at least a little bit frayed before they even start the game. I expect a raucous crowd on Sunday night, and for these storylines to help define what should be an instant classic. 

How deep Rivers goes in the rotation

After the team's film session on Saturday afternoon, Doc Rivers was asked by a reporter about the prospect of starting Tyrese Maxey alongside or perhaps even in front of Ben Simmons. The former is an absurd proposition that Rivers treated as such, but when the conversation shifted to a potential swap of Maxey for Furkan Korkmaz, Rivers didn't take that much more serious than the other idea.

"I like exactly, we started Korkmaz by the way last night and won," Rivers said on Saturday. "His numbers have been pretty good overall, I don't overreact to each individual game. If I did, I would have started Shake [Milton] after Game 3, because he had a great game. That's not what we do, we stay solid, we stay disciplined, we run our stuff."

That sure sounds like Korkmaz is going to remain in the starting lineup, a move that Rivers has been clear is all about opening the floor up for their stars as much as possible. All that's left to figure out beyond that is how many guys are trusted to play on the biggest and brightest stage.

There will be an instinct to use the rotations for Brooklyn and Milwaukee on Saturday night as a preview of what we could see in South Philly. Only eight guys played for both teams, and it was really more like seven each — Thanasis Antetokounmpo bought his brother Giannis less than a minute of extra rest, and Nic Claxton was on the floor for exactly one second to guard the inbounder on Milwaukee's final play of regulation. I'm not so sure it's a blueprint the Sixers will follow, based on how they've subbed it to date and what Rivers has said leading into the game.

After his game-defining role in Game 6, Maxey feels close to a lock. Matisse Thybulle is an even bigger lock if only to spell Ben Simmons as he checks Trae Young for the vast majority of the game. Then you have the two trusted veterans Rivers keeps turning to even when they're going bad, George Hill and Dwight Howard, who I expect to get on the floor at one point or another. And Rivers still has a fondness for Shake Milton, who helped turn this series back in Philadelphia's direction when they were in desperate need of a lift early on.

Wait a minute, isn't that 10 guys? What gives? Well, Rivers doesn't seem inclined to bury anybody at this point, and navigating the minutes load for each of his starters is a delicate balance. The head coach has spoken to each of the guys at the top of the roster about how much they have to give, and he felt they pushed the limit pretty hard in Friday's Game 6.

"I actually reached out to each one of them, I've done it three or four times in a row, and I keep pushing their number, what they think up. I really wanted Tobias [Harris] to go 40 [in Game 6], that's what I had him scheduled for, I don't think we got him there...but visually you could see that was about, we were right at that limit. Everybody has a number where all of a sudden, they're not as productive as you want them to be. And a lot of guys what we've learned, is that once they get over that it's hard to come back. You have to be very careful with that during the game. I thought we kept a really close eye on it, and I thought we got away with it probably right at the max. But if we can extend, we will."

How Rivers deploys his bench matters as much as who and when. Leaving an all-bench group (or even a mostly bench group) out there to get slaughtered for any period of time would be a huge no-no, but Rivers has proven willing to take that risk in order to buy a minute of extra rest for their stars. Howard has been downright bad for most of this series, but Rivers has shown no inclination to go small and abandon the veteran center, so I wouldn't bank on that changing with everything on the line Sunday night.

I expect this to be a source of rage for the fanbase no matter what Rivers decides to do, let's put it that way.

Which version(s) of Philly's stars show up

We don't need to belabor the point on Ben Simmons. My thoughts on his last few games have been made abundantly clear across several articles this week, and his inability to impact the game on offense over the last three games is a big reason a Game 7 is necessary. You hope for a turnaround, and the Sixers would likely be able to win going away if he returns to normal-ish form. But you don't go in banking on it, assuming that he's going to have to earn his keep chasing Trae Young around for 48 minutes.

The guy to watch, as always, is Joel Embiid. He has had some absolutely massive nights in these playoffs, including in the Game 5 loss they choked away on their home floor, but Embiid has not exactly been his most dominant self when they've needed him most over the years. In their finale against Boston last season, Embiid scored 30 points but let go of the rope on defense. In the Game 7 defeat at Toronto, Embiid was absolutely tremendous on defense but struggled to solve the Marc Gasol puzzle, turning in a 6/18 night from the field (though he did lead the game in free throws attempted).

The exception was his 27-point outing in Philadelphia's Game 5 defeat in Boston back in 2018. Embiid put the team on his back in the second half of that game, bullying Boston in the post for most of the final quarter and a half to put them within reach of a victory. That game was viewed at the time as a potential warning shot for the league, a glimpse of what he might do with more time and experience. Well, he has all of those things now, and a supporting cast that is better than the opponent's. It's time to produce.

In the aftermath of the Game 6 victory, Embiid was happy to be headed home with a chance to win but not especially pleased with his individual performance in Game 6. He made a vow to right things in what could be their final game of the season.

"We just got to be tougher than them," Embiid said Friday night. "I'm definitely gonna be better, there's no chance I play worse than I did tonight shooting the ball. I'm at home in front of the home crowd. It's going to be, it's a perfect setup for us to win. We just got to keep the same mentality — 48 minutes, no let down, move the ball, share the ball, get the ball to the right people, and we're going to be fine."

Tobias Harris, on the other hand, will be looking to pick up right where he left off in Game 6, leaving the passive play and wanted posters behind him. The Sixers went to Harris early and often in Game 6, and while that didn't lead to immediate results for Philadelphia, it was a move that eventually paid off, with Harris settling into a groove and helping to carry the offense for long stretches of Friday night's game. It was a point of emphasis coming into the game for the Sixers, who Harris told reporters had his back regardless of what all of us on the outside had to say after Game 5.

"Nobody really was in our locker room worried about my play," Harris said Friday. "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."

The Game 5 clunker aside — and that's a tough one to set aside, admittedly — Harris has been mostly excellent in these playoffs, considerably better than he has been in any of his previous appearances up to this point. He has been a leader on and off the floor for Philadelphia all season, and another strong effort from him would go a long way toward setting up a battle with Milwaukee in the conference finals.

How the game is officiated

Working the officials is a 24/7 job for NBA teams and players. If the calls aren't going your way, there are any number of ways to get the attention of officials. You can yell and pick up a technical to prove a point, lobby them with side conversations during timeouts, and in critical situations, you can lobby them to get their act together through the media, making your gripes known at the podium.

Broadly speaking, Embiid has the respect of the officials because he spends a lot of time on those little chats when nobody is watching. But he chose to go the lobbyist route after the Sixers' Game 6 victory, putting pressure on the refs heading into the climactic final game.

"I was hacked all night, and I don't think I got to the free-throw [line] 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."

"I think he's right, I think the bigger guy they take more liberties and there are no calls," Doc Rivers added Saturday. "There's a push-off in front of our bench, Trae just pushed off Ben, Ben barely moved but it gave Trae the advantage, and I asked the ref, if that was Ben doing that to Trae, it's an offensive foul. It is what it is, we had three free throws at halftime...the bigs, I complain about this on the competition committee, it just seems like you can take liberties with them that you can't take with guards out at the three-point line. I don't agree with it but it is what it is."

You have to love the pettiness of a seven-game series — Embiid referring to Young only as "the point guard" is the sort of thing you're treated to only once real resentment has set in. If there was no animosity before the series began, there definitely is now. 

The officiating assignment, which is announced the morning of the game as it is all season, handed the Sixers a crew of James Capers, Kane Fitzgerald, and Sean Wright. They are not the household names Sixers fans seem to dread in these moments (looking at you, Scott Foster and Tony Brothers), but each of them has their own way of seeing a game that will shape the evening in one way or another.

Broadly speaking, Capers and Fitzgerald are sort of on the opposite end of the spectrum, with Capers preferring to let guys play and Fitzgerald allowing for less wiggle room on the rough stuff. That could go either way for Philadelphia — they want to be able to get away with a bit of contact defending Trae Young, certainly, but Embiid would obviously like to get to the free-throw line more than he did in Game 6. All things being equal, I would guess they'd rather see the officials swallow the whistle because it likely benefits them more on defense than it will harm them on offense, where Embiid is capable of powering through contact if he must.

At the end of the day, my take is always the same when it comes to officiating. It is almost always a factor in one way or another, and all you can really ask for is a relatively consistent performance from the officials. But if you're in a position where your fate is in the hand of the refs, especially as the more talented team with homecourt for the climactic Game 7, you own the loss, not the zebras. If we end up talking about this after the game, something went wrong.

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