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Joel Embiid had a dominant floor game in a 126-116 win over the Hawks on Friday night, moving the Sixers to 2-1 in their In-Season Tournament schedule.
Here’s what I saw.
— This was admittedly a much easier opponent for Joel Embiid to deal with than the Boston Celtics, or even the Indiana Pacers for that matter. It didn’t require him to participate in a track meet, and it wasn’t a matchup against a team that has defended him better than the rest of the league. But I was pleased to see him open this game playing purposeful basketball — aided, it should be noted, by some good tactical work from the coaching staff.
The Sixers ran a lot of flex cuts in the first half of this game, with Embiid setting up Tobias Harris from the elbows for a few easy baskets in the opening quarter. Passing can be an adventure for the big man depending on the game, but basically everything he threw was on time and on target in the first half against Atlanta, and it allowed him to rack up four early assists without putting the ball in much danger.
He did get a bit off track when it came to his own offense, however. He came out of the chute with speed and power, going right at Clint Capela for some quick buckets at the hoop. That faded over time, with Embiid settling for a lot of midrange jumpers that came off of the iron. Admittedly, Atlanta sat in zone defense at times, making it more difficult for Embiid to get a deep touch that he could actually make a scoring move with.
The bad news for the Hawks is that Embiid’s shooting touch came roaring back in the second half. I thought he read the floor supremely well throughout this game, and certainly as they closed it out in the third and fourth quarters. He had a great feel for where the Hawks were coming from and when, and was able to bail out of post-ups or shots for himself if a cutter came into that vacated space on the weak side. Clint Capela was put in no-win situations over and over again, not sure whether the defend him as a scorer as a playmaker. And that is the final level for the big man, the version they’ll need in order to break through into the final rounds of the playoffs.
And while this might not have been his best defensive performance of the season, I thought the game flipped when he asserted himself there in the third quarter. He made his length matter on several Hawks drives with the game still tightly contested, turning Atlanta over to send Philadelphia running the other way. It was everything you could hope for out of him — he was efficient, dominant, and lifted up others. Can’t ask for much more.
— My new mission on this beat is to get Tyrese Maxey to look for his shot in the first quarter of games. There have been too many opening periods this season where he is a non-entity or something close to it, and that should be basically impossible. That being said, he continues to turn it on the deeper he gets into games, so maybe I should stop questioning his process of getting there.
The pattern is starting to become familiar. Maxey spent the early part of this game probing, looking to get other guys rolling before looking for too many of his own shots. The pocket pass to Embiid was there for most of the first 2.5 quarters, and he was intent on getting the ball to the big man coming off of a tough loss on Wednesday. And though he was doing a nice job as a playmaker, it was unclear if he was going to get out of first or second gear on offense. For the first time basically all season, the Maxey-led lineup hit a brick wall in the first half, giving up a huge run to the Hawks and conceding the lead.
Whether it was because of that or something else he saw, Nick Nurse opted to switch up the rotations in the second half. Maxey played the entire third quarter alongside Joel Embiid, and by the end of it, he had worked himself into a rhythm, finding a proper balance between attacking the basket, pushing the pace, and (naturally) knocking down some outside jumpers.
There were moments in this game when you were reminded of how dangerous Maxey can be when he’s not having to create offense for, well, everyone else. Maxey was a catch-and-shoot beneficiary on a few occasions throughout this game, allowed to set up shop in the corner or above the break with somebody else on the ball. It’s not a luxury he’s afforded much these days, but it reminds you of his incredible value as a spot-up man. He destroyed teams who left him alone while playing next to James Harden, and if the Sixers add even a decent creative partner for him to play next to, expect them to tap into this skill of Maxey’s a lot more.
In any case, the run they needed from him came. All of the stuff we stressed over in the offseason, like playmaking and getting to the free-throw line, has been improved. He’ll have to take a backseat to Embiid on some nights, and that’s quite alright.
— We mentioned Joel Embiid’s shot diet above, but Tobias Harris is another guy we need to keep an eye on, too. With where he’s taking the bulk of his shots, it’s a borderline requirement for him to be hyper-efficient. He has been able to justify his midrange meandering through the early portion of this season, but the Sixers’ low three-point volume as a team is at least partially his fault. That is who he is and who he has been for a long time.
But, well, he has been hyper-efficient. And on top of that, Harris was locked the hell in from deep against the Hawks, giving Philadelphia the best of both worlds.
Going off of his usual script, Harris stepped confidently into catch-and-shoot opportunities on Friday night, making it slightly harder for the Hawks to load up on Embiid in the middle of the floor. This game appeared to be heading in the wrong direction early in the third, with the Hawks racing ahead and the Sixers bogging down a bit on offense. All it took to release some pressure was a couple of made threes from No. 12, and suddenly, the offense looked like it had a fighting chance again.
More importantly, the Sixers counted on Harris in a big way to open the fourth quarter, having ridden Embiid and Maxey for the full 12 minutes of the third quarter. He was the featured player for that period, and he did just enough to see the Sixers through those minutes until the cavalry returned. Excellent, excellent night for Harris.
— This was perhaps the best game Danuel House Jr. has had in a Sixers uniform. Made shots are one thing, and I’m never going to expect anything but complete volatility from bench guys in that department. But the thing I appreciated most from House in this game is that he ran hard enough that I wouldn’t have been shocked to see him fly out of his shoes at some point.
If Philadelphia’s transition defense left something to be desired, it wasn’t because of anything House did. On multiple occasions against the Hawks, House came flying back into the picture a la Nightcrawler, appearing out of nowhere to turn a sure Atlanta bucket into a spectacular block. And to the team’s credit, they rewarded House for his efforts on the defensive end, giving him a steady stream of shot opportunities for his troubles.
He was on such a roll in the fourth quarter that he managed to come up with a beautiful assist to Tobias Harris, slithering toward the lane before throwing it back to his buddy on the strong side. When Harris knocked down the open triple from the corner, it felt close to the nail in the coffin for this game. If they were winning these bench-heavy minutes, did Atlanta really have a chance with Maxey and Embiid back?
— Jaden Springer picked up some silly fouls in this game, but he plays so hard that good things happen when he’s on the floor. I was glad to see him back in the rotation after a strong outing earlier this week.
— De’Anthony Melton is making threes again, our long national nightmare is over.
— Transition defense, our old friend/enemy! The Hawks ran and ran and ran against the Sixers on Friday night, and while you might have expected Philly to be prepared for it after a two-game set against the Pacers, they were not up to the task in the first half. They probably could have avoided that problem if their offense wasn’t in the toilet for long stretches of time, but alas.
There were far too many moments where the Hawks just flooded the Sixers with leak-outs and only one guy got back, if that. Paul Reed was left on an island against three Hawks players during one run-out in the first half, and though he fought valiantly for that five-second stretch, he would eventually take a bad foul for an and-one layup, giving the Hawks an extra point on that trip. De’Anthony Melton was put in a similar position in the closing moments of the second quarter, and he was at least able to avoid that exact fate.
Was there a payoff for the Sixers getting crushed there? Not really. They ended up even with Atlanta on the O-glass through 24 minutes, which is not going to do it if you’re allowing them to just bury you on the break.
— De’Anthony Melton is missing layups in comical fashion still, our long national nightmare continues.
I really can’t understand how any player, let alone this specific player, can make such a meal of layups. He’s got good touch as a shooter, decent length, good athleticism, all of which usually translate to decent finishing at the basket. But every time Melton goes to the rim, it’s a complete adventure. Never seen anything like it.
— For a guy with a reputation as a defense-first player, Patrick Beverley sure commits a lot of stupid fouls.
— The offensive interference call on Jaden Springer late in the first quarter was absolutely shameful. Springer went up to dunk the ball, came off of the rim basically immediately, and then the ball bounced in only to get waved off. While the way he came off of the rim likely helped it go down and was probably correct based on how the rule is written, it doesn’t seem like the spirit of the rule is meant to rule out that kind of basket.
— As much as I think Marcus Morris should be glued to the bench, no one around here hopes for injury, so it was a bummer to see him limp off of the floor in the first half. Here’s hoping for a speedy recovery.