The night was far from normal at times, but the Sixers ultimately found their footing Tuesday at Wells Fargo Center.
They picked up a 118-102 Game 2 win over the Hawks, evening their second-round series at a game apiece.
Joel Embiid guided them to the victory by posting 40 points and 13 rebounds. Tobias Harris had 22 points, six rebounds and four assists.
Seth Curry scored 21 points and was 5 for 6 from three-point range. He walked off the floor in the third quarter with an apparent slight limp but returned to the action in the final few minutes.
Game 3 will be Friday night in Atlanta.
Here are three observations on the Sixers' Game 2 win:
All about matchups
The Sixers grabbed a 23-6 lead thanks in large part to how well they took advantage of Harris’ matchup against veteran forward Solomon Hill. With De’Andre Hunter (right knee soreness) out again, Hill wasn’t able to handle Harris, who scored four quick points in transition and 12 overall on 6-for-7 shooting within the first 5 minutes and 10 seconds.
“We talked about it after Game 1," Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said. “My frustration level was quite high, because we didn’t do what we’ve done all year, and that’s what we call ‘feed the pig.’ And that means the player or the play. We would run a play and score and then go run something else, which, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out.
“I thought in the first quarter, they saw Tobias had it going, they saw the set that we were running, they saw Joel calling Tobias’ set. I thought that was terrific. Keep running the play until it’s stopped, and I thought our guys did a great job of that tonight.”
Curry had the hot hand early in the third quarter against Hill, prompting the Hawks to insert Kevin Huerter and put Bogdan Bogdanovic on Curry. In general, the Sixers have run their offense through Curry and his Iverson cuts more in the playoffs than during the regular season. That’s a great idea when he’s playing with confidence and shooting so well.
Though the Sixers lucked out a tad with missed close-range shots early on by John Collins and Bogdanovic, their defensive effort and execution were much improved. The Hawks missed their first five three-point tries and 11 of their opening 14 field goals, looking badly rattled by the Sixers’ run the same way they’d been during the fourth quarter of Game 1.
Embiid drew two first-quarter fouls on Clint Capela. Backup Onyeka Okongwu had two soon enough, as well. Atlanta sent a bit of help defensively in Embiid’s direction throughout the night, although not a ton.
It seemed the most significant obstacle for Embiid might be foul trouble. He picked up his third foul with a minute remaining in the second quarter. The No. 2 finisher in the MVP race attempted to power through Danilo Gallinari, who hit the ground. Both Embiid and Gallinari then were called for technical fouls for a contentious post-whistle exchange.
Capela is a well-regarded defender, but it almost never appears the man guarding Embiid matters. His strength, outside shooting skill, array of offensive tricks and intuitive sense of how to use them is a tremendous package. All of those qualities are still in abundance even as he plays through a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee.
Simmons gets his wish
Rivers made the unsurprising adjustment of starting with Ben Simmons on Trae Young. Danny Green guarded Bogdanovic.
Determined not to allow Young to accelerate freely off of the Hawks’ double drag actions, the Sixers were more willing to switch than in Game 1.
“We can’t let them turn the corners,” Rivers said Monday. “It’s usually a 1-4-5 on the double drags, and what we do with the 1-4 part has to take him out of the quick turn of the corner. Trae Young going downhill is not good for any team, and he did that too much yesterday. So we have to slide him off a little bit. That’s not really being more physical. That’s just body position. A lot of our problems were due to bad body position.”
When Simmons and Matisse Thybulle share the floor, the number of good defensive switches available for the Sixers increases. With Thybulle guarding Young late in the first quarter, Simmons switched onto the 22-year-old and blocked a long three-point attempt.
Embiid still played mostly drop coverage. He did his best to toe the line between blocking Young’s path to the hoop and giving himself a chance to get back to the rolling big man. Not an easy task, especially for a player dealing with a knee injury. Again, he didn’t move as if the injury was foremost on his mind or affecting everything he did. He was downright spry at times, in fact.
“I’m trying to do the best I can, limited movement and all," Embiid said. “Try to be a better presence around the rim. Obviously not being 100 percent doesn’t help, but tonight I just wanted to be big, especially playing pick-and-roll defense. It’s tough because if I come up, they throw the lob. If I stay back, he goes to that floater.
“But tonight I felt like we did a better job as a team as far as pursuing whoever was coming off the pick. And then I was also playing a game … cat and mouse, just faking and going back, trying to keep them guessing. Sometimes you’re going to get it, sometimes you’re not going to get it. Just trying to make it as tough as possible by using my length.”
Simmons said after Game 1 that he wanted to guard Young. Indeed, it made sense for the Sixers to put their two best perimeter defenders, Simmons and Thybulle, on the opponent’s top perimeter threat. Stopping him isn’t that simple, of course, but it’s a start.
Young had 21 points on 6-for-16 shooting and 11 assists.
Simmons recorded four points and seven assists. The Hawks intentionally fouled him with 3:10 left and he missed both free throws. Interestingly, Rivers then subbed Simmons out, putting Shake Milton into the game.
“We took him and Matisse out because we had an extra timeout," Rivers said. “It’s funny, that’s why you try to save timeouts. I was tempted to use the extra one in the first half and I didn’t, and it really came back and rewarded us because when they started fouling, I called it at three (minutes left). ... They were going to foul Ben or Matisse and with an extra timeout in your pocket, why let them? That was the thinking.”
It would've been a shocker if the Hawks were intending to foul anyone besides Simmons. At this point, it's clear Simmons free throws aren't usually producing efficient offense for the Sixers. He's now at 32.5 percent in the playoffs. It's a storyline that, unfortunately for the Sixers, won't go away.
Milton saves day for second unit
Instead of employing an all-second unit lineup, Rivers kept Harris on the floor with his bench late in the first and early in the second period.
Still, not for the first time, the Sixers’ bench looked shaky and labored offensively. The defensive weak spots were obvious, too. Dwight Howard is a natural target for opponents in the pick-and-roll, Furkan Korkmaz isn’t known as a sterling defender and Tyrese Maxey, though always game, is a 6-foot-2, 20-year-old rookie.
Rivers subbed Maxey out for Simmons, but that didn’t help as the Hawks cut the Sixers’ lead down to two points on a Lou Williams jumper. Gallinari’s size and jump shooting were problems for the Sixers as the veteran power forward scored 15 points in the first half.
The Sixers’ starters punched back right away, creating three turnovers, profiting with sharp transition offense and re-establishing a nine-point advantage.
Kevin Huerter (20 points on 8-for-10 shooting) also troubled the Sixers. The Hawks had an absurd 32-0 bench scoring advantage at halftime, the main reason they trailed by just two despite the Sixers’ dominant start.
A Milton three-pointer and Thybulle fast-break layup were the first points from the Sixers’ bench. They were important contributions, too, coming during a chaotic stretch of the game late in the third quarter.
Milton drained a 36-footer at the third-quarter buzzer, a massive lift for the Sixers heading into the final period. He was still rolling to start the fourth, hooking up with Howard on a lob, sinking a mid-range jumper and making another three.
Though he shot 4 for 19 from the floor in the first round against the Wizards, Milton wasn’t doomed to playoff failure or irrelevancy. The 24-year-old, who finished with 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting in 14 minutes, was too good to be stuck in a funk forever.