Nothing about the process to get there was suspenseful, but it’s an important fact nonetheless: The 2020-21 Sixers are a playoff team.
With a 127-83 win Wednesday night over the Hawks at Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers clinched a postseason spot and improved to 41-21. They led by 28 points at halftime.
Six Hawks were out with injuries, including Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter.
Joel Embiid had 17 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in 25 minutes. Ben Simmons posted eight points, six assists and two steals, while Seth Curry scored 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting.
“Coming into the season our goal was to win a championship, but there’s a lot of steps to get there," Embiid said. “You’ve got to make the playoffs and you’ve got to win the first round, second round, conference finals ... it’s a long road. You’ve got to be focused for it, and I think we have everything we need to make it happen. So it’s all about us coming out and just dominating every game.”
The Sixers will host Atlanta again on Friday night. Here are three observations on their blowout win Wednesday:
Simmons leads the way for first-choice starters
Simply having a full-strength squad was a positive in light of the Sixers’ recent health problems.
Simmons scored six first-quarter points, making all three of his field goals, though a slick, no-look assist to Tobias Harris was perhaps his best play.
A dish to Curry for a fast-break three-pointer after a bit of fancy dribbling wasn’t bad either. Curry was primed to fire and sinking jumpers early, scoring 13 points in his first stint.
“It’s a lot of fun," Curry said of playing with Simmons. “He makes life a lot easier for everybody on the floor, me included. He pushes the pace. I’ve just got to fill the lanes and try to find open spots where he can deliver me the ball. Defensively, he creates turnovers and creates havoc in that sense, too. Our offense is a little bit more free-flowing. He just (has) impacted the game in so many different ways all year long for us.”
The Sixers’ first unit grabbed a 23-11 lead, thanks in large part to Simmons’ all-around excellence and Curry’s sharpshooting. Embiid was actually the team’s last starter to score, converting a three from the left wing to make the score 29-13.
When everyone is available, the Sixers should be confident in their chances against any team. Atlanta was anything but healthy, of course, but this was still a very good showing.
Hill strong again as rotation takes shape
George Hill was the Sixers’ first man off the bench, followed shortly after by Matisse Thybulle and Shake Milton. By the end of the first quarter, Sixers head coach Doc Rivers had an all-bench lineup on the floor.
Hill again played well and continued to look like a viable option to close out postseason games. For a 34-year-old coming off of a long-term absence, he’s still got plenty of burst. His knowledge of how to play — the right way to defend certain ball handlers, defensive rotations, where it’s best to position himself for team spacing — is obvious to anyone who watches him for a few minutes.
When Simmons picked up his third foul in the second quarter, Hill joined the Sixers’ starters and fit in well. He recorded seven points, six rebounds, three assists and one turnover. The Sixers had just eight turnovers as a team.
As things stand, it appears Hill, Thybulle, Milton and Dwight Howard are the four Sixers likeliest to feature off the bench during the playoffs, with Tyrese Maxey and Furkan Korkmaz players on the outside looking in.
Rivers confirmed Wednesday that he still likes his second unit not including a traditional power forward.
“That’s been the plan, we just had to get everybody healthy," he said. “We like that lineup. That’s what we’re going to do. We like the small lineup with one big. Matisse today … (Danilo) Gallinari is tough, and Matisse did a terrific job. It shows us he can guard bigger guys. That helps us.”
That all makes sense, and Rivers will surely be glad to have change-of-pace options in Maxey and Korkmaz. Maxey played four first-half minutes Wednesday after Milton was called for his third foul, an example of a situation where he could play in the postseason.
Top-tier half-court defense
With 10 regular-season games remaining, there’s no question that half-court defense is one of the Sixers’ greatest strengths.
Entering Wednesday’s game, the Sixers were third in defensive rating, according to Cleaning the Glass, and second in points allowed per 100 half-court plays. If they go far in the playoffs, the most probable route is elite defense and Embiid, Simmons and Harris all playing like All-Stars.
Atlanta being so shorthanded was clearly a key factor, but this was still a stellar defensive performance. The only minor issue for the Sixers was Simmons’ foul trouble. Outside of that, they were locked in and remained difficult to score on even when the game was out of hand and losing focus would’ve been excusable.
Atlanta’s 83 points and 33.3 field goal percentage were both lows for a Sixers opponent this season.
It was not a fun evening to be a Hawk. Kris Dunn was whistled for a technical foul in the fourth quarter for getting in Thybulle’s face following a high-flying and-one layup.
Though not in uniform, Young was T’d up from the bench shortly after.