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June 11, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers use big third quarter to beat Hawks in Game 3

The Sixers pulled away from the Hawks behind an excellent third quarter from Ben Simmons on Friday night, scoring a 127-111 Game 3 victory to steal homecourt advantage back from the Hawks. Joel Embiid led the way for the Sixers once again with 27 points, adding nine rebounds and eight assists to round out another exceptional night.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Simmons played some of his most infuriating basketball of the season in the first half, actively avoiding opportunities to score in service of wild passes late in the shot clock. Instead of going away from him, the Sixers ran almost all of their offense through him to open the third quarter. Boy, did that turn out to be a good decision.

With the Hawks opting to single cover him in the post, Simmons began going to work as few players in the league can, carving Atlanta up whenever they put a foot in the wrong direction. Help started coming his way, mind you, because Simmons went strong to the rim and played unafraid of contact, forcing the Hawks to live with someone like John Collins defending him in space.

That was, as it turns out, not a fruitful pairing for the Hawks. It wasn't even worse with Danilo Gallinari on him, and with Atlanta focusing more attention on Simmons, that opened opportunities for the Sixers to get creative with Embiid off-ball:

(I'll be honest, I was cringing at the idea of Embiid going up for an oop after an issue with his knee shortly before this happened, but it's still great to see these two connect on lobs.)

Frankly, we saw some of the best Embiid/Simmons combination play of the year in Game 3, with several opportunities unfortunately left on the table. Atlanta committed double and even triple teams in Embiid's direction, and in contrast to some issues he had during the regular season, Embiid regularly hit Simmons on cuts on Friday night. They didn't result in points, but the seeds of success are there.

It's not accurate to say this version of Simmons is always within him because he's not always going to get matchups that are as friendly as this one. Asking him to carve up Danilo Gallinari is reasonable, and the Sixers deserve credit for going back to that well.

One last note on Simmons: I think it's going to be hard to ultimately quantify his defensive impact on Trae Young and this series. Young's numbers are down after Game 1 in a big way, but Young seems downright disinterested in trying to work to get the ball back if it gets away from him. Simmons is making him work hard for everything he gets, and it already seems to be adding up.

• Atlanta had a much different approach against Embiid in Game 3, sending waves of defenders at him at a time to force the Sixers to win through anybody but their franchise center. The guy who stepped up in the first half to carry the weight was, to no one's surprise, Sixers forward Tobias Harris. This is what he has been doing all season, and he has taken his game to another level in the playoffs.

With Atlanta banged up and undersized on the wing, Harris has basically been able to get whatever matchups he wants against the Hawks, leading to a lot of shots that look tough on paper but are ultimately just Harris shooting over smaller players. After a series where he used his core strength to blow through Rui Hachimura, Harris is doing the same to the collection of players the Hawks are using to test him, dominating from the mid-post area where he has set up shop a lot of this season. 

Harris also came up with some huge plays in transition defense during the first half, a sore spot for Philadelphia all year. With the game devolving into a frantic mess thanks to a series of ugly turnovers for both teams, commitment in transition was more important than ever on Friday night.

This performance was damn near perfect from Harris, who has not only matched his excellent regular season but taken his game to a new level in these playoffs. He's a top scoring option, and then he's a playmaker, and then he's a leader on defense, and he's just as happy and productive in each one of those roles. 

• This was not the scorching performance of Game 2, or even the high-scoring night he had in Game 1 during a loss. But this was a mature, polished performance from Embiid on both ends of the floor, who responded to the game in front of him instead of trying to hero ball his way through aggressive coverage. Dominance takes different forms, and Embiid continues to play absolutely sensational basketball when they need him most.

Embiid has talked on several occasions throughout the year about how increased trust in his teammates has been a difference-maker for his own play. The results of an offseason roster shakeup are clear watching him right now — Embiid is spraying passes all around the floor, from the post and while facing up, opening up the offense for a group of teammates who rely on him. It hasn't taken away from his dominance in the post, it has only enhanced it, forcing defenders to guess what he's going to do in order to slow down the Sixers on offense.

The scary thing is that Embiid has been at least as good, if not better, on the defensive end of the floor. Even on shots the Hawks are making around the basket, Embiid is forcing guys to use preposterous arc and shoot from unorthodox angles to simply get around his arms at the basket. Bogdan Bogdanovic had to make a layup off of the top of the backboard in the first quarter, a play that was weirdly representative of Embiid's dominance. 

Covering as much ground as Embiid is right now would be difficult with 100 percent health, and he's doing it with a torn meniscus. He is playing the best pick-and-roll basketball of his career on both ends of the floor, adding another layer to his game that many never thought would come.

If the Sixers had not told you or I that he was hurt in this series, your only chance at guessing would be the small grimaces and moments of pain that he lets shine through momentarily. But they don't last long, and before you know it, Embiid is throwing some poor soul out of the way on his way to the basket. He is the biggest and baddest dude on the floor, and he is playing like it:

It is hard to say enough about this guy right now, whether he's a walking decoy or the one-man wrecking crew on an individual play. No matter what has been thrown at him in these playoffs, he has figured out a way to get his Roddy Piper on. The Hawks can't defend him without fouling, and they are going to die a swift death if they can't figure that out.

• The shining light of the first quarter wasn't Embiid, Harris, or Simmons, but...Furkan Korkmaz? Subbed into a game that could be described as chaotic at best, Korkmaz immediately gave the Sixers a shot in the arm on offense, getting hot as everybody else struggled to complete basic passes to teammates.

Korkmaz showed off a little bit of everything in the first quarter, blowing by Trae Young for a layup, hitting some standstill shots from the corners, and canning a three above the break coming off of a screen, hitting the sort of shot off movement many figured would make him a coveted rotation player during the Doc Rivers era. 

It has been an up and down season for Korkmaz, but he was great for the Sixers in Game 3, and he was rewarded for his exploits with a second-half start in Danny Green's absence. Next man up mentality has been key to their success all season, and Korkmaz was the embodiment of it on Friday.

• Hunting Young has proven a bit trickier than expected for the Sixers, predominantly because the Hawks just stick him on corner shooters, players the Sixers want to be static around Embiid post-ups a lot of the time. There was one silver lining to Green leaving the game early — the Sixers had a lot of bench-heavy groups without static players on the floor, and they used that fact to target Young's inability to defend.

Using some good, old-fashioned pick-and-roll offense, the Sixers exploited Young's inability to fight through contact in the middle stages of the second quarter, with Harris and Shake Milton both turning the corner and seeing daylight in front of them. The results of the possessions were much different — Harris found Dwight Howard for points at the rim, while Milton pulled up for a three with Young overcorrecting to get between him and the rim. But they were equally effective regardless of what they were trying to do, finally cashing in on a matchup we spotlighted before the series even began.

• Seth Curry has been borderline unplayable on defense at times in these playoffs, and it basically hasn't mattered because of how indispensable he has been on offense. He was the human glue to this team all year, and he is shooting the hell out of the ball from deep in the postseason, which is just about all that matters for him.

• Kudos to the vast majority of the bench and the rotation at large for what they provided on Friday night. Matisse Thybulle was a homewrecker on defense during early minutes, Tyrese Maxey did some damage as an attacker, Howard was a formidable lob threat when Atlanta went small, and Milton seems to have gotten his groove back, unsurprising after one of the great performances of his career in Game 2.

We (or should I say I?) have killed the bench for most of this season, and the starters have certainly carried the team, but it has taken everyone to push them to the No. 1 seed and a 2-1 lead in this series. Homecourt advantage has been taken back. 

The Bad

• George Hill was brought in at the deadline to bring a sense of stability and two-way play to the Sixers' second unit, and we saw that in flashes during the regular season. But he has not shown up to the second-round party yet, and he was actively harmful in the first half of Game 3, cooked by Lou Williams on one end while coughing the ball up in bewildering fashion on the other.

If Hill was simply missing open shots, it's pretty easy to live through those bad stretches and keep him in the rotation. But he does not look like the crafty veteran meant to stabilize the second unit at the moment. I think he has a long enough track record to bet on him returning to form, but the Sixers may have to keep a close eye on him as these playoffs wear on.

The Ugly

• Green limped to the sideline early and retreated to the locker room, eventually ruled out for the rest of Game 3 before the first quarter had even ended. That is not a great sign for a guy's future availability, especially a veteran in his 30s with a lot of miles on the odometer.

Up to this point in the series, Green has been a negative for Philadelphia, a big part of the reason Young was able to get rolling in Atlanta's Game 1 victory. But losing him would be a big potential blow to their playoff experience, floor spacing, and overall intelligence on the floor, even if those haven't shown up much in the opening stretch of this series. He has been one of their most reliable players all season, and they have to turn to a bunch of shaky bench options if he can't go.

(Bad news: Green was spotted in a walking boot in the arena on Friday night, which doesn't seem like a great sign.)

• The NBA is going to have to legislate some of the theatrics out of the game or stop rewarding them, because some of the calls Young is getting in this series are absolutely ridiculous. Throwing your body backward into a trailing defender and being rewarded for it is just plain silly.

To be clear, the Sixers would be impacted if they did this. Embiid is one of the best salesmen in the league. But I'd like to see more basketball and less acting when I watch these games.

• It sure seemed like a contingent of Hawks fans cheered when they saw Embiid grab his knee in the third quarter, which would be a headline story if the roles were reversed. And then it happened again when Embiid took a hard fall midway through the fourth quarter. Embarrassing stuff.

• For the love of god, Joel, learn when to chill out and protect yourself. I don't think most people in the area can stomach watching you hit the floor anymore.

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