On Saturday night, the Sixers had their best win of the early season so far. In their first game against the Atlanta Hawks since being eliminated by them in the playoffs, the Sixers had their finest performance yet, stepping up at both ends of the floor for a dominant 122-94 win.
For starters, their defense against the Hawks and Trae Young was terrific. Tyrese Maxey in particular deserves a lot of credit for his impressive play guarding Young, while Matisse Thybulle was a menace with four steals and three blocks. And as the Sixers’ defense locked in and they looked to push the pace, some improved transition play helped their offense get rolling, too.
The Sixers have missed Ben Simmons most in a few key areas. For one, they can’t replace his elite versatility and impact on defense. From there, their transition attack isn’t the same without his grab-and-go play, speed on the break, and ability to drive and kick to set up teammates. Simmons’ absence has also played a part in the Sixers ranking dead last in pace so far, down from 12th last season.
Well, despite the Sixers continuing to play slow overall, they scored 34 fast break points against the Hawks. After averaging just 14 fast break points over the previous four games, that boost against Atlanta was enough for the Sixers to climb to first in the NBA in that area with 18.5 a game.
The Sixers emphasize outlet passes and pushing the ball ahead quickly in transition, and wanted that to be a focus against the Hawks.
“I thought the biggest thing today was not even just Tyrese’s pace, it was the advance passes,” Doc Rivers said after the game. “We kept throwing the ball ahead and we showed 15 times in the last two games where if there’s a guy ahead, just throw it to him. The other team will make their own mistake, just with the advanced pass.”
Apart from Thybulle generating a few fast break points with his takeaways on defense, Shake Milton and Maxey were also key to attacking the Hawks’ recovering defense. Milton has played well in his first two games since returning from an ankle sprain, and Maxey had one of the best games of his career against Atlanta when you consider his efficient scoring (16 points on 6-of-8 shooting) and excellent defense against a strong opponent.
The two guards both found success driving up the court for fast break scores, while swift outlet passes helped create three-pointers or chances for guys like Tobias Harris to drive past scrambling defenders:
“I mean, if we get stops and we bust out and start running, that’s easy baskets for us and easy baskets are hard to come by in this league,” Maxey said after the game. “So the more easy baskets you can get, it sets our defense and keeps the flow of the offense.”
“Seth [Curry] got two threes just because we pushed the ball ahead,” Rivers added. “You know, they ran and guarded the wrong guy. That’s what that does, it puts so much pressure on your defense, and that’s something you can do all year. That doesn’t stop when the playoffs start, you can keep doing that, and that’s what we have to keep doing. And then when we didn’t have that, Tyrese pushed it up with pace.”
We saw how much adding quick-trigger shooters like Curry and Danny Green helped the Sixers last season. When defenders are late to close out, rotate, or recover on fast breaks, guys like Curry and Green can make them pay. Now Georges Niang is in the mix as well, and Curry maintaining the increased aggressiveness he showed late last regular season and in the playoffs makes him even more valuable right now.
Even though the Sixers shot just 12-of-38 (31.6 percent) from three against the Hawks, their number of attempts at 38 is the kind of volume they need to consistently aim for.
The next play is a good example of what pushing the ball ahead to shooters can do. Harris and Maxey fire passes ahead right away, promptly setting up Curry for a corner three. With John Collins still running back down the floor and Curry being willing to shoot without hesitation, the Sixers can punish a recovering defense when there’s still 20 seconds left on the shot clock:
Niang won’t hesitate to fire, either. Closeouts don’t faze him, and he’s happy shooting at high volume when relocating into space in the half court or when trailing in transition. In his first six games in Philly, he’s shooting 46.4 percent from three on 4.7 attempts per game (9.3 per 36 minutes).
Here, when Danilo Gallinari dipped under Andre Drummond as Niang brought the ball up the floor and Gorgui Dieng was slightly late to step up after switching, the Sixers’ new sharpshooter calmly drilled a pull-up three:
“That [transition play] will allow us to just open up the game,” Harris said. “When we’re able to get out in transition while the other team isn’t set defensively, get open looks, threes. For us I think it increases our pace. Guys are out running, feeling good. Getting a stop and going with it and converting. That just helps us out all around.”
Believe it or not, the Sixers currently rank first in offensive rating at 114.9. It’s not the most convincing ranking, though, when you consider the tiny sample size and the fact that they’ve only faced a couple of average defensive teams at best and three that currently rank in the bottom 10.
The Sixers’ shot profile also hints at some unsustainable success. They rank third in three-point percentage at 38.5, led by Curry’s red-hot 63 percent stroke from deep. That may only be slightly higher than the 37.4 percent they shot from three last year, but they rank just 17th in three-point attempts, 29th in attempts in the restricted area, and 23rd in free throw attempts. If the Sixers’ limited number of threes and lack of efficient points at the rim and free throw line catches up with them, their offense is surely going to slow down when they face better opposition.
Of course, with Joel Embiid, a bunch of quality role players, and growing young talents like Maxey, there are reasons to be positive. The Sixers can still be competitive and hone their offense as the season develops, but some weaknesses won’t be removed until they add the kind of scoring, playmaking guard that they’re missing.
“We got stops and run out. We’ve got to get more of that,” Curry said after defeating the Hawks. “That’s a big part that Ben brought to us last year, the transition game. So we’ve got to figure out ways to rebound and push up the floor fast and get easy buckets. And we did a good job of that tonight. Tyrese was good at that when he got the ball, pushing the ball up the floor. Advance passing. So we’ve gotta continue to get better at that.”
The more the Sixers can pick up the tempo, stay aggressive in transition and capitalize with any quick looks they generate, the more they can lift up an offense which is going to have its struggles in the half court.