After losing three out of four times to the Hawks at Wells Fargo Center last postseason, the Sixers beat Atlanta on Saturday night in convincing fashion.
In the first meeting between the teams since that second-round playoff series win by the Hawks, the Sixers prevailed by a 122-94 score.
Tobias Harris scored 22 points on 9-for-13 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds. Joel Embiid posted 19 points and five rebounds.
Trae Young had 13 points on 5-for-16 shooting and 10 assists.
Ben Simmons again missed Saturday’s game for personal reasons. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said pregame that Simmons has been “engaged” during his workouts at the Sixers’ practice facility but has not participated recently in team drills. Asked what factors would determine when Simmons might return to games, Rivers said he has “no idea” and is focused on the players active.
Next up for the 4-2 Sixers is a Monday night matchup with the Trail Blazers. Here are observations on their win over the Hawks:
Quite the test for Maxey
Tyrese Maxey and Young each opened the scoring for their teams. Atlanta’s star point guard dropped in a transition floater, while Maxey coasted in for a dunk off of a steal and also sunk a floater of his own.
The Sixers let many of their early half-court possessions last until near the end of the shot clock, often making extra passes to a fault. They were good in transition, though, scoring seven of their first nine points on the fast break. At one point, the Sixers held a 19-2 fast-break scoring edge.
“I thought the biggest thing today was not even just Tyrese’s pace, it was the advance passes," Rivers said. “We kept throwing the ball ahead. We showed 15 times in the last two games where if there’s a guy ahead, just throw it to him. The other team will make their own mistake, just with the advance pass.
“Seth (Curry) got two threes just because we pushed the ball ahead; the guy went and guarded the wrong pass. That’s what that does. It puts so much pressure on your defense. And that’s something you can do all year. That doesn’t stop when the playoffs start. You can keep doing that — and that’s what we have to keep doing. And then when we didn’t have that, Tyrese pushed it up with pace as well."
Young’s first quarter went poorly. He started 1 for 5 from the floor, missing a handful of floaters, and also picked up a technical after being called for a foul on a Curry three-point attempt. The Sixers opened up a 24-11 lead on two Matisse Thybulle free throws after the third-year wing was tripped in the backcourt by Danilo Gallinari, who was assessed a Flagrant 1 foul.
A nice stretch in the second quarter for Maxey that included a confident three ended prematurely when he was whistled for his third foul. He bit on a Young pump fake. Young only managed four free-throw attempts in the game, though.
“Just try to make it tough on him," Maxey said of his approach. “Great player, extremely hard to guard — double drags and drags and one-on-one. So just try to keep coming, keep chasing him and try to just defend without fouling.”
These games against big names are valuable experience for Maxey (16 points on 6-for-8 shooting), regardless of how the Simmons saga pans out. Progress won’t always be linear — Embiid threw his hands up in frustration at one point in the third when Maxey didn’t properly direct the Sixers into a set — but Maxey is bound to keep learning and improving with reps.
No drastic drop-off without Embiid
Embiid started 1 for 7 from the floor, narrowly misfiring on several jumpers, although he drew five first-period free throws. He found his shooting stroke in the second, knocking down three field goals in a row.
Clint Capela beat Embiid a few times on the offensive glass, leading Atlanta to a 30-16 halftime rebounding advantage. That the Sixers were still up 14 points despite the rebounding disparity indicates how well they did in other facets of the game. The Hawks committed 10 of the first half’s 13 turnovers.
Beyond the details of this particular performance, that Embiid played long stints and was a not a game-time decision is positive. Evidently, his right knee soreness isn’t serious enough to render the 27-year-old at much less than his typical level.
The Embiid-less minutes featured the Andre Drummond versus Gorgui Dieng matchup. Drummond had a fine night and outplayed the veteran Atlanta big man. More notably, the Sixers didn’t struggle when they played lineups with mostly second-unit players. They were even OK when Rivers turned to an all-bench group late in the third and early in the fourth period.
As he frequently does, Thybulle provided a couple of defensive highlights. He couldn’t help but grin after swatting a Cam Reddish corner three try early in the second quarter. Thybulle blocked a Reddish mid-range jumper soon after, too.
“I just don’t give up on the plays," Thybulle said after a four-steal, three-block showing. “Most of the plays I make, I feel like they ultimately come from people expecting me to quit when I hit the screen or when I get out of position. It’s just the fact that I keep pursuing the ball. Good things tend to happen. Those plays are really fun, and it leads to great energy and usually good plays on the other end.”
Georges Niang fared better defensively on Gallinari than George Hill, a point guard who was forced to guard a power forward last postseason due to Rivers’ lack of trust in any backup options behind Harris.
A comfortable enough lead
The Sixers likely won’t feel any lead is fully safe for a long time against the Hawks.
However, their scorers besides Embiid made key contributions Saturday at moments when it seemed Atlanta might creep back into the game.
Curry poured in nine points early in the third period and also drilled a crowd-pleasing transition three. Harris responded to a 6-0 Hawks run by hitting a tough leaner over Capela, and he ran a sharp give-and-go with Danny Green as the shot clock dwindled a bit later.
It’s nothing new, but the Sixers are a more potent (and stable) team when Harris is making difficult shots, stemming the opposition’s momentum and relieving the burden on Embiid.
At least in terms of minutes, though, Embiid had close to a normal load as he played 30. Rivers curiously substituted him back into the game with 6:52 left and the Sixers leading by 24. A Maxey layup with 5:13 remaining that put the team up 27 was sufficient for Rivers to take Embiid out for good.