June 14, 2021
The Sixers had a great chance to put the Hawks down 3-1 on the road Monday night, and a horrific Joel Embiid half combined with poor efforts elsewhere led to a 103-100 loss to Atlanta. It's a whole new series after a Game 4 disaster.
Here's what I saw.
• Is it possible that we've underrated Seth Curry's contributions to this team? The Hawks are trying their best to expose Curry on defense, running him through screens and keeping him active on that end, and they can't seem to dampen his impact no matter how hard they try. He is in a zone on offense right now, and whenever the Sixers have him on the floor, good things are happening.
Philadelphia isn't spamming two-man game with Curry and Embiid the way they did with the Redick-Embiid combo during Brett Brown's tenure, but they're getting a lot of milage out of sets the team used back then. Curry's shotmaking ability makes him a threat out of all types of actions — curling off of a screen, coming downhill in a pick-and-roll, and certainly as a stationary target, but it's rare that he gets an opportunity to catch a swing pass without somebody already in his face.
The Hawks are living in such fear of him that they've allowed Embiid of all people to get open as they try to stay in front of Curry on his way to a shot attempt. Can you imagine briefly abandoning an MVP finalist to try to stop somebody else? That's how dangerous Curry has been on offense at times in this series, hitting stepback jumpers and dusting perimeter defenders for layups with equal ease.
Curry's primary function on Monday night was to bail the Sixers out of bad possessions. Thankfully, he's overqualified for that job, and he helped them stay out in front for a lot of the night even as his teammates lost their damn minds.
• Shake Milton was put into cold storage after stinking up the Wells Fargo Center in round one, but he has quickly transformed into one of their most important rotation players once again. They may not have won Game 2 at home without him, and they certainly would not have won Game 4 without him, because "just let Shake create something" was one of their best offensive plays on Monday night.
The thesis for months has been that Milton would be better served moving into an off-ball role, but with George Hill playing poorly and Tyrese Maxey not trusted a whole lot in this series, Milton has taken back the reins as the sixth man again. Philadelphia could have been punished in a huge way for running a bench-heavy unit to open the quarter, but Milton propped them up all by himself, even with Tobias Harris in the game and ostensibly ready for duty.
That redemption story came crashing down in the final moments, with Milton staring down what could have been a game-tying three in the final seconds and panicking something fierce. Not even the good performances on Monday came without massive flaws.
•The Sixers play a brand of basketball that is admittedly in my wheelhouse, but there are few things more fun to watch in the league than Embiid and Ben Simmons just imposing their will on a game physically. Embiid was blowing Clint Capela off of his spot on defense, then sprinkling in baseline fadeaways like they were no big deal. Simmons was picking up fouls early in the shot clock by running the floor and sealing off smaller defenders and then spraying passes to all corners of the floor once he drew more attention to the post.
In the second quarter, we got basically the best possible version of that combination, with Embiid cooking Capela in the paint and Simmons flying all over the place on both ends. Another 24 minutes of that, and Philly might have broken Atlanta's spirit.
So, about that...
• Shotmaking masked a pretty sloppy first half for the Sixers on Monday night, and perhaps that gave them the wrong impression heading into their halftime meeting. This was a team that needed to sharpen things up in order to put the game out of reach and leave no doubt heading down the stretch, and instead, they seemed to relax, allowing the Hawks back in the game with issues all over the floor and all over the roster.
We have to start with Embiid, who was on fire to end the first half but insistent on forcing up a lot of junk in the second half. I suppose that's the downside of empowering a big man to take such a wide variety of shots, but this looked closer to the "old" Embiid than the MVP-caliber player we've seen all season. A lot of settling for jumpers, some uninspired defensive possessions, a failure to box out here and there, it all added up to give the Hawks life.
Frankly, the worst part of his performance was Embiid's lack of trust in his teammates. All season long, he has emphasized how much easier his life has been by putting faith in the guys around him, passing when doubles come and knowing guys will make the right plays, if not actually make shots. This second half brought back visions of Embiid at his worst, playing hero ball even when he didn't have it going. His frustration was visible, and he knows better than to let that show in-game.
If you're looking for a reason behind that, Embiid did not look good physically in the second half, and perhaps the meniscus issue started really bothering him at an inopportune time for the Sixers. Embiid did retreat to the locker room to get looked at in the first half, eventually returning while doing a lot of leaning and grimacing near the bench. Whether it was a product of being hurt or not, this is not what we've come to expect from Embiid in 2021, and the lack of trust he showed in his teammates was punished quickly.
(With all of that being said, he still had a great opportunity to win it in the final 10 seconds of the game. Doc Rivers drew up a good play for the Sixers out of their final timeout, Tobias Harris made the right read, and Embiid simply missed it.)
• Embiid wasn't exactly bailed out of that behavior when other guys had their chances to right the ship. Missing one of their starters and a big energy guy at that, the Sixers got run through and around by Atlanta in the third quarter, with nobody able or willing to stop the bleeding. After their success playing through Simmons in Game 3, you could argue they should have tried to go back to that well. But they didn't, and Simmons' impact on the game came to a screeching halt at halftime as a result.
My biggest knock against Simmons continues to be exactly that. As the point guard of the team, it's on Simmons to get things organized and move pieces around the chessboard on the fly when things are going wrong. The jumper and his free throws are not problematic on their own, they're an issue because of how they limit his ability to adapt if the game gets away from Philly on offense.
Since their best ballhandler can't run a basic pick-and-roll in the guts of the game, that leaves it up to the rest of the team to figure it out. Simmons is not responsible for Embiid losing his mind and playing some of the worst basketball he has played all season, full stop. But he is responsible on some level for the entire offense, and showed no ability or willingness to get Philadelphia moving in the right direction.
Harris, often the savior for this group in second halves, also could not sustain the momentum of a good first half. He had it going as a catch-and-shoot player early in the game, but he faded from the game as it got closer to the final whistle, something you haven't been able to say often this year.
• As bad as their offense was during the second half, there's a strong case to be made that their defense was even worse. They stood face to face with their old nemesis, transition defense, and they somehow stared death in the eye and came out victorious. Frankly, it was due mostly to dumb luck, with the Hawks leaving a lot of points on the table on missed threes.
"It's a make or miss league" is a cliche that works to describe any number of games during the regular season, but usually it's a more complicated story in the playoffs. I'm not sure it was more complicated than that on Monday night — Atlanta could have cruised to an easy victory if they had simply made the boatload of open shots they were gifted, and the Sixers should feel fortunate they were within striking distance by the time crunch time rolled around. They played maybe one good quarter all night.
• I'm not sure there was a more confusing outcome in these playoffs than George Hill becoming one of the most erratic and mistake-prone players on Philadelphia's roster. Hill is finding himself caught in mid-air on passes that become turnovers, throwing wild layup attempts up at the rim, and struggling to find his footing in any way on offense. After looking like he was settling in toward the end of the regular season, Hill finds himself in a really difficult spot right now.
Hill should be a guy competing for a starting job with Danny Green on the shelf. How could you justify throwing him in the starting lineup with how he's playing at the moment? Your best case rests on how bad the next guy was on Monday.
• I was one of the vocal supporters of Furkan Korkmaz starting heading into this game and still believe it's a good idea in theory. Nobody cares about theory when a guy plays disastrous minutes in a playoff game, and we'll have to wait and see if Rivers continues to pop the Kork in the games left to be won. And I don't mean as a starter — when Korkmaz is this bad, there's a case to boot him from the rotation entirely.
Everything Korkmaz could have done wrong in the first half of Game 4, he did. Missed rotations, missed shots, missed reads for easy buckets his teammates could have scored, Korkmaz played the first 24 minutes as if he had blinders on. Though Korkmaz was effective alongside the other starters basically every time his number was called in the regular season, this was a good example of the difference of being ready for that pressure in the regular season compared to the playoffs. The Hawks were playing desperate (if extremely sloppy) basketball, and Korkmaz did not seem well prepared for it.
Korkmaz's ability to attract attention on the perimeter makes him valuable on some level in any game, even when he's struggling like this. But they'll need a better version of Korkmaz if he hopes to have a role moving forward.
• On the day he was named to his first All-Defense team, Matisse Thybulle made a few highlight-reel plays to remind everyone how he earned the honor in the first place. Unfortunately, the Hawks also made it clear they were not going to spend any energy guarding him on Monday night, and Thybulle did very little to punish them for it, bricking jumper after jumper as they collapsed on teammates who drove the lane.
This is going to be his fate in the playoffs until he convinces opponents they should defend him in any other way. Get him in the gym this summer and let him go to work.
• I'm not sure there has been a sloppier quarter all season than the one the Sixers and Hawks played to start this game. Philadelphia threw back-to-back possessions away with passes that went off of the rim, the Hawks missed multiple unguarded lob attempts, Korkmaz attempted a layup that hit nothing but backboard, this one had everything. It was closer to a slapstick comedy routine than it was a basketball game.
That being said, the Sixers managed to find themselves leading 28-20 by the time the quarter was over. In a road playoff game, that's beyond what you could hope for in a chaotic start.
• We are ultimately going to see what the ultimate cost of this game will be for the Sixers. At the very least, they have to play one more game in order to close out this Hawks team, and they have put themselves at increased risk for things to go sideways with Joel Embiid. The big guy himself owns a lot of the responsibility there, but it's their problem collectively to deal with now.
They remain the more talented team, and they had a golden chance to go ahead in the final 10 seconds that they wasted.
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