Coping mechanisms are as much a feature of the NBA playoffs as the postgame podium.
“You have to have a short-term memory,” Philadelphia 76ers rookie guard Tyrese Maxey said.
Maxey was referring to the condition of defending Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young with smothering pressure only to watch him drain a “logo 3” from 35 feet. Yet on a broader level, this was a prescription for the Sixers after blowing a 26-point second-half lead on their home floor in Game 5 in the wake of squandering a 16-point lead in Game 4. The postseason flows too fast, and the demands of physical and mental recovery are too critical to dwell in humiliation.
Sixers forward Tobias Harris, who endured a particularly bad night in the loss, turned his phone off. Sixers guard Seth Curry maintained his routine of watching film, checking out the other postseason series, and moving through his workouts. But the only salve for defeat is redemption.
After the lights in State Farm Arena went back on with 1:59 remaining in the game after a brief outage that looked like a concert crowd waiting for an encore — thousands of smartphones glowing in the darkness — the Sixers completed their exorcism with a 104-99 win over Atlanta.
“Tonight, we just kept telling each other, ’48 minutes,'” Sixers center Joel Embiid said. “‘That’s what we have to do, and we’ll be fine.'”
The first half was more drudgery for the Sixers. Their perimeter shooters went a collective 4-for-15 from beyond the arc; All-Star center Joel Embiid was inefficient; first-team all-defender Ben Simmons sat with foul trouble; despite living in the paint for much of the half, the Sixers could hardly buy a trip to the stripe; and Trae Young got loose for 20 points. Despite it all, Philadelphia trailed only 51-47 at the half.
Coming out of the locker room, the top-ranked defense in the Eastern Conference went to work. Their 14-0 run to start the half was as much a product of their defense as the shooting exploits of Curry. Trae Young, who spent the first half north to south and tormenting the Sixers with his lob, found himself pushed out and toward the sidelines. In the second half, Young managed five field goals, only a single trip to the line, and turned the ball over four times.
After two mortifying collapses, the Sixers buckled down. Embiid still found himself frustrated, but he owned the offensive glass and kept the Hawks off-balance by commanding the double-team. Harris got to the rim on multiple occasions. And Maxey provided some essential defense on Young and drained a 3-pointer during a dry spell for both teams in the fourth quarter.
Now the East’s best home team will host Game 7 on Sunday after six games that have featured both rugged defense and individual offensive outbursts. Multiple defensive strategies have been deployed against Young, while the Hawks have tried with mixed success to send multiple defenders at Embiid.
Opponents know each other’s tendencies well after two weeks of combat, which makes Game 7 more about execution than creativity.
Based on Friday night’s Sixers win, here a few key factors that could prove decisive:
Can the Sixers get Ben Simmons on the move?
Simmons carries the title of Sixers point guard, but his skill set has more in common with Draymond Green than Chris Paul. Among the 19 players in this series with at least 10 field goal attempts in the half court, Simmons ranks dead last in shots per possession in the half court, according to Second Spectrum. It will be a good while before Simmons will join his fellow All-Stars at the position in feasting off jumpers coming off high screens, the Sixers would help themselves by finding some opportunities for him as a cutter or with some short pick-and-rolls closer to the hoop. However they do it, the Sixers could use more production from a guy who can offer it — so long as the opportunity is there.
Does Trae Young have one more in him?
Atlanta had its devastating drag screen working early, and it produced alley-oops for Hawks center Clint Capela, as well as space for Young to fire from distance against the Sixers’ lanky defenders. But size can bother Young — and it has in this series. Against Simmons, he’s generating only .97 points per chance on picks (his regular season output was 1.06 points per chance). The Hawks have enjoyed their moments during the series, but will need the double-drag humming on Sunday if they want a series win — Collins and Capela slowing Simmons, then popping and diving respectively. The Hawks will likely work in more small-big stagger screens as well — and they’ll also need their shooters to drain a few of those looks produced by their primary actions.
Can Joel Embiid overpower Atlanta?
Capela was one of the league’s better rim protectors this season, but has struggled to contain Embiid one-on-one (who doesn’t). Embiid has worked beautifully against double-teams at times, with timely kickouts that send the ball around the perimeter and into the hands of Sixers shooters. Philadelphia simply doesn’t have a perimeter player who demands that kind of attention. Using Embiid both down low and in dribble handoffs and as a screener for Curry will be a nice decongestant — Curry & Embiid as a perimeter combo produced some nice offense for the Sixers. With Curry sizzling of late, that could be a powerful source of pressure on the Hawks’ defense.
Can Atlanta find Philadelphia’s shooters in transition?
There’s no good reason why Curry should beat the entire Hawks unit to his spot on the wing off an Atlanta miss after he’s just hit two consecutive 3-pointers. This is one of the most elementary principles in high-level basketball, but the Hawks couldn’t be bothered on Friday night to abide by it. Curry scored 11 of his 24 points in Game 6 in transition, and got four uncontested looks from 3-point distance, hitting three of them, according to ESPN Stats & Information. After Curry burned them to build a lead in the third quarter, Furkan Korkmaz got into the act, darting ahead of Atlanta’s ineffectual transition D off a live-ball turnover for his own clean look from distance. Overall, the Sixers got eight uncontested field goal attempts on Friday, and converted seven of them. A couple of youthful indiscretions are one thing, but a team with little experience deep in the postseason can’t afford to get beat at the margins if they aspire to win a Game 7 on the road.
Atlanta is already thin at the wings, with Cam Reddish’s extended absence, the loss of DeAndre Hunter, and now potentially Bogdanovic, who left Game 6 with soreness in his right knee. Though he hasn’t shot well in the series, he’s crucial to the spacing that provides the fertile ground for their pick-and-roll attack. Behind him, the Hawks feature Lou Williams, Solomon Hill, and Tony Snell. Though he hit a couple of big shots in Atlanta’s furious comeback in Game 5, Williams is a defensive sieve who is best used in short spurts against opposing bench units. And neither Hill nor Snell have been productive offensively. Kris Dunn, who spent much of the year recovering from ankle surgery, is available to the Hawks. Dunn is a premium perimeter defender with All-NBA potential, but he’s played only 45 minutes in the regular season, and three in the postseason. Whatever the contingency, the Hawks will be stretched to fulfill it.
Can Tobias Harris provide some juice?
After a wretched Game 5, Harris was effective in Friday’s win, scoring 24 points on 9-for-20 shooting from the field, despite early foul trouble. “I thought the last two games he’d gotten back into that old sluggish hold-the-ball,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said following Game 6. “Tonight, it was quick. It was attacks. It was downhill. That’s who he is.” Harris is vital to the Sixers, in large part because they’re primary wings, while good distance shooters, aren’t classic creators, nor can Simmons do much in that capacity for himself in the backcourt. Creativity is the product of energy, and it dies in stagnation. At his worst, Harris can be a ball-stopper in that regard. At his best when he’s decisive, he can find good looks off a dribble or two, and exploit his size in mismatches — something he emphasized as a goal in Game 7. The Sixers should be careful about getting too iso-heavy, but Harris remains their most versatile 1-through-4. If he’s selectively aggressive on Sunday, the Sixers can exploit Atlanta’s helpers.
The Sixers are several years into their Process, while the Hawks fast-tracked theirs. Neither current incarnation has advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, but one of these rebuilds will finally erect something worth celebrating on Sunday.