The 76ers more than made the Hawks sweat, due to a three point barrage from the Sixers in the third quarter and a weird lack of turnovers. But all-star center Al Horford responded, scoring 23 points (including 11 in the fourth quarter) to seal a late victory for the team with the NBA's best record.
The overwhelming story of this game was the Sixers' response to the Hawks' defensive gameplan. Atlanta keyed in on defending the paint and Robert Covington, daring anyone else to beat them from any other spot on the floor. It worked for about 20 minutes, as the Sixers scored just 10 first quarter points and couldn't get out of their own way.
Then, inspired by Brett Brown's edict to let the players fire away from distance, the Sixers scored 51 points in the second half against the league's fifth best defense and made a game out of what was once a 21-point lead. Led by Hollis Thompson's four three pointers, the Sixers hit 14 as a team in 35 attempts, a season-high in both categories. The second-half threes erased a halftime deficit of 15, and a Michael Carter-Williams drive-and-dish to Nerlens Noel gave the Sixers an 83-81 lead with just minutes left in the game.
So they came close to breaking Atlanta's 18-game winning streak, but Al Horford made sure the fun doesn't stop. He played brilliantly on both ends all night, but maybe most key was his play early in the fourth when the Sixers went to a lineup featuring Luc Mbah a Moute as the center. Henry Sims struggled in the first half, so Brett Brown went away from him in the fourth quarter. Horford scored six points against that lineup in one-on-one post situations. Then later, he hit a game-clinching 18-footer over Nerlens Noel.
The Hawks are just a great team right now. The Sixers played well - better than they could be expected to - but still came up short.
1. Jerami Grant hit every shot he took last night (4-4 from the floor, 2-2 from the line) and gets more intriguing by the day. A takeaway I had from last night: when does he get the K.J. McDaniels treatment? When do teams realize that Grant can shoot and start to chase him off the line? Grant might not feel the effect as much, since the majority of his minutes still come in lineups where he's functionally a power forward. Can he respond and develop his dribble-drive and in-between game enough to play as a wing?
2. I mentioned him above, but seeing Hollis Thompson play well in extended minutes was pretty great. He started for JaKarr Sampson in the second half.
3. The Sixers left Kyle Korver open about four times in the first quarter, and multiple Sixers went "under" the screens set for him during the game.
4. Robert Covington really struggled last night, mostly due to the Hawks' gameplanning. Whether it was Korver, Kent Bazemore, or John Jenkins, whoever defended the wings tried gluing himself to Covington. Bobby C shot the ball anyway, with terrible results, 4-15 overall and 1-9 from three. He did end up with four assists, as the entire defense collapsed upon him when driving, leaving open threes for anyone else he could make a pass to.
5. Dennis Schroder, picked immediately after Carter-Williams in the 2013 NBA Draft, is a very interesting prospect. Like MCW, he cannot shoot worth a lick, and defenses will accept any pull-up shot from anywhere outside 10 feet when defending him. But he's so quick he can get layups against sagging defenses - so much so that the Sixers intentionally let him shoot wide-open threes twice in the game in order to ensure he couldn't get to the rim. Unfortunately for the Sixers, Schroder hit both of the aforementioned shots.
(I'm an MCW believer/apologist, and still think of him as a better prospect, even considering age)
6. The Sixers fly to Cleveland today and will play the surging Cavaliers tomorrow night. LeBron is expected to play in this one. Good luck, Sixers.