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Sixers vs. Hawks: What Changed from Game 1 to Game 2

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NBA: Playoffs-Atlanta Hawks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers bounced back in Game 2 of their series against the Atlanta Hawks to pull the Eastern Conference Semifinals even at one win apiece. After dropping Game 1 due to some questionable strategy and decision-making, Doc Rivers and the Sixers made significant adjustments to produce the win in Game 2. Let’s dive into what some of those adjustments were and how they impacted the game.

Ben Simmons on Trae Young

Doc Rivers opened the series with Danny Green on Trae Young in Game 1. Green failed to contain Young and by the second half, Rivers started throwing different looks at Trae with Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle on duty. But the damage had been done: Young dropped 25 points on 8 of 13 from the floor and registered 7 assists in the first half. Thanks in large part to Trae’s efforts, the Hawks built a huge lead that the Sixers were never able to overcome.

By Game 2, Rivers made the adjustment of assigning Ben Simmons to Trae Young from the jump and it paid off. As immediately evident as it was in Game 1 that Green was not the answer to Young, it was just as evident in Game 2 that Simmons was the answer. Starting with the Hawks’ very first possession, Simmons was blanketing Young.

One aspect of Young’s game that makes him so dangerous is that he has zero reluctance to pull the trigger on any three-point shot, even if he’s only a few steps into the halfcourt. Young’s short stature has forced him to become comfortable with long range shooting so as to avoid getting blocked. But the length of Simmons countered Young’s range as Ben’s height and long arms bothered Trae even on deep threes.

If Trae can get hot early from three-point, it makes life very difficult for defenses. It forces defenders to guard him very high above the perimeter, which opens up spacing and driving lanes. At that point, all it takes is a well-timed pump fake or a smooth crossover to create 5-on-4 advantages and force defenses to make mistakes. But thanks to Simmons’ aggressive defense early on in Game 2, Young was never able to get into a flow and punish Philly’s defense the way he did in Game 1. Trae scored less points in Game 2 than he did in the first half of Game 1, finishing with 21 points on a lousy 6 of 16 from the floor and 1 of 7 3PT.

Taking advantage of transition offense

Who doesn’t like easy transition buckets? In Game 2, Philly had plenty of them. According to Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers added points through transition at a rate of 8.7 points per 100 possessions. For the sake of comparison, that number was way down at 1.9 points per 100 possessions in Game 1.

We’ve touched on Trae Young’s propensity for attempting deep threes. But this means that when he misses, he’s often the Hawks’ primary line of defense when the opposition gets out to run in transition. And frankly, Young has next to no chance at stopping bigger players steamrolling to the basket in transition. The Sixers were able to take full advantage of this.

To be fair, the Sixers attacked other Hawks via transition mismatches. But many of Philly’s opportunities in transition seemed to stem from Young’s mistakes on offense and his inability to make any sort of impact defensively. On the next play, you can imagine how a player longer than Trae may have provided enough interference on the hit-ahead pass to allow the Hawks to get set defensively.

Live by the Trae, die by the Trae.

Speaking of, check out this simple yet effective inbound play:

Tobias Harris inbounds to Danny Green, who is guarded by Young. Tobias then uses Green as a screener and receives the ball back on a hand off. The screen forces a switch and Young ends up on Tobias. Trae is helpless and Tobias scores easily. In Game 3, the Sixers need to continue to mitigate Young’s offense by exploiting his defense.

Bench Play (Shake Milton’s, to be specific)

Philly’s bench did not play well in Game 1. The highest plus-minus of any Sixers bench player in Game 1 was Tyrese Maxey’s -9 (Shake Milton was -2 in only 38 seconds of play). Game 2, on the other hand, brought along much more impactful bench play. In particular, Shake Milton exploded for 14 points on 5 of 8 from the floor in 14 minutes of play.

I know, I know. “Exploded” and “14 points” don’t really go together. But it was obvious to anyone watching the game that Shake’s scoring brought an energy to the floor that the bench just did not have in Game 1. Milton scored at a rate of 1.57 points per shot attempt, the second highest rate of any Sixer who attempted at least three shots in Game 2 per Cleaning The Glass. (Seth Curry’s 1.61 points per shot attempt paced the Sixers.) Without Shake’s contributions, the Sixers may have still pulled out the victory. But the starters would have had to work much harder for it instead of cruising to a 16-point win.

With Kevin Huerter, Danilo Gallinari, and Lou Williams all serving as reserves for Atlanta, the Hawks have a deep bench. We saw Atlanta’s bench build on the Hawks’ lead in Game 1 as Doc Rivers’ all-bench lineups got crushed. In Game 2, Rivers staggered starters and reserves more effectively. That combined with Milton’s efficient scoring bursts proved a useful formula for combating the Hawks’ bench scorers. If the Sixers can continue to find the right blend of bench minutes and contributions, one of the Hawks’ bigger advantages on paper could disappear as the series continues.

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