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June 18, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers pull out tough win to force a Game 7 vs. Hawks

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The Sixers received a big boost off of the bench from Tyrese Maxey, and with another big Seth Curry game they were able to pull out a 104-99 victory on the road to force a Game 7 back in Philadelphia on Friday night.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• I asked readers after last game where they'd rank Seth Curry among their most important players in this series. Is there any argument for someone at No. 2 other than him at this point? He has absolutely carried Philadelphia on offense for stretches of this series, and with Embiid struggling to find the range against Atlanta on Friday night, it was up to Curry to be their primary option for a lot of Game 6.

He did a damn good job in that role, to the point that their point guard did very little other than get the ball across halfcourt and wait for Curry to come off of a screen. It wasn't a bad strategy — Curry was borderline unguardable in the third quarter, hitting shots with hands in his face, stationary, on the move, in every which way imaginable. There's just no good way to defend him, because if you close too hard, Curry is more than comfortable taking a dribble or two inside the arc and making a pull-up jumper.

I know, I know, the long two is not exactly a favorite of Daryl Morey or a lot of the analytics-friendly people around the league these days. But it is a critical shot at times in the playoffs, a pressure-release valve that high-level players make sure to work on for these exact moments. The Sixers don't have many mid-range assassins, but Curry's shot versatility is a big help this time of year.

Swapping Josh Richardson for Curry (who is on a team-friendly deal for years to come) is arguably the best move of the Daryl Morey era so far. Other than the post-COVID stretch, where Curry struggled to find his lungs and his legs while recovering from the illness, he has been lights out on offense. And when you're that good shooting the ball, you can excuse any defensive warts that come with it.

• Have yourself a game, Tyrese Maxey. With the Sixers stuck in the mud and in dire need of some juice off of the bench, Philadelphia's 20-year-old rookie stepped on the floor and absolutely punished Atlanta's miniature backcourt. On a night where a lot of other guys played with fear to start it off, Maxey looked as though he was too young to even understand the stakes. What a time for him to step up and show out.

From the start of the regular season to this very moment, Maxey has played with the confidence of a kid who is well aware of the work he puts in behind the scenes. He's always playing at his pace — which is to say, quite fast — and not allowing the defense to dictate where he wants to go. For some reason, the Hawks seemed convinced they didn't have to commit resources to stop him from getting downhill, and he punished them for it, dashing toward the rim and finishing some difficult layups in traffic.

As the game wore on, Maxey's confidence just kept growing and growing, to the point that he was calling his own number for some deep pull-up threes early in the fourth quarter. One of them got wiped off of the board by an off-ball foul where Dwight Howard got tangled, but we're not going to let that complicate our assessment of young Maxey. He was fearless, but he combined that with actual production. A lot of young guys can come in and just play stupid, free-flowing basketball. Maxey showed the composure of a starter in the making, and perhaps much more than that.

(It was, to put it lightly, a lot tougher for Maxey on the defensive end, where he was forced to guard Trae Young as he was in the midst of a heater. But he certainly competed hard and made Young shoot some tough runners and stepback jumpers, which is all you can really ask for against a guard of that caliber.)

If Philadelphia takes nothing else out of this series and this playoff run, they can feel good about the rookie showing he's built for this stage.

• Tobias Harris looked like he was well on his way to another disaster game after picking up two fouls in the first four minutes of the game, earning him a seat next to Doc Rivers on the sideline. But he managed to settle down and settle in as time wore on, perhaps because the floor opened up a bit for him once they didn't have a post-up center and a non-shooting point guard on the floor at the same time.

After basically disappearing from Game 5 on Wednesday, Harris was determined to make sure he went down swinging if this was Philadelphia's last game of the season. His mid-post shots weren't falling, but Harris was part of a strong first-half push from Philly by getting all the way to the rim and finishing with both hands, slowly but surely putting points on the board even without the benefit of the whistle.

Had a few shots bounced out and this game gone differently, at least you could give Harris his props for being willing to live and die on his terms. 

• If it wasn't for Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia's first-quarter deficit could have ballooned to 15-20 points in a hurry. The Sixers' starters were an absolute mess to open the game, and when Thybulle was forced to come into the game as a result of Tobias Harris' foul trouble, he at least provided some defensive toughness to see them through tough times.

As a matter of fact, he actively bailed out Joel Embiid specifically, recovering two different Embiid turnovers in the first quarter with great plays in transition defense. Add onto that a block he picked up flying at Clint Capela at the rim, and he had himself a hell of a start on the defensive end, no surprise to anybody who has been watching him the last two years.

Not sure why Rivers didn't go to him more throughout the game, especially considering that their offense was already pretty brutal as it is.

• We are getting a Sixers-Hawks Game 7 at home on Sunday night. This is what they fought for homecourt advantage for. Put up or shut up time.

The Bad

• Whether you think they were equipped to win a title or not, this was a massive statement game for the three core guys on Philadelphia's roster. Save for their Game 7 against Toronto two years back, this is the biggest game Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Ben Simmons have ever played. And at least two of those guys played like they were aware of that in the worst possible way. 

Joel Embiid having a bad night is probably more "defensible" than it is for any of the other guys, given the knee issue and his body of work in these playoffs. But that doesn't make it acceptable for him to turn in a clunker in the biggest game of the season with their backs against the wall. Embiid's face-up game wasn't working, and what's worse is that he settled for some absolutely ridiculous shots, including a stepback with a foot on the three-point line that barely drew iron.

He just did not look all there on offense. Embiid struggled to establish a position against guys like freaking Danilo Gallinari, who he should be putting in a body bag every time he's fortunate enough to draw that matchup. Philadelphia's lack of free throws, which some will credit to questionable officiating, stem from Embiid's decision to spend a lot of his night putting up jumper after jumper. I am not a, "Get your ass in the post!" guy, but on a night where the officials were calling all sorts of ticky-tack fouls, Embiid needed to put more pressure on Scott Foster and the gang to blow the whistle.

We've given him plenty of defensive credit in this series when he has deserved it, and I think he has ultimately been the guy who has had a bigger impact on Trae Young and the Hawks' offense than Simmons. That means he owns the responsibility when Young gets rolling, and he was absolutely on fire in the first half on Friday night. Embiid kept dropping toward the rim and conceding floaters and runners to Young, and once he got going from midrange, their chance to stop him was basically over. Embiid could not figure out when to play high and when to sink toward Capela, and even with Embiid dropping, Young was depositing lobs to Clint Capela and Co. over the top throughout the first half.

Embiid was certainly better in the second half, particularly on defense, where he made some great plays at the rim to turn away Hawks shot attempts. He also made up for his poor efficiency by brutalizing the Hawks on the offensive glass, pulling down seven offensive rebounds and scoring a fair few of his points on those looks. More than you can say about the next guy, but that's not setting the bar too high. 

• But if you're looking for the most infuriating performance from a star player, how could you look anywhere else but Ben Simmons? He crowed all year about wanting to be (and thinking he is) the Defensive Player of the Year. He has told us for years to start seasons that he's going to come out ready to shoot. He said four freaking years ago that hacking was not going to last long or impact him. His big statement after wilting over the course of Games 4 and 5 was to play an even worse version of those games, not even delivering a strong first half to make up for the eventual second half turtling.

Perhaps Doc Rivers was right to leave Simmons on lesser assignments early in games this season, because Simmons picked up some stupid fouls in Friday night's game in the process of trying to chase Trae Young. Hell, the third foul he got before halftime was one of the most pointless plays you'll ever see, a pseudo hustle play 94 feet from the basket that Clint Capela rewarded by embellishing the contact. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

Simmons was a -15 in the first half, an impressive feat considering that he only played nine minutes thanks to those fouls. When saying, "At least he attempted five shots!" feels like some sort of victory, you are in absolute loony toons land. 

If you can watch Tyrese Maxey play and still excuse away Simmons' insanity on the floor, I don't know what to tell you. A 20-year-old rookie checked into the game for him in the first quarter and looked like one of the best and most experienced guys on the floor. He put pressure on the rim, hunted his own shots, and forced the Hawks to show high against pick-and-rolls to get the ball out of his hands, resulting in good shots for other guys on the floor with him. That's what a point guard is here to do.

RELATED: Sixers are where they've always been, waiting for Simmons

What else do people need to see at this point? Doc Rivers could come out of retirement and do 90 percent of what Simmons did on offense Friday night as a player-coach. He dumps the ball off and then meanders through possessions with no purpose or plan, and even when he does find himself in advantageous positions, he's doing nothing to take advantage of them right now.

It was hard to follow up the last two games with a worse performance, but he managed it. Rivers had to sub him out of the game for an extended period of time in the fourth quarter just to avoid an extended free throw competition. Actually, that wasn't even the worst part — Rivers had to use their final timeout in order to sub out their max contract point guard so he wouldn't be put on the line.

Brutal to watch, brutal to think about.

• Doc Rivers stared down a brutal series (and season) from his bench, saw his team collapse in spectacular fashion, and decided to change almost nothing on Friday night. I'm just in awe of the audacity. And look, I suppose he was mostly right to do it! 

The Ugly

• When George Hill was wide open in transition for a first-quarter three and decided to slowly dribble in circles until everybody else got up the floor, I would have pulled him from the game right then and there. If he isn't going to take open threes, and he's not being asked to create, there's no point in having him on the floor. Send the message and put somebody out there who is at least willing to try.

• The Sixers didn't exactly do a whole lot to earn free throws on Friday night, but the officiating in this game was absolutely criminal. Embiid got called for a foul for getting grabbed around the neck by John Collins, Sixers players got run over with no whistle blown, and Trae Young used the same bag of grifting tricks to sucker the officials into some, shall we say, questionable calls.

I don't do conspiracy theories and I tend to land on "refs are bad" as a general rule, but if the league is looking to make a star out of Trae Young, pushing the series in Atlanta's direction wouldn't be the craziest thing in the world. 

• The damn lights went out in the building with two minutes to play in a do-or-die game. You can't make this stuff up.

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