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In a game 5 at home tonight, Sixers have the chance to put the Hawks on the brink of elimination

2021 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Atlanta Hawks Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

After losing home court in game one of this best of seven-game series, the Sixers had to get back to the drawing board for games two and three. And they did. They knotted the series back up 1-1 before it turned to Atlanta. And in the first of two bouts down South, they took home court back with a decisive 127-111 victory. Well, game four felt similar at first. After having possessed a 21 point lead in game 2 en route to a victory, then a 22 point lead in game 3 en route to another, Philly quickly rattled off an 18 point lead in game four. It just didn’t last. One thing we know heading into this pivotal game 5, it has been a series of runs.

Remember in game one, the Hawks jumped all over the Sixers. The ATL led 42-27 after the first quarter and by the early second, it was 53-27. But the Sixers clawed all the way back and wound up just losing by 4 points. Excruciating. But Embiid looked healthy, so that was encouraging.

In game two, the Sixers led by 16 (18-4) just minutes in the contest thanks to some red hot shooting by Tobias Harris and Seth Curry. But by halftime, the lead was long gone and they only held on by two points. It wasn’t until Shake Milton (previously relegated to bench-warming duty) entered the action at 79-78 in the third and went berserk. In just under 7 minutes of game action, capped by four triples and a lob to Dwight Howard that blew the roof off the stadium, Shake helped Philly run out to an insurmountable 107-88 lead.

Then came game four. With 1:43 remaining in the half, the Sixers looked like they were going to deal the death blow to the Hawks, possessing an 18 point lead. The air had been sucked right out of the stadium. But alas, a series of runs.

Embiid appeared to aggravate the knee issue he’s been dealing with, and at one point returned to the lockerroom for treatment on it. He looked OK at first, but clearly wasn’t right down the stretch as Atlanta made a run, came back and took a lead.

So the Sixers need to maintain this theme of runs, they just can’t allow any. Sounds easy enough right? Well, that depends on how you interpret this quote from the head coach yesterday:

The “no concern” part is great. But the last line makes me wonder....Now, if Doc Rivers meant that Embiid won’t be the same player he was before the injury (a small tear of the right lateral meniscus) was sustained, that’s fine. We can all live with the version we saw through the first three games and hope there’s more of those to come. But in game four, Jo finished 4-20 from the field, and 0-12 after halftime. He spent plenty of possessions offensively hovering around the perimeter and settling for tough contested jumpers.

But if Doc meant that Joel won’t even be the same player he was in games 1-3, then it’s possible we have a bigger problem on our hands. While Embiid was still able to operate as the team’s anchor defensively in game 4, he didn’t have the right lift on his jumpers or his finishes. And it appeared to cause him some reluctance in fighting for position down low where he typically generates tons of layups and fouls. Hopefully, he is able to play (he’s listed as questionable now) and looks more like game 2 Embiid tonight.

It hurts especially because the Hawks shot just 36.6% from the field, and 30% from 3 in game four. Trae Young (being guarded primarily by DPOY runner up, Ben Simmons) shot just 8-26. It was such a winnable contest for Philly and they just couldn’t capitalize. Young drew a 3 shot foul on Embiid where he appeared to hurt his shoulder a bit, he’d be seen receiving heat treatment on it whenever he’d go to the bench. That’s something to keep an eye on tonight. Should be no doubt he plays tonight though.

After Young scorched the Sixers in game one with 35 points and 10 assists, Coach Rivers made the switch from (now injured Danny Green) to Simmons as the point-of-attack defender on Atlanta’s diminutive star. Young has shot just 23 of 59 since, and 38.9 percent. Philly will rely on Ben to limit Young again tonight.

Almost makes you wonder why the Sixers didn’t do this from the jump of the series, maybe they could have avoided that 20 point hole in the games’ early minutes. There are plenty of what-ifs for the games they lost:

Quick hitters

2020 NBA All-Star Game Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images
  • There is no great solution to losing a starter as important as Danny Green (calf strain) in the middle of a crucial playoff series. Green was part of the team’s starting (and best) lineup, one of the best starting units in the entire league, if not the best this season. But while Coach Rivers opted to go with the sweet-shooting Furkan Korkmaz to start game four, the second-best plus-minus any five-man unit has posted since game one is this one:

George Hill, Joel Embiid, Furkan Korkmaz, Shake Milton, and Matisse Thybulle (3 minutes, +10). The team may not utilize this precise combination again. Maybe it was matchup dependent. But more staggering of the “big 3” (Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid) might be necessary here. We’ll see if a player like George Hill steps up this evening, the broadcast last game said he was still dealing with the effects of the thumb surgery he had while in Oklahoma. He hasn’t quite found his niche here in Philly, but historically, he tends to get going when the games get bigger. Wouldn’t be surprised if he stepped up tonight should Doc elect to give him an added run (he averages about 19 minutes per game) with the starters. For the most part, Rivers prefers to keep Hill in backup units with Dwight Howard. But those units are very much hit or miss since they often do not feature Embiid or Simmons, the team’s two best players. I think most coaches at this point in the year would opt to lean on Simmons and Harris whenever Embiid were to rest but not Doc.

Perhaps there is some hidden upside to getting Hill more run alongside Simmons, as the trustworthy combo-guard, they long searched for but never found?

  • Finding offense in other places

Fresh off not winning MVP, and fresh off (even more appallingly) finishing runner up for MVP but somehow not making the First Team All-NBA, Joel Embiid might be especially motivated this evening. The question is will his knee allow it. If so, then, by all means, let Joel destroy all things bird tonight. Let Embiid go all Carsen Wentz on ‘em.

But if they want to or need to reduce his load then they’ll want to ramp up Ben Simmons.

There is this weird trend where Ben Simmons occasionally gets to “run the show” like he did in the second half of game 5 vs. Washington. But ever since Embiid returned, they’re re-banished Simmons to “fine you can bring it up, but hand it off, set a screen, then hide in the dunker spot as fast as you can to get out of the way.” And it’s just not the Ben Sixers fans have come to enjoy over the years. I suspect he may be the most underutilized All-Star (offensively) on any team remaining, if not the entire league.

Will they decide to get Embiid a little more help by designing more of the looks (usually four spot-up shooters spread away from the paint, maybe a cutter when Ben makes his move) that Ben thrives with? Or are they content to finish this series with Ben as just sort of...a guy, in the half-court?

If the offense struggles, there’s the option they recently depended on just 5 games ago in a close-out contest. This doesn’t have to turn into a conversation about his shooting. Ben running the show was a huge part of why Seth Curry dropped 30 that night too and Harris had himself a game. Ben often creates great looks, either for himself or teammates.

But about Ben’s free throw shooting and finishing around the rim? Ben is shooting just 18/53 from the line, for just 34 percent. It would be like flipping coins 60 times and only coming up with heads 15 times. You wouldn’t expect it to happen much. Is the coin in his own head due to a lack of aggression or frustration with his coin role? Will the coin regress to the mean? How often might we expect 18 tails in 53 flips, if it’s a coin weighted to Simmons’ season percentage of 61 percent?

  • Around the league, the Suns have been absolutely thriving. But their floor general Chris Paul is now in the dreaded Health and Safety Protocol indefinitely. A heartbreaking halt to his magical title run.
  • On the other half of the Western bracket, Kawhi Leonard’s season is in jeopardy with a knee injury. It is to his right knee, the one in which he’s dealt with issues with for nearly his entire career (where the quad meets the patellar).
  • The Nets hung on to survive yesterday despite not having Kyrie Irving, and a hobbled-looking James Harden thanks to an all-time performance 49 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists in 48 minutes of action from KD. Brooklyn is now up 3-2 heading back to Milwaukee, with a chance to close out. The winner awaits whoever emerges from the Sixers-Hawks series.

Tonight for Philly, it’s quite simply the biggest game of the season. And while we might have said this ahead of game 2, (going down two-to-zip heading to Atlanta might have been a death sentence) tonight is the newest biggest game of the season. Win and they’ll have two chances (one away and one at home) to close out and advance to the ECF. Lose and they might be heading to Atlanta to merely stave off elimination and force game seven with their best player at far less than full strength, every contest another opportunity for him to land funny and aggravate an already ailing joint. The stakes are that high. If it’s another game of runs, hopefully, it’s the home team doing the running. But we’ll need the crowd in full throat all game long.

Game Info

Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Atlanta Hawks

When: 7:30 pm ET, June 16

Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA

Watch: TNT, TNT OT

Listen: 97.5 The Fanatic

Follow: @Liberty_Ballers

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