The Sixers knotted up their best of seven-game series against the Atlanta Hawks with a decisive 118-102 win on Tuesday. They’ll now have an extra day off, as the series leaves the 215 and heads on down to the dirty 770 in Atlanta, tip-off Friday. The final score belies the level of anxiety fans might have felt throughout the night. First of all, Joel Embiid (small lateral tear of the right knee meniscus) entered as a true game-time decision. A lot of collective breath let out when it was announced before tip he’d play. It was a must-win game two and Embiid clearly was not going to miss it. If the Hawks were to have stolen games one and two here, things would feel bleak heading to the peach state, but they pulled it out. Let’s look at a few of the reasons why.
On a day when Nikola Jokić was formally announced as regular-season MVP, Joel Embiid despite a tear in his knee sent a message to the Hawks and the award voters. That’s fine, I’ll just be the playoff MVP. It’s almost silly to think JoJo was truly a game-time decision when you see his line of 40 points, 13 rebounds, 12-16 from the stripe (an off night for him there) 2 steals, 2 dimes, and a block in 35 minutes on just 25 field goal attempts.
When healthy, Embiid is a seven-foot exemplar of efficiency; simply put, in the minutes he’s on the floor your team wins on offense and on defense. That didn’t happen in game one. Atlanta got anything they wanted and dropped 128 points at The Farg, but here’s the weird thing...Embiid (to my untrained eye) appeared to move significantly better defensively in game two. Is it possible he like...warmed up his torn meniscus? Calling all doctors for our replies section.
As Sixer fans, we’ve gotten used to and even taken for granted what it’s like to have an MVP candidate who can literally dominate on both ends of the floor. We saw him do it on the offensive end in game one, but Tuesday was the full package. I’m not sure what toll this is taking on his knee, or if this playoff run is going to increase the probability he’ll need off-seasons surgery, but holy mackerel has he been insane.
He’s a +27 in his 73 total minutes of action this series. and he’s scored 79 points. LOL.
Speaking of LOL:
Joel Embiid got 97 of 100 available MVP votes.— StatMuse (@statmuse) June 8, 2021
That means three voters didn’t have him even as a 5th place MVP.
What an absolute joke. pic.twitter.com/C4pWMErGU3
Find these voters, send them to voter jail.
The voter who gave Derrick Rose a 1st place MVP votepic.twitter.com/XQ4QqBRbi5— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) June 8, 2021
Joel Embiid is the first Sixers player with 40 points in a playoff game since Allen Iverson in 2003 pic.twitter.com/iyCLH0euPG— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 9, 2021
Defensive Player of the Year Candidate, Ben Simmons
Coming into game 2, the most important task the Sixers had was to slow down Trae Young and the Hawks’ lethal pick-n-roll game. The Sixers defended the Hawks very poorly in game one, especially in the first half when they surrendered 72 points! Brutal. So they dialed up 25 to lead that vital mission, fitting he wears the number of an NFL safety or corner.
Trae Young shined with 35 points and 10 assists in that four-point road win Sunday. Coach Doc Rivers was reluctant to put Simmons on Young from the get-go because he was concerned with how crafty Young is at drawing fouls and did not want to lose Simmons to foul trouble.
But in a must-win situation Rivers relied on Ben and Ben delivered. Spending the bulk of that game as the primary defender on Young he limited the third-year star from Oklahoma’s efficiency. Young looked far less comfortable this go round. He finished with 21 points, just 6-16 from the field, 1-7 from 3, with 11 assists:
Ben Simmons comes high against the screen, switches onto Trae Young, then blocks his 3-point attempt. Great defense. pic.twitter.com/Wm7TgKixKo— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) June 9, 2021
Local radio will blame Simmons for not shooting much but he had a Draymond Green-like performance. Offensively, it was simply Embiid’s show and Ben finished with four points, 7 dimes, 2 steals, 1 block, (miraculously) just two personal fouls (one offensive). His offensive numbers do not pop and since he has so many critics they’ll whine about it but nobody in that home locker room would dare:
Ask Trae Young! https://t.co/RRdRyOparR— brianseltzer (@brianseltzer) June 9, 2021
Simmons came up huge. #CelebrateTheOtherHalfOfTheSport
Saviour Shake and Riverboat Rivers
Shake Milton really struggled in round 1 against Washington. In 5 games he only logged 48 minutes, (and just seven minutes in each of the final two games despite seven of those quarters not including Embiid) and shot just 4-19 from the field. It appeared he was falling out of the rotation in favor of players like Tyrese Maxey and Furkan Korkmaz. But Coach Rivers took a rather healthy gamble at a time his bench was struggling mightily for buckets. Having been outscored by the Hawks bench 32-0 by the half, Doc called upon the third-year man out of SMU, the same dude who once dropped 39 on Doc’s Clippers last season, for a spark. And Saviour Shake was ready.
Shake came in to the game ice cold off the bench but clearly has ice water in his reptilian veins. The magnitude of the moment was not daunting for him. Dude dropped 14 points in just 14 minutes, and of the 5 triples he attempted, the only miss was a heat check that would have put them up by 22. He was precisely what they needed and finally plugged the sieve that had been the Sixers’ bench unit with a flurry of bombs and a lob to Dwight Howard for a jam that brought the crowd into a frenzy.
Credit to Doc Rivers here. He came under plenty of (fair) criticism for turning to an all-reserves lineup in game one that may have cost them the win. In game two he made adjustments. While his starters continued to shine (+17 in just 18 minutes) his bench unit also outperformed Atlanta. A combo of Dwight Howard, George Hill, Tobias Harris (the lone starter to anchor that unit), Sniper Shake, and Matisse Thybulle were a +13 in just 5 minutes of action.
The interesting thing here is that Doc played his starters 9 less minutes in game two than in game one, opting for more of a stagger to ensure at least one starter on the court for the whole game. The adjustment paid off, mostly thanks to Shake. It was 79-78 Hawks when he entered the game with 3:46 remaining in the third. By the time he drained his 4th triple, with 8:04 left in the game, Philly was up by 19. Shake literally had the building Shaking.
Shake Milton beats the 3Q buzzer— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) June 9, 2021
We’ve got a good one in Philly pic.twitter.com/1pKzs9acEn
Tobi Buckets and Curry on Fire
Tobias Harris still hasn’t found his 3 point stroke this series, shooting just 1-5 from downtown. But he has been consistent and attacking mismatches whenever he can. He’s shooting nearly 60% from the field through both games because he’s been picky, not settling for too many long 2s. Several times I thought he might pull up, but instead, he got all the way to the hoop, taking an extra dribble and finishing over or around the shot blocker in Clint Capela. You love to see a relentless version of Harris in attack mode, hell-bent on getting into the paint in both transition and halfcourt sets. And also making the write passing reads on kick-outs. If he adds his 3 ball to the arsenal in games 3 and 4 he might just ruin some poor kid’s night when he or she leaves State Farm Arena.
Tobias Harris has 12 points in 6 minutes pic.twitter.com/2KOZQLlS0k— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) June 9, 2021
Tobias Harris' offseason goal: improve on defense.— Lauren Rosen (@LaurenMRosen) June 9, 2021
Tobias Harris in the postseason: pic.twitter.com/vuQRHdlnTt
Seth Curry was blistering hot in game 2. He shot 8-13 from the field and 5-6 from downtown. The shooting is great but the spacing he provides helps his teammates too. Curry’s red-hot mere presence makes Embiid and Simmons’ lives easier. He’s a problem in half-court sets when Embiid is looking to post up. You never want to leave a dude named Curry alone. And if the Sixers get stops and find Simmons, there's a good chance Ben is going to hit Seth for an open transition triple:
Seth Curry is PERFECT from 3— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) June 9, 2021
5/5 tonight. pic.twitter.com/VW3RZVh8S9
Curry had some issues on the other end. It appeared that opposing coach Nate McMillan likes his chances when Curry is defending Kevin Huerter. Huerter was stellar shooting 8-10 from the field and leading that bench unit. They’ll look to limit Red Velvet next game.
Having been deprived of watching games with fans in attendance, I mean like a rockin’ crowd like the Sixers enjoyed last night, it’s especially fun to see and hear the impact a packed house can have on a game. And not just in Philly. The crowds in Phoenix, Utah, and in Madison Square Garden these playoffs have been especially raucous. It feels like it will continue to play an important dynamic. I once read a study that suggested “momentum” was overrated, but the study did concede that in basketball the “runs” teams go on are longer than we might expect by chance. I’ve always suspected the fans play a huge role in that. Hopefully, the Sixers can steal at least one of the next two games so that home court once again resides with them and this devoted fanbase. What an absolute advantage.
I put Dwight Howard’s picture up here because he clearly has a bit of a connection with the fans in Philly. Did you see the moment in the second half when Young missed a free throw and Dwight just held the ball and stared at the crowd for a moment like a WWE star...subtley beckoning for volume in hopes of forcing a brick and winning the Frosty Freeze-Out. The crowd went ballistic trying to win a milkshake, screaming yelling, and chanting about Young’s hairline.
The Sixers will want to continue the recipe exhibited in game 2. Joel Embiid is the most unstoppable force in the series. But he’ll need to anchor the defense like he did in game 2. That he looked better in game two on D than he did in game 1 is a terrific sign for Doc’s gang. They were the second overall regular season defense and defense will be the key to stealing back home court and letting the fans do their job.