June 09, 2021
On a rainy Tuesday night, Philadelphia's Game 2 win over the Atlanta Hawks felt inevitable. Franchise legend Julius Erving rang the bell, the Sixers were on fire to start the game, and Trae Young was successfully held in check. Wells Fargo Center was rocking. One blistering half from Atlanta's bench later, the tension was palpable, with the Sixers locked in a tight battle and fighting to make sure they didn't go down 2-0.
Having Joel Embiid on your roster, it turns out, will help you get through a few moments like those. In a virtuoso performance, perhaps the best of his playoff career so far, Embiid put Philadelphia on his back just long enough for the cavalry to arrive.
That is where we start the day after the game.
Many moons ago, Doc Rivers was a depth guard on a San Antonio team led by Hall of Famer David Robinson, spending his final season (1994-95) alongside the MVP of the league. That year has become infamous for the Spurs (and for Robinson) because of that MVP trophy — Robinson received the award in front of Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon, who absolutely dismantled Robinson in the Western Conference Finals en route to a second-straight title.
"Tonight, you felt like that was Joel," Rivers said with a laugh on Tuesday night. "He was that magnificent."
In classic Embiid fashion, he managed to both express his disappointment in losing out on the league MVP award and dismissed its importance all in the same press conference. He has never shied away from telling people what he wants to accomplish, and his self-worth has only grown during the best season of his career. But his actions spoke the loudest on Tuesday, with Embiid putting together an absolute classic performance in order to even up the series.
Long gone are the days where double teams and pressure defense are enough to upend his night. Throughout the evening, the Hawks tried to shade help in his direction to help out poor Clint Capela, who spent most of his evening in foul trouble. All of a sudden, the threat of Embiid passing has forced Atlanta to reconsider sending that help, and those moments of hesitation opened just enough space for the big guy to get his shots up.
There was a lot of shooting over doubles on Tuesday night, and who could blame the guy? These Hawks have no answer for Embiid, who is averaging 39.5 points through the first two games despite playing with a small meniscus tear. Embiid has not exactly wilted in the playoffs in the past, but this is uncharted territory for him, the type of output many dreamed about when the team's rebuild began back in 2013.
Frankly, it's his defense that may have been more impressive on Tuesday, and that's saying something when a guy puts up 40 points on 25 shots. Embiid has every right to be a bit limited in what he can offer on defense at the moment, nursing the injury and carrying a gargantuan load on offense. But he knows as well as anyone that the stakes are growing, and more is required from him now than ever.
All the defensive tweaks, all of the praise coming Ben Simmons' way for Trae Young's down night, none of it works without the big guy anchoring it all from the back end. He showed Young a brick wall when he'd turn the corner in pick-and-rolls, still managing to break up or prevent most lob attempts to Clint Capela most of the night.
"We did a better job as a team as far as pursuing, you know, whoever was coming up to pick," Embiid said postgame. "I was also playing the game, you can call that cat and mouse, faking and going back, just trying to keep them guessing. Sometimes you're going to get it, sometimes you're not going to get it, you're just trying to make it as tough as possible by using my length."
"Tonight, you just saw the dominance of him as a player. I thought defensively, he was key for us in just disrupting their pick-and-roll," Tobias Harris added. "When you go out there and get 40 and 13 and play the way he played, that's a huge effort."
He was not named MVP of the league, and it's impossible to know whether he would have edged out Nikola Jokic had he simply avoided injury during his best season to date. But Embiid's eyes are trained on bigger goals, goals that might allow him to bring home a different sort of MVP award.
"I just got to come out every year and just be ready and do my job," Embiid said Tuesday, reflecting on the second-place finish for MVP. "I'm focused on the playoffs, I'm focused on winning the championship. Like I've been saying all season, we got a good chance, so I'm not worried about, you know, those awards and stuff. If and when I'm holding that trophy, anything else won't matter."
At 10 p.m. the night before Game 2, Shake Milton was at Philadelphia's practice facility getting an extra round of one-on-one basketball in. In the hours before the Sixers took the floor on Tuesday, Doc Rivers and Joel Embiid both had conversations reminding him to stay prepared. Did a psychic visit the Sixers' locker room or something?
In any case, the visits from his coach and team MVP proved prescient. Milton was thrown back into the rotation to spark a lifeless second unit, and he was absolutely sensational, canning four threes in just over 14 minutes to swing the game as it hung in the balance.
“I’m extremely happy for him," Harris said Tuesday night. "I think it really shows what the playoffs are about. Every game is important so you never know who’s gonna be able to step up, but when you have great efforts from guys who step up and are out there making plays like he was making, it just further pushes us along.”
Milton's outburst came completely against the run of play, Philadelphia clinging to a one-point lead and staring down an Atlanta bench who had outscored them 32-0 through the first 24 minutes of action. Rivers was desperate for a shake up, and rather than watch Tyrese Maxey, George Hill, or Furkan Korkmaz continuing to beat their heads against the wall, he called on the guy who was asked to carry their second unit most of the year. By the time he was subbed, Milton had earned a standing ovation, the Wells Fargo Center swaying in ecstasy as he kept hammering shot after shot.
A performance like the one we saw from Milton is not just what makes the playoffs great, it's what makes sports worth watching in the first place. Heroes emerge when you least expect them, players overcome adversity in pressure-packed moments, and the resiliency of the human spirit is tested in front of an audience of millions. Hell of a night from Milton, who most likely will be back in the rotation in Game 3.
I can't recall the last time I saw a bench unit get outscored 32-0 in a single half the way the Sixers were on Tuesday night. Milton's performance felt as spectacular as it did because of how dire the situation was when he was forced into action. Atlanta's bench has a lot of firepower, but they are not better to the point that they should be blown out in that way.
It's not as though Rivers left them without help. Tobias Harris was pulled in the middle of a first-quarter heater in order to spread Philadelphia's resources around a little bit, a move that only slowed Harris down and did nothing to lift the bench. That's not to say it was wrong to finally stagger their stars, but it was dispiriting for Philly to get the worst of both worlds even as Rivers tried to offer them help.
I don't need to show you clips of multiple Furkan Korkmaz airballs. Suffice it to say they need to be better the rest of the way. Hopefully Milton gets them there.
When Ben Simmons picked up Trae Young on the first defensive possession of the game, the Sixers had effectively sent a statement of intent. No more easy trips to the paint for Young, no more speed advantage vs. Danny Green, no more playing around with the top assignment on Philadelphia's end.
Simmons, though, was just one part of the equation for Philadelphia — Matisse Thybulle actually had the superior statistical night against Young, forcing him into 2/6 shooting (admittedly with some tough foul calls attached) compared to 2/5 against Simmons. The scheme was the big winner in Game 2.
Instead of allowing Young to get a head of steam going as he turned the corner, the Sixers played more switch-heavy defense early in the game, sending the first defender in Atlanta's double-drag sets right at Young.
"I thought the switching early was good, I thought it took them out of their 77 and double drag play for the most part," Rivers said after the game. "Trae wants to go downhill, and we felt like to switch him it would at least flatten them out. Even if he beat our guys, it would give us time to adjust and be in our help positions...I thought that had some impact for us."
Just about everyone had more success guarding Young on Tuesday night compared to Game 1. Seth Curry and Danny Green were two of the worst defenders on the floor in Game 2, but they executed the start of this play perfectly, and as Young turns the corner and has the ball knocked away, he's staring down a defense prepared for every outcome. Embiid is patrolling the paint, Harris is ready to meet Young around the free-throw line, and Simmons is preventing a pass to the corner, leaving Atlanta's point guard with a dwindling set of options.
Refusing to cede space, as it turns out, is the correct way to approach a battle with one of the league's most dangerous pick-and-roll guards. Young missed some threes he'd probably like to have back, but that's often what happens when you force a guy to actively work for their makes instead of allowing them to walk into open shot after open shot to start the game.
The Sixers are expecting a more aggressive Young in Game 3. But if their execution is this crisp, it may not matter.
You probably won't find a bigger advocate for Danny Green than me on this beat, but he has been absolutely dreadful through the first two games of this series. Not being able to check Young is one thing, and it's the sort of assignment he has struggled with all season, but Green's mental mistakes last night are unbecoming for a player who has made a career out of doing the little things right.
This is the downside of the Green experience. When he's going bad, you're convinced he's never going to get it right again, with Green missing shots badly and turning in gruesome possessions on defense. Typically an excellent off-ball tracker, Green couldn't even get that right in Game 2:
He simply must be better.
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