For the first time since Joel Embiid's return from COVID-19, the Sixers have a win over a good opponent to smile about.
Trailing by nine points Friday night to open the fourth quarter, they fought back for a 98-96 win over the Hawks at State Farm Arena, moving to 12-11 on the season. Danilo Gallinari missed a potential game-winning three-pointer for Atlanta at the buzzer.
Embiid posted 28 points on 10-for-23 shooting, 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocks.
Trae Young had 25 points on 8-for-22 shooting and 10 assists.
Tobias Harris was sidelined by a non-COVID illness. Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Andre Hunter, Onyeka Okongwu and Cam Reddish were all out for the Hawks.
The Sixers will play the Hornets on Monday and Wednesday in Charlotte. Here are observations on their win over Atlanta:
Tinkering with lineups
The Sixers were sluggish to start for the third time in the past four games. Embiid was short on a foul-line jumper and jump hook, Young scored four quick points, and Atlanta grabbed an 8-2 lead.
The Hawks’ momentum didn’t last long as the Sixers responded with a 10-0 run capped by a Furkan Korkmaz floater. It was intriguing to see Sixers head coach Doc Rivers use Korkmaz as his first substitute. The move was a way to give Korkmaz time alongside the Sixers’ starters and perhaps try to assist him in snapping a prolonged shooting skid.
Korkmaz’s 4-for-6 performance from the floor was his first game shooting 50 percent or higher since Nov. 6. Not a dramatic slump-buster, but a positive nonetheless.
Another interesting lineup decision from Rivers was going without a traditional power forward for an extended stretch late in the first and early in the second period. Just like during Atlanta’s second-round series win over the Sixers last postseason, that meant Gallinari (18 points) had chances to score against smaller players such as Matisse Thybulle. With Harris available, the Sixers wouldn’t have faced that particular problem, although we’ll note Gallinari kept having success after spot starter Georges Niang’s re-entry.
Niang recorded 13 points, four rebounds and three assists. John Collins slammed a highlight dunk over him late in the third quarter.
The Sixers’ bench was outscored 35-18 by Atlanta’s. Rivers went with a nine-man rotation and Isaiah Joe did not play for a third game in a row.
Embiid back in business
Embiid missed his first four field goals, dropping him to 7 for his last 37. He did draw seven first-quarter free throws and convert three first-half shots in the paint.
The Sixers were reliant on Embiid to hit jumpers late in the shot clock on several occasions. That formula didn’t work during a second quarter in which they managed just 13 points. Atlanta also tightened up after some early turnovers, forcing the Sixers to labor for good shots against a set defense.
After nothing dropped for him on the perimeter in the first half, Embiid drained a three-pointer early in the third as the shot clock expired. He then scrapped for deeper post position, making a basket in the half court followed by a transition and-one. A difficult fadeaway came soon after.
One part of Embiid’s early-season dip in efficiency has been that he’s often received the ball 18 to 20 feet from the hoop with minimal movement around him and the defense glad to send double teams. The reasons for that are varied, but Embiid frequently has some level of control over how far away from the rim his post-ups begin. Sometimes it’s as simple as not settling for a touch near the three-point line and instead battling to carve out space near the paint.
Embiid leaned on his mid-range game in the clutch and was good enough to carry the Sixers to victory. He drilled jumpers to tie the game at 96-all and put the Sixers up 98-96 with 42.8 seconds left.
Seth Curry (18 points, five assists) starred for the Sixers early but faded during the middle of the game. He posted 11 first-quarter points on 5-for-5 shooting, notching the final two with a convincing pump fake and driving layup, but then misfired on his next six shots. However, Curry made two vital fourth-quarter buckets.
Maxey plays his part
Tyrese Maxey, Shake Milton and Thybulle were the Sixers’ main trio of defenders on Young.
Atlanta’s star point guard made two long, tough three-pointers against Milton in the second quarter. Though Young does a ton well besides shoot with great range, the threat of his jumpers opens up other aspects of his game, including his elite passing. All things considered, the Sixers didn’t do a bad job on Young, whose five-game streak of scoring 30-plus points ended.
Young was called for a technical foul with 11.1 seconds left before halftime when he thought Maxey hit him on the head trying to block a floater from behind. He attempted eight free throws in the game, making seven.
Maxey's recent slump continued in a 1-for-6 first half, but he improved after intermission. The 21-year-old found a few opportunities to explode toward the rim and finished well.
An area where Maxey has plenty of room to grow is his distribution to open teammates after dribble penetration. It's seemed of late that, unless Maxey can surge into the paint, his default is a neutral, safe pass back out to the perimeter. That said, a third consecutive game with zero turnovers is undeniably excellent.