On the legendary Allen Iverson’s birthday, what better way to celebrate than to draw some parallels between this year’s team and “The Answer’s” sensational title run twenty years ago. It’s the year 2001 and the Sixers boast home court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, and also an MVP in Allen Iverson. Philadelphia entered that second-round matchup as sizable favorites with plenty of fans content to overlook the upstart Toronto Raptors and their third-year star, Vince Carter. Led by Carter’s 35 points, the Dinos came into town and grabbed a game one win, a rude awakening for Larry Brown’s top seed. The parallels are there. On Sunday, the Atlanta Hawks came in and third-year star Trae Young opened the game un fuego, peppering the Sixers with an array of floaters, 3s, lobs for dunks, and kick-outs for treys. Trae picked them apart in the first half and despite some adjustments from Doc Rivers which led to a frenzied late-game comeback, Atlanta escaped with a win and stole home-court advantage.
They say a series doesn’t begin until the road team steals a game.
Eventually, the Sixers will have to do the same. They should call Luka Doncić and ask for a few tips on targeting the weakest defender and stealing three road games in a series:
One Mo Thing Playoff Edition - I highlighted Luka Doncic's hunting of Ivica Zubac in game one. He was relentlessly going after him every chance he got and was very successful. pic.twitter.com/YKeyTTiNs8— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) May 25, 2021
But first things first, they must do what Allen Iverson and the guys did and protect this house by winning game 2:
#OTD in 2001 the #Sixers defeated the #Raptors 97-92 to tie the Eastern Conference Semi's 1-1. #TheAnswer @alleniverson had himself a game that night with 54 PTS 5 REB and 4 AST. #SixersStats #SixersHistory pic.twitter.com/DoJDCZExFU— Philly’s Phinest Sports News (@PhilasPhinestSN) May 9, 2018
The challenge for the 2021 Sixers, however, is that they can’t rely on Joel Embiid to do everything since he’s playing on a torn meniscus in his right knee.
"Playing on a torn meniscus is not easy... Obviously, the pain is going to be there, that’s normal, but it’s all about managing it and doing whatever it takes to win."— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) June 7, 2021
On Joel Embiid, who talked about his injury and how it's being managed after Game 1: https://t.co/SnmYhlzmIS
The good news is that they have a lot more supporting talent than the ‘01 squad. It will take a team effort in game two, but it’s certainly achievable.
Here are a few keys to knotting this series up.
Slowing down Trae Young
Easier said than done but the Sixers need a better plan for slowing down the Hawks’ point guard. In game 1 Young ran roughshod over the Sixers. He finished with 35 points (just like Vince did) on 11-23 from the field, 10 dimes, and 9-9 from the line. The Sixers primarily utilized Danny Green as a point of attack defender against him. They varied the ways in which they defended the pick-and-roll. Opposing coach Nate McMillan no doubt wanted to test Embiid’s lateral agility and called for a steady diet of 1-5 pick-and-rolls between Young and big man Clint Capela, to see how far away from the hoop Embiid was willing to venture.
The Sixers can't have Danny Green as Trae Young's primary defender and use too much deep drop coverage like they did in the 1st half of Game 1.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) June 7, 2021
Here's a quick breakdown of a few plays showing where the Sixers went wrong, what improved in the 2nd half, and how they can adjust: pic.twitter.com/wO6WfjAU9m
The Sixers tasking Danny Green with the primary on-ball job backfired. Talking adjustments, the Sixers would love to give their Defensive Player of the Year finalist in Ben Simmons more chances to slow down Young. Some ticky-tack fouls are perhaps why both he and fellow stud wing stopper Matisse Thybulle were deprived of more opportunities on Young. But those are the team’s two best perimeter defenders so in an absolute must-win game 2, they absolutely must go down swinging with their best ball stoppers.
Simmons is up for the challenge, but he’ll need Doc Rivers and the officials to allow him to try more than he did in game one.
I asked Ben Simmons about Philly's pick-and-roll defense on Trae and what they can improve:— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) June 6, 2021
"It was way too late. We weren't physical or aggressive enough. I started the 2nd half on him using my size and I feel like that disrupted him a little bit. But we gotta start like that."
Ben Simmons on potentially guarding Trae Young from the jump next game: "I probably will do that. I mean, I want to. If the refs ain't gonna call so many fouls, I can be physical and be 6'10", then I'll be 6'10". But we'll see."— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) June 6, 2021
Trae won’t make it easy, as he is a tactician in terms of rule-bending tricks, and often gets the officials to bite, even when they know they’re calling a cheap foul on an All-Defensive Team candidate like Matisse Thybulle or the best perimeter wing in the league in Simmons. When in doubt, offense tends to win out. And if that’s how they called this in Philly, it’s gonna be even uglier in Atlanta:
They called this a foul on thybulle? Lol. pic.twitter.com/sSZTa9SWwt— Let's talk NBA (@NBArath23) June 6, 2021
Joel Embiid’s knee
Perhaps the biggest variable for the rest of the series will be their MVP candidate’s sore right knee. He had six full days off to treat his wheel before game one and he went hard, playing a team-high 38 minutes and channeling his inner Iverson, did all he could to lead a comeback. His offense was there as he dropped a game-high 39 points and chipped in 9 boards, 4 dimes, 3 blocks, a steal, and went 14-15 from the stripe.
But with only one full day before game 2, how will his knee respond? Will it swell? Will it be as “fine” as it seemed in game one? That’s an important element here. If he is able to go, will he be able to blitz pick-n-rolls 30 feet away from the hoop in order to help get the ball out of Young’s hands? Or will he need to rely on drop coverages to ensure he’s near the rim and not asking too much from his legs?
Sixer fans have enjoyed Embiid dominating on both ends of the floor all season long. It was pretty clear in game one that he was able to dominate on the offensive side but not the defensive end; sort of a 180 from the 2019 version, where Embiid (battling knee tendinitis at the time) was able to lock down the fort defensively but wasn’t the same scorer as he was in the first half of the season.
It’s going to take a team effort to slow down the Young-Capela screen game, utilizing Embiid as a rim protector, and the team’s best on-ball defenders on ball, and their best off-ball defenders well...off the ball.
Here’s about how it looked when it worked:
This is great off-ball positioning from Danny Green. Tag the roller, cut off the skip to the corner. pic.twitter.com/xprQXZ7P5g— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) June 7, 2021
There's a lot of low-hanging fruit for improvement for the Sixers. Joel Embiid looked very good. Those are the positives. The issue is the low-hanging fruit for improvement was there before Game 1 and I'm not sure it'll be corrected for Game 2.— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) June 6, 2021
The Sixers should have known a few things heading into this game:
- their all-bench lineup isn’t nearly good enough to keep things afloat
- lineups including backup center Dwight Howard are very risky, and likely depend on what other starters (if any) he shares the floor with.
If Howard does get any run this series, he should be in the dunker spot offensively, not Simmons:
The team appeared to display shades of upside with small-ball lineups the last series when Embiid was out. They might consider that again, provided at least Tobias Harris and Simmons are on the floor.
Seth Curry’s post-game assessment didn’t pull any punches.
#Sixers guard Seth Curry on slow start: 'End of the first (quarter), beginning of the 2nd, that's when we lost the game.'— Tom Moore (@TomMoorePhilly) June 6, 2021
Here was how Coach Rivers distributed the team’s minutes in the span Curry is referring to:
As you can see in just a fleeting Greg Monroe or Montrez Harrell-like stint, the Sixers absolutely hemorrhaged buckets without scoring; it gave the starters a nearly insurmountable hill to climb.
Two very simple adjustments the Sixers have to make to improve in Game 2 (that probably cost them a win today):— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) June 6, 2021
- Don't guard Trae with Danny Green
- Don't use all-bench lineups
Sixers year long broken record:— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) June 6, 2021
Backup center with a -14 in 8 min ✅
Way too much of Simmons in the dunker spot ✅
All bench unit getting housed ✅
Not enough Matisse ✅
The best solution to any minutes Embiid rests continues as it has been for years now, give the ball to Ben Simmons and spread the floor for him:
Ben getting (taking) some chances to create in the half court. Pretty find. pic.twitter.com/hBa786t4VO— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) June 3, 2021
It appeared to me that Simmons was utilized more so as a hander-offer, pick-setter, and dunker spot dude on Sunday. This unit doesn’t need Embiid to carry the team offensively in the way that Iverson needed to. They do have some other options, which might buy them a few minutes for Embiid to rest, or allow Joel to work a little less hard offensively and invest more of his energy into defense.
The perfect possession for Philly? Embiid’s presence in the paint forces a long 2, they rebound, outlet to Simmons, and then it’s dunks and threes before Joel even crosses mid court. Rinse, repeat.
Make Trae work harder defensively
This one is easier said than done, as the Knicks found out. New York was never really able to exploit the fact that Young is one of the league’s softest defenders.
Here are some adjustments the Knicks can make to stave off elimination and keep their season alive.— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) June 1, 2021
Yes, it starts with not allowing Trae Young to hide defensively. NY needs to target Young, forcing him to expend energy on both ends of the floor...https://t.co/QEVtHcQ76E
By putting Young on spot-up shooters who well...spot up often in corners, the Hawks have thus far, been able to “hide” Young defensively.
Scheming ways to get him on players like Tobias Harris or Ben Simmons is one way to attack. Sending Green or Thybulle running around a maze of screens is another.
Now the Sixers shot a whopping 40% of their shots “at the rim” per Cleaningtheglass.com in game one. So taking advantage of Young on D isn’t always playing one-on-one or posting up. Sometimes it is simply making the right reads and forcing blown coverages:
The Hawks send a double team from the baseline here and Embiid handles it perfectly. Turns quickly, recognises that Seth Curry is open, and sets him up with the skip pass for 3. pic.twitter.com/yW9dDW0G45— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) June 6, 2021
But the team who eventually knocks Atlanta out of these playoffs will probably find success scoring on him, or forcing their defense to bend too far in order to help mask his weaknesses.
The Sixers missed 11 free throws, had 19 turnovers, went 10-29 from 3, the Hawks starters were -12, -10, -11, -4, and -/+0, and the Hawks shot nearly 60% FG and over 50% from 3 in the first half, Sixers all bench lineup went -14 in first half and they only lost by 4 lol.— Will Rucker (@Will_Rucker3_AD) June 6, 2021
Few things went right in game one. The starters opened the game and got absolutely destroyed. They turned it over about 9 times in what felt like 10 seconds. They went 10-29 from 3 but it started off much worse. But the Sixers left the Hawks in the red, after the end of the first quarter:
And they still had a chance to steal that one in the end, before this:
What a big shot from Bogdan Bogdanovic. Sixers trap Trae Young. Swing to Huerter, really close there but Hawks survive. Curry overcommits on Huerter's drive, open 3 for Bogdanovic. pic.twitter.com/RttifWP8uO— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) June 6, 2021
They’re in a very risky place now. The Hawks are playing with house money. The Sixers must win game 2, the Hawks can play pressure-free hoops. Embiid’s knee won’t be as well-rested as it was ahead of game one.
If the Sixers can win the next one and force a split in Atlanta, they’ll have home-court back. The ‘01 group won game two, then stole game four in Toronto, defended home court in game 5 and eventually advanced in the series by one point on a missed buzzer-beater by Vince Carter 20 years ago. This series could be similarly memorable.
The Raptors have been cursed ever since Vince Carter missed this game 7 buzzer beater in the 2001 playoffs against the Sixers. pic.twitter.com/zoTleao0AT— KAMAL ABU JILANI (@ripbabyface_) May 8, 2018
If they can make the necessary adjustments and bury this upstart bird group, who knows, maybe they’d host the Milwaukee Bucks just like Iverson did. And there’s also the chance to then eventually face Ty Lue and his Los Angeles squad. Let’s hope there are plenty more opportunities for déjà vu ahead of us. Happy Birthday to the one and only, AI.