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October 30, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers dominate Hawks in terrific team performance

The Sixers dominated the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night, getting their first statement win of the year in a 122-94 drubbing of last year's second-round opponent. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Sixers got off to a brutal start in last year's series against Atlanta thanks in large part to their poor defensive gameplan against Trae Young. Without the Ben Simmons card to play, you might have thought they'd be in trouble on Saturday night, but they were excellent at containing him in pick-and-rolls early.

They may not have played inch-perfect defense, but the Sixers did not allow the Hawks to attempt even one easy shot in the first quarter, sending help wherever it was needed on any given play. When Atlanta tried to post DeAndre Hunter up to exploit a size mismatch against Seth Curry, the Sixers only waited about one possession before shading help that way to stop the plan in its tracks. Joel Embiid walked the tightrope well against Young pick-and-rolls, showing just high enough to dissuade jumpers and sticking close enough to his man to prevent easy lobs. And the off-ball work was excellent, with the Sixers showing active hands and good rotations away from the heart of plays.

Despite Young's attempts to bait them into a foul game — he did succeed against Tyrese Maxey a couple of times — the Sixers played disciplined on the whole, forcing the Hawks to string several passes together on each possession in search of a clean look. Some of the best work they've done on defense this season.

• This was easily my favorite Tobias Harris game of the season so far, and not necessarily because he got shots to fall and came up with some nice finishes in traffic. Away from the play, Harris was doing the necessary work to draw attention and avoid the Sixers stagnating on offense, and even when he didn't end up with the ball, it led to a better-looking offense for Philly.

The best off-ball action is basically the inverse of playing on the wing in soccer — there are times when you are going to make a gut-busting overlap that doesn't warrant a pass in your direction, opening up a second run up the middle and a more direct path toward goal. On Saturday, Harris' bursts into the paint drew eyes and bodies and freed up shooters who remained on the perimeter. He's never going to draw attention like a JJ Redick, running through a maze of screens, but regular cuts toward the rim will loosen this offense up.

Another thing I think you can attribute to Harris from Saturday's game? The Sixers looking like a faster team than they had up to this point in the year. Harris ran the floor with purpose, if not with the ball in his hands than certainly to get to a place where he could spot-up, forcing the Hawks to make tough decisions on odd-man breaks.

Yes, Harris also straight-up produced in this game, putting up an efficient 22-11-4 while playing solid, steady defense against his counterpart, John Collins. But the best version of this team is going to hinge on Harris doing more than just making shots, and that's what makes a night like this one feel slightly more important than a pure scoring outburst.

• Joel Embiid's touch once again deserted him for extended stretches of this game, with jumpers and layups alike clanging off of the rim. But he strung together an excellent sequence in the second quarter, putting himself on the free-throw line to build a rhythm and send the Sixers into halftime feeling good.

Embiid succeeded with a wider variety of moves and shots on Thursday than we've seen in any other game this season so far. There was a quick blow-by of Clint Capela, a made three, some pull-up jumpers from mid-range, basically all of the things he showcased during last year's run at the MVP award. And he kept Atlanta's bigs in foul trouble all night, with Clint Capela slinking off to halftime with three fouls and his backup (Gorgui Dieng) picking up a pair of his own in eight first-half minutes.

(The passing, by the way, continues to look better this season. Embiid was not rewarded for all of his passes out of double teams, but he had a nice look off in the third quarter that got Curry a wide-open three. Steps forward are being taken.)

Even when his touch wasn't there, though, Embiid's defense as the organizer and problem solver in the paint was sensational. Young struggled to get a foothold in this game regardless of who was defending him, and a big chunk of the credit belongs to the big guy, who stayed light on his feet and barked at his teammates in an effort to move the chess pieces into positions of strength for Philly.

For me, this was the best Embiid has looked physically since the preseason, and it's probably not a coincidence that it came on a night where his availability was never in question after a string of "game-time decision" outings for him. This is still a touch-and-go situation, but when he can move and explode at a normal level, things look quite a bit different. Now just make more freaking shots, big guy.

• There was a lot of focus on what Seth Curry didn't or couldn't do to stop Kevin Huerter in Game 7 last season, which completely ignored what Curry did do to exploit any weaknesses in the Hawks on the other end. Curry started slow on Saturday night, but as the Hawks got more aggressive trying to attack him in the third quarter, the Sixers got Curry more involved on offense, forcing bigger Hawks players to try to chase him through and around screens.

The end result was Curry getting a bunch of clean looks from midrange, with the Hawks basically helpless to stop him. There will always be a reflex to pull guys who are getting picked on by the opponent, but the Hawks tried too hard to go to that strategy on Saturday without the results to back it up, and Curry did more damage by simply playing his game on offense.

• I'm not sure if Cam Reddish wronged Matisse Thybulle in another life, but he was blocking the Norristown native's shot as if he had a personal vendetta against him. Thybulle had two blocks in the first half that would be the defensive highlight of the season for a bunch of good players around the league, and both came against poor Reddish.

The first came on a potential three in transition for Reddish, who loaded up for his shot and did not appear ready for Thybulle to get into the picture. Not only did he get in the picture, he volleyball swatted the shot several rows back, visibly amused by the play after he made it.

A couple of minutes later, Reddish was at the controls for a pick-and-pop with Gorgui Dieng, and appeared to have a sliver of daylight in the painted area. Not so fast, Thybulle said, before embarrassing Reddish once again:

Not too shabby.

• A couple of borderline foul calls aside, I thought Tyrese Maxey did a good job of understanding his assignment without losing sight of his broader responsibilities in the scheme. Maxey tracked Young well enough, offering rearview contests on floaters and a hand in his face on jumpers, and when he passed off Young to other teammates on switches, Maxey moved seamlessly into other roles, tagging bigs and chasing shooters out to the line when necessary.

You would like to see him more involved in the offense for sure, with the young guard relegated mostly to attacking in transition on Saturday night. But with the Hawks worn down and trailing by 20+ in the fourth quarter, the game briefly turned into the Maxey show, with the young guard getting to the rim repeatedly and killing this one off for good. Any hesitance to use him prior to that felt fine in the gameflow, with the Sixers mostly getting what they wanted regardless of who they ran offense through.

And hey, we even got a Maxey pull-up three against the Hawks, which is always a beautiful sight.

The Bad

• The one glaring issue Philadelphia had against the Hawks was an inability to kill off possessions on the defensive glass, a problem that has popped up in a few games already this year. The Sixers did a damn good job and a lot of work to prevent clean looks for Atlanta, but that work was often undone by inattentiveness on the glass. The Hawks punished them for the oversight, keeping the game closer than it should have been through 24 minutes with second-chance points.

There's not one man to point the finger to on this one. There were times when Embiid should have done a better job of boxing out and ending plays himself, but there were also times when he was pulled away from the rim to help defensively, only for the guys left in that territory to fall asleep on the job.

Without Ben Simmons, a good rebounder himself who helps other Sixers look better by simply adding size and being on the floor, the Sixers have to commit harder to finishing off plays as a group. Embiid needs to come down with more on his own, no doubt, but they have to gang rebound when they have a small backcourt on the floor, which is the case more often than not these days.

• Honestly, the Hawks are trying to figure things out with a deeper rotation than they had in the playoffs, but this game highlights what a crime it was that the Sixers choked away that second-round series. Philly didn't even shoot particularly well in this game and it was still never close for most of the night. 

The Ugly

• It turns out "What did Trae shoot?" may not have been the ironclad defense of his Game 7 performance Ben Simmons thought it was in late June. 

• This city does not like Trae Young very much after getting to know him quite well across seven games in June, and you sort of understand it watching him. Young is a remarkably talented player who made a few ridiculous passes that Hawks players were not prepared for, and hate is the ultimate sign of respect from an opposing fanbase. But there's also the annoying foul-drawing tactics, which drew loud boos whenever they appeared on Saturday night. 

By the way, Sixers fans might need to come up with something a little more creative than making fun of Young's hair (which I agree is quite awful). If that's the best we as a city have to throw at this guy, revisit the drawing board.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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