The Philadelphia 76ers made a manic comeback in Game 1 of their second-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, as they won the fourth quarter 41-29, but it wasn’t enough to make up for their first-half effort. The Hawks took full control early with 74 first-half points, and hung on to win 128-124.
A few key problems in the first half helped the Hawks gain a lead as big as 26 points. For one, the Sixers took poor care of the ball early on and had 12 first-half turnovers, including a woeful 9 in the first quarter alone. On top of that, Doc Rivers going to an all-bench lineup late in the first quarter only allowed the Hawks to extend an already comfortable double-digit lead. Against a quality opponent in the second round of the playoffs, all-bench lineups just can’t be an option anymore.
The Sixers’ early defense on Trae Young was also a real issue. Danny Green was Young’s primary defender in the first half (and at times in the second half, too) and was frequently unable to slow down Young at the point of attack in pick-and-rolls or double drag actions (when Young receives two screens, where one player player can pop to the arc and the other rolls to the rim). Combined with the Sixers using mostly deep drop coverage in the first half, with Joel Embiid dropping back to cover the rim and deter potential lobs to Clint Capela, it was too easy for Young to get into the paint and create with his floater or passes.
Doc Rivers has expressed some concern with having Ben Simmons guard Young too much given the latter’s ability to draw fouls. Of course, Young draws fouls at an elite rate and Simmons did pick up two quick fouls when guarding Young in the third quarter. However, there’s no point letting Young have his way against Danny Green when Simmons is a far better option with his superior size, length and speed to bother Young off the dribble and around screens. Plus, choosing to not put Simmons on Young from the start is essentially fouling him out of the matchup before he’s even had a chance at it.
The Sixers did adjust more in the second half, though, with Simmons guarding Young more early in the third and Matisse Thybulle taking on a large amount of the assignment. Philly also threw more traps at Young in the second half, and brought Embiid higher against more pick-and-rolls. Shifting to a more aggressive approach was a clear improvement, and helped contain Young more as a scorer and force the ball out of his hands at times. It’s an approach that should have been in place from the start — particularly as Doc Rivers explained after the game that the Sixers didn’t change their approach at either end of the floor due to Embiid’s injury — but it’s at least something that should be carried into Game 2.
“I think we just waited too late,” Simmons said when discussing the Sixers’ pick-and-roll defense on Young and their adjustments. “We weren’t physical or aggressive enough. I started the second half on him, using my size and I feel like that disrupted him a little bit. But we got to start like that from the first quarter until the last. We waited too long.”
While there’s only so much any team or individual defender can do to contain Trae Young, the Sixers should have a foundation to build upon with some of their second-half adjustments. They’ll need to let Simmons and Thybulle lead the way guarding Young, and continue being more aggressive with their pick-and-roll defense.
Simmons said after Game 1 that he’s ready to take on Young.
“I probably would do that,” Simmons said after the game when asked if he expects the Sixers to change defensive assignments so he’s guarding Young instead of Green. “I mean, I want to. If the refs aren’t going to call so many fouls and I can be physical and be 6’10”, then I’ll be 6’10”. We’ll see.”
Here’s a film breakdown looking at some of the Sixers’ defensive issues and how they can improve in a bit more detail (make sure you have your sound on):
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
There are some positives to take from Game 1 from a Sixers standpoint, though. For a start, the issues I’ve mentioned are all correctable. Seeing as Rivers and his staff started making changes in the second half, it would make sense for them to continue those promising trends and begin Game 2 with a better approach. And while the Sixers do need to make some defensive changes to avoid giving up good looks, the Hawks also aren’t going to hit 20 threes at a 42.6 percent clip like they did on Sunday every game.
The other encouraging takeaway for the Sixers is simply how good Joel Embiid looked. He put up a typical Embiid stat line with 39 points (12-of-21 shooting), 9 rebounds, 4 assists (to 4 turnovers), 1 steal and 4 blocks. He also played through contact to generate 15 free throw attempts (making 14), scored effectively against Clint Capela, and moved well. When considering the fact that he was playing with a small meniscus tear in his right knee, Embiid’s performance is even more impressive.
His focus over the last two days has been getting rest, icing his knee and keeping it elevated, and getting as much treatment as possible. Embiid has made it clear how determined he is to do all he can to keep playing and compete in the Sixers’ playoff push.
“Playing on a torn meniscus is not easy,” Embiid said after Game 1. “But all I got to do is keep managing it, do my best, get as much treatment as I can to try to manage it to make sure that it doesn’t swell up too much. 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. Because my goal is to win a championship and I’m going to put my body on the line to make sure that happens. I’m going to give everything I got.”
(You can read more about how Embiid is dealing with his injury here.)
Embiid is currently listed as questionable for Game 2, but given the nature of his injury and the plan he and the team have in place to manage any pain and swelling, it seems likely that he’ll be playing again unless anything suddenly changes for the worse.
The Hawks may still be missing one of their athletic wings to use against Ben Simmons and/or Tobias Harris, as De’Andre Hunter is listed as questionable with right knee soreness after being out for Game 1.
We’ll soon see how well the Sixers can respond and how they adjust with a chance to tie up the series at home tonight.