The Sixers established a reputation as one of the NBA's best defensive teams this season.
They didn't resemble that team in the first half Sunday at Wells Fargo Center, losing Game 1 of their second-round series by a 128-124 score. A fourth-quarter surge wasn't enough to pull out an improbable win.
Trae Young scored 35 points and dished out 10 assists.
Joel Embiid had 39 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three blocks. Tobias Harris posted 20 points and 10 rebounds.
Embiid was a game-time decision, playing through a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. Hawks forward De’Andre Hunter was sidelined by right knee soreness and replaced in Atlanta’s starting lineup by Solomon Hill.
Game 2 will be Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Center.
Here are three observations on the Sixers' Game 1 loss:
Dreadful 1st-half defense
The Sixers’ start was disastrous defensively. Atlanta took a 42-27 lead after the first quarter by shooting 16 for 22 from the floor and 6 for 12 from three-point range.
Danny Green opened up on Young, and that matchup did not go well at all for the Sixers. Young hurt them with deep threes, drives into the paint with sparse resistance, lobs to Clint Capela and floaters.
He recorded 25 points and seven assists in the first half. Both the on-ball defense from Green and the rotations once Young snuck into a dangerous area were poor. On top of that, the Hawks sunk some tough looks. Perhaps the most memorable was a contested 27-footer from Young with 29.7 seconds to go in the second quarter, the ultimate tip-your-cap sort of shot.
Ben Simmons began on Bogdan Bogdanovic, who nailed two quick threes.
Turnovers were the other glaring problem for the Sixers. They committed 12 within the first 14 minutes, leading to 16 Hawks points. Atlanta extended its lead to 20 early in the second quarter when rookie Onyeka Okongwu slammed in a fast-break dunk off of a Dwight Howard turnover. Playing loose, free and fast sounds great, but that style obviously can’t correspond with so many giveaways in a playoff game.
“I thought they hit us in the mouth to start the game," Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought they were the more physical team, they were the more aggressive team. They played harder early. And they took care of the ball early. We didn’t. You can’t have nine turnovers in the first quarter and expect to be up. I thought that contributed as much as our coverage on Trae (to) us getting down.”
Rivers called a timeout but, despite his bench’s woes, didn’t rush the Sixers’ starters back into the game ahead of schedule. By the time the first unit was back on the floor, the Sixers trailed by 26, a situation worse than the greatest pessimist could’ve imagined.
Rivers trimmed his rotation to 10 players in the first half, leaving out Shake Milton until the fourth quarter, but the more relevant fact is that he played all five bench players simultaneously as the Hawks’ lead ballooned. Not the only reason why the Sixers lost the game, but a curious call nonetheless.
“Well, we’ll see," Rivers said of whether he'd be able to play all-bench lineups in this series. “Tonight it didn’t work, but neither did the first group early on. Both (units) were in the minus department. But we typically like one guy — like Tobias or Ben — in with that group. We just played (the starters) so deep in the first quarter, because we were down, that it took us out of our normal rotation.”
Embiid healthy enough to be very effective
The Sixers made 7 of their first 8 shots, with the only miss an Embiid three-point attempt from the top of the key. He converted another shot from the same spot, drew an early foul, and threw down a dunk when Capela tried and failed to pick off a post entry pass.
Embiid also fired a cross-court skip pass to Seth Curry for a three when Atlanta sent a double team. The Hawks seemed comfortable giving him that pass as long as Embiid relinquished the ball, although they didn’t find it necessary to double team him much. Capela is without question several rungs above the Wizards’ Daniel Gafford-Robin Lopez-Alex Len trio defensively.
At some point in this series, one imagines Embiid will get Capela in foul trouble. It will be interesting to see if Atlanta trusts Okongwu to contain him in that situation, or whether the Hawks double team the MVP finalist on every touch. In theory, Embiid’s foul-drawing ability should stop runs, although that wasn’t the case Sunday.
Overall, Embiid didn’t look like a player dealing with a debilitating injury. His first stint lasted 9:32 and fatigue wasn’t an apparent issue.
The good news for the Sixers is, as long as Embiid doesn’t suffer any setbacks, he seems capable of producing as he did all season. The bad news is he just played 38 minutes in a loss on an injured knee.
Furious rally falls short
Unsurprisingly, Simmons defended Young to start the third quarter. He picked up two fouls playing tight defense well behind the three-point line, though, which led Rivers to turn back to Green.
Rivers didn't want Simmons to spend all of his energy chasing Young from the opening tip, but the Sixers’ best bet is the Australian playing the majority of minutes against him.
Matisse Thybulle was the other Sixers defender of note on Young, one who should arguably be featured more. Rivers unsuccessfully challenged a third-quarter foul on Thybulle that Young sold effectively.
Thybulle scored 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting in 19 minutes.
“I love that Matisse was aggressive," Rivers said. “I’m proud of him. I bet he took more shots than anybody on our team in the last five days. He accepts that, with him following Ben and them leaving him open, that he has to respond. And I just love the fact that he shot every shot with courage, didn’t hesitate.
“Defensively, he was up and down. I thought he was much better in the second half guarding Trae than he was in the first half. But honestly, I thought our coverages were better and I thought he had more help. And I think that’s what we’re going to have to do more.”
If the Sixers replicate their second-half defense on Young for the remainder of the series, they should be in fine shape. Young had 10 points on 3-for-10 shooting and three assists after halftime.
Depending on your perspective, the Hawks shielded Young from troublesome matchups or the Sixers failed to target him on defense sufficiently. Either way, it’s on Rivers and the Sixers’ coaching staff to make Young’s defensive job difficult.
Simmons and the Sixers played with more confidence and focus to begin the third, finding transition opportunities. Curry and Green each had three-point tries that would’ve cut Atlanta’s advantage to 12 points.
The Sixers kept the outcome in suspense until the final seconds as an Embiid layup with 1:01 remaining made it a three-point game. Bogdanovic hit a dagger of a three with 28.7 seconds left.
Give the Sixers credit across the board for not quitting on the game and putting forth a tremendous effort to make the Hawks sweat late. Atlanta was shaky in the clutch against the Sixers' pressure as losing a 26-point lead appeared to be a real possibility.
Even once it seemed safe for the Hawks to breathe, Simmons came up with a steal and dunk to trim Atlanta's lead to 126-124 with 10.5 seconds to go. Bogdanovic then made two foul shots.
It's not a victory, but the Sixers will head into Game 2 having shown they can significantly outplay the Hawks for long stretches.
For the game, Simmons had 17 points, 10 assists and four steals. He made 7 of 7 field goals but was only 3 for 10 from the foul line. Excluding his 5-for-8 performance in Game 5 of the Sixers’ first-round series against the Wizards, he’s 8 for 30 on free throws in these playoffs.