June 12, 2021
Following an excellent performance in Game 2, Sixers center Joel Embiid reminded everyone after the game that Philadelphia had accomplished very little, with most of the work still there to be done. A Friday night victory in Atlanta later, the Sixers are two games away from a Conference Finals appearance, having flipped the series with a number of tweaks to their strategy on both ends of the floor. The best counterpunch Atlanta had to offer in Game 3 proved ineffective at stopping Philly's best players or making the game close for most of the night.
They may only be up a game, but the Sixers look like frontrunners. Here are just a few things that stood out on Friday night.
Ben Simmons' biggest fan wouldn't watch the first half of Game 3 and tell you he played well. The Sixers were out in front of Atlanta, but Simmons was an offensive passenger through the first 24 minutes, in need of some sort of jolt to get him going. It came in the form of a halftime message and mandate, delivered by the coaching staff and his teammates before they took the floor again.
"Yeah, we just thought he passed up too many opportunities in the fast break, at the post, and so we told him we're gonna come out and feature him on the post, and to be aggressive," Rivers said after the game. "I always think when you start him out passing on the post, then he gets aggressive in the game, and he was great for us. It's exactly what we need with his pace and power, he was great."
That message was received loud and clear. Simmons set up shop on the block and went to work in what ended up being the decisive third quarter, scoring 11 points and picking up three assists as the Sixers pulled away. It will inspire some to question why he doesn't just do this all of the time if all it takes is making it a point of emphasis at halftime. I think that misses the point — the Sixers (and Simmons!) recognized where he could offer more, executed on that vision, and came away with a victory as a result.
It was basically impossible to miss the point of emphasis coming out of halftime. The Sixers were doing everything they could to get Simmons matched up on the block with John Collins and eventually Danilo Gallinari, feeling comfortable they had the physical mismatch in either scenario. Atlanta appeared to feel the same way, because they attempted to shade help in Simmons' direction on more than one occasion. All that did was open up opportunities for Simmons to find shooters, which made it tougher to justify sending help in the first place.
Going this route could have easily backfired on Philadelphia, and was arguably only necessary in the first place because of how Atlanta's coverage of Joel Embiid changed. The Hawks were sending two, sometimes three defenders at the big man on the catch, daring other players to beat them and for Embiid to harm them as a passer.
"I saw the way they were guarding me," Joel Embiid said Friday. "[Clint Capela] didn't want to leave me alone. Even if I was at half court, it just seemed like they didn't want me to touch the ball, and as soon as the ball was in the air they kinda doubled me. But I just told him, he needs to be aggressive and he needs to attack. There's a lot of space especially with the way they're guarding me, so I told him to just be aggressive and just go out there and just dominate."
Throughout the game, mind you, Simmons was also expected to check Hawks guard Trae Young, who had another down night and looks flustered now that he is up against someone other than Danny Green. While guarding the most important offensive player for their opponent, Simmons is still capable of putting together an offensive stretch to put away a good team, which is both encouraging and slightly infuriating when you think of the moments where people have wanted this out of him in the past.
But even the coaching staff seems to feel the need to make sure they're not demanding too much from him, as a conversation Rivers shared with reporters revealed on Friday.
"When you think about what we're asking them to do — follow Trae Young around, follow him around screens and push the ball up the floor with pace, that's all we talked about at halftime," Rivers said. "One of my coaches reminded me that he was guarding Trae when I was yelling at him about pace. He said, 'He is guarding Trae too,' so it's tough, but he's young, he has endurance, so it's been good for us."
It was a tale of two halves, but Simmons' good half was so dominant that the other didn't matter. Not a bad night on the road.
Simmons has earned most of the praise for Young's downturn in this series, to some degree rightfully so. But between Embiid anchoring the backline and the other changes in approach made by Philadelphia over the last two games, it has been far from a one-man job. The Sixers are taking over the series on defense, delivering on their promise after an excellent regular season.
Any team with Embiid and Simmons as the building blocks is going to be good on defense basically by default. The difference this season is their ability to mix and match styles, to adapt to a situation as it becomes necessary, and in their ability to turn bad defenders into at least passable members of a good system. Dan Burke accomplished that last part many times over in Indiana, and he certainly deserves some credit for doing the same here with Philadelphia.
To illustrate this, I'm going to ask you to focus on one of the heroes of Friday night's win: Furkan Korkmaz. He is probably the last guy you'd think of when discussing Philadelphia's defensive toughness this season, but that's what makes him such a useful example of their development as a group this season.
The guy who eventually makes a play in the clip below is Joel Embiid, who is in the middle of one of the best defensive stretches of a monster career on that end. But watch as Korkmaz drops into a stance on-ball, shades toward Bogdan Bogdanovic as Seth Curry gets caught on a screen, and finishes the play ready to step in if the Sixers need him:
It is critical that Korkmaz is never too far away to either help out a teammate or recover to defend his own man if the ball swings to Kevin Huerter. Without the spectacular-looking play Embiid makes here, it's a play that gets lost over the span of 48 minutes, but is ultimately a great example of how you emerge victorious at the end.
On this next play, Korkmaz is the one who eventually breaks up an entry pass and sends Philadelphia running in the other direction, so he gets proper due for his efforts. But the work leading up to that point is just as important — Korkmaz helps the helper (Embiid in this case) by sinking on Clint Capela for just long enough to buy Embiid a recovery window. When Embiid gets in position to help out late in the clock following another Atlanta screen, Korkmaz is once again in a position to assist, and this time the ball comes his direction for a pass breakup and turnover forced:
Ultimately, Korkmaz and other members of the bench are still going to be in big trouble when they have to guard in isolation or navigate a maze of screens. They're bench players for a reason. But seeing role players contribute to their defensive success is a testament to what they've built this season, strong building blocks or not. They're making an impact without gambling, and that's a powerful thing.
I don't think George Hill has been the worst Sixers player in this round or these playoffs, but he has a case for the most disappointing. You expected guys like Milton and Maxey to have some up-and-down moments in the playoffs, which is exactly why you go out and get a veteran guard in the first place. He is supposed to be the security blanket for the second unit and has been anything but.
Hill's first quarter minutes against Atlanta on Friday night are probably the worst minutes he has played in a Sixers uniform. These are the sort of turnovers you would expect a nervous teenager to make in the playoffs, not a guy who has played on several contenders and looked composed during most of those deep playoff runs:
Though he came up with a nice steal helping off-ball on the other end, defense was not super pretty for Hill on Friday night. Lou Williams is admittedly a tough guy to keep down off the dribble even in the latter stages of his career, but Hill is normally up to the task of slowing the sixth man types of the world down. Getting crossed into oblivion by Sweet Lou made his offensive ineptitude sting a lot worse.
I think you let him play through this funk, but it has not been a good time for their big deadline acquisition, and it makes it much tougher to sell him as a replacement starter for our next guy...
There was not a lot of information to be had after the game, but it does not look very good for Danny Green, who left the game with a calf injury and was spotted on the sideline wearing a walking boot on Friday night. Even in a best-case scenario, the Sixers will likely have to survive at least part of this series without one of their starting five.
"It's a calf injury, just my doctor's degree I would tell you calf injuries aren't great," Rivers said. "I'm not ruling Danny out, but I'm pretty much ruling him out, I doubt if he plays in the next game."
For all the grief he has taken during this series, Green has nonetheless been a key ingredient in a starting lineup that has carried the Sixers this year. When opponents have decided to send extra attention in Embiid's direction while on the low block, it's Green who has been there to aid him in one form or another, serving as a capable entry passer and outlet or the reliable corner shooter on the opposite wing. There have been miscommunications and misfires for Embiid when other guys have moved around the perimeter trying to get open for him, but rarely with Green. There is a lot of value in always being in the right place at the right time, and they will almost certainly need someone with his wealth of experience as the stakes increase deeper in the playoffs.
A future date with Brooklyn looms next round — assuming the Bucks don't rally to make it a series — and the Sixers are going to need all the floor spacing and defensive toughness they can get. We'll discuss this a bit more later today.
Continuing a trend from their Game 2 win, the Sixers were proactive about attacking Young on the defensive end Friday. Atlanta made the risky call to use a Lou Willliams/Trae Young pairing in the first half of Game 3, and the Sixers almost immediately exploited it.
If there is a silver lining to the Green injury, you could argue it's here. The Hawks are desperate to hide Young on someone who isn't going to stray too far from the corner, and Green is the best bet Atlanta has to achieve that goal. Philly used Green in ball screens more proactively in Game 2, but there's a ceiling to that approach, in part because you don't really want Green to spend too much time attacking if that's the matchup the Hawks try to give you.
With Green out, the guy in that spot (save for Matisse Thybulle) is almost certainly a better bet to add some creative juice. From Shake Milton to Furkan Korkmaz, the Sixers had players on the floor who were threats to either shoot over Young off-the-dribble, ready to fire coming off of a screen, or capable of getting downhill and leaving Young in the dust after a simple on-ball screen. Even when Young has managed to not get stuck on the screen, he's not even making real attempts to contest shots, giving his man clear looks at the basket:
By forcing Young to play through contact at both ends of the floor, the Sixers have reduced his effectiveness in a big way over the last two games. Two more games of this, and they'll be on their way to the franchise's first conference finals appearance in 20 years.
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