The Atlanta Hawks are in the midst of a brutal January schedule. The team entered play in Philadelphia on Friday night set to face the Philadelphia 76ers, a squad that possessed the best home record in the league. Atlanta suffered a 21-point loss in October during their first visit to Wells Fargo Center. With that as the backdrop, a win for the visitors looked unlikely even after it was announced, before the tip-off, that All-NBA big man Joel Embiid would not be playing for Philadelphia due to ankle soreness.
This Sixers roster is significantly different than the one Atlanta faced in October. Philadelphia added one of the league’s best players, Jimmy Butler, in a trade in which they sent Robert Covington and Dario Saric to the Minnesota Timberwolves. As a result, the top of Philadelphia’s roster holds more talent but head coach Brett Brown is still working through identifying which of his young players he can rely upon for quality rotation play. Simply put, that would factor into how events unfolded in the Friday evening contest.
Having nearly secured an unexpected win against a very good Toronto Raptors team on Tuesday night, the Hawks were hoping to make it a competitive game and have an opportunity to get the win they were not able to get north of the border. It was tight the entire night and the game did not lack for entertainment value.
Two head coaches that know each other very well, Hawks’ head coach Lloyd Pierce served as an assistant under Brown for the last five seasons in Philadelphia, deployed sets and actions to take advantage of their respective teams strengths. There were adjustments. And there were adjustments to the adjustments. But it seemed each coach had identified and settled in to lineups and primary sets that would change little over the final 5 1/2 minutes of the game.
Pierce stuck with a lineup of Jeremy Lin, DeAndre’ Bembry, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon. The 76ers had demonstrated that they were going to attack the diminutive Trae Young, on the defensive end, if he were to remain in the game. The only time Pierce went a different direction was when he inserted Justin Anderson for Lin for defensive possessions when a substitution was available (dead balls and time outs).
The Hawks would lean on their pick and roll sets and increasingly use the rookie Huerter to attack as the game wound down the final stretch. Philadelphia’s defense was prioritizing keeping Collins off of the rim and Lin out of the paint. As a result, on numerous possessions, the ball would be routed to Huerter with little time to act. But his decision making and execution was so solid that he would basically serve as the team’s de facto point guard during the final two minutes of play.
Brown rolled with a lineup of T.J. McConnell, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons and Mike Muscala. He also substituted rookie Landry Shamet for McConnell on selective possessions. The Sixers would use motion offense early in the shot clock with Simmons settled in the post looking to hit Redick coming off of a screen for a jump shot or a player cutting free to the rim. If that was not successful the ball would move to Butler who would look to attack in isolation.
The Hawks were able to hold a marginal lead for most of the fourth quarter. To no one’s surprise, the Sixers made a strong push in the final minutes. But the Hawks were able to keep pace leaning on the shot making and play making of Huerter.
Butler converted a tough shot to put Philadelphia up by three points with 1:16 to play and it seemed as though the home team had secured the momentum to put the game away.
But on the subsequent possession, Huerter knocked down a long three-point attempt with the shot clock ticking under five seconds to tie the game with 53 seconds remaining in regulation.
The Hawks were able to force a timely turnover on the next possession and called timeout with 25 seconds to go with the game tied 121-121. There were 17 seconds on the shot clock so presumably Philadelphia would get another possession to tie or take a lead even if the Hawks were able to produce a bucket.
Huerter and Collins ran a pick and roll designed to create a shot for the composed rookie. But Brown had entered the bigger defender, Wilson Chandler, for Redick and they were able to stay matched up after the screen. With the shot clock winding down they had to improvise. Huerter tossed the ball to Collins on the right block where he was being defended by his former teammate Muscala. In the heat of the final seconds of the possession, he was able to get separation and connected on a step back jumper to put his team up by two points with 9.5 seconds to play.
The Sixers called timeout and there was no doubt that they would be designing a play to allow Butler to attack with the intent to send the game to overtime if not secure a win in the form of a three-point play.
It’s well known that Butler, on late possessions, is looking to set up his defender and plant his right foot to set up his patented step back jumper. Justin Anderson took the assignment of defending him. But he was not asked to do so in isolation. With six seconds on the clock, Dedmon abandoned his man, Muscala, to double team Butler in hopes of forcing the ball out of his hands.
Muscala would end up unaccounted for in the weak side corner but it appeared that Butler’s internal clock instinctively caused him to attack. He successfully dribbled away from the would-be trap of Dedmon and got past Anderson to the right baseline. He missed on the shot attempt but a foul was called with 2.4 seconds to play. Butler head toward the free throw line having connected on each of his 12 previous attempts at the stripe looking to tie the game... very likely sending it to overtime if successful (the Hawks had no remaining timeouts).
But he missed on the first attempt. Brown substituted Chandler who lined up with Muscala in the hope of getting an offensive rebound and another attempt to tie the game after a presumed intentional miss by Butler on the final attempt.
Huerter and Bembry would try to keep Simmons and rookie center Jonah Bolden from crashing from the 3-point line into the paint after Butler’s release. But Simmons timed his dash toward the backboard perfectly and tipped the ball back toward the rim. It did not connect but the ball found the hands of Chandler right at the rim elevated over the scrum of the other nine players. Hit tip attempt was just a tad too strong and the Hawks survived with the two-point victory, 123-121.
It was the first definitive game-winner of Collins’ professional career. But even he acknowledged during a post-game interview that they would not have had the chance to get that score and the win if not for the incredibly impressive play of Huerter who had a career best 29 points on just 18 shooting possessions.
“Coming out party for Kevin Huerter,” said Pierce on the play of his rookie shooting guard. “It was really good to see the guys step up, full of confidence, full of poise… just to play through him pretty much the second half of the fourth quarter.”
“He had an array of skill, getting downhill, getting to the paint, creating separation for threes, and then just making just drop offs (passes),” Pierce added. “You kind of saw a little bit of everything, which is what we know we have in Kevin Huerter.”
“It shows what type of player he is, what type of person he is,” commented Young on his fellow rookie back-court mate. “He was being guarded by Jimmy Butler. They were pressuring him. I think the Sixers knew we were trying to get the ball to Kevin for the last shot. They were pressuring him so much that he gave it to John. He gave John the ISO in the mid post. And John did what he does. So, it was cool to see that too.”
Collins contributed 25 points and nine rebounds. Dedmon somewhat flirted with what would have been his first triple-double. He had 19 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Not reflected in those numbers is how hard he worked offensively setting screen after screen to help free up a teammate for an opportunity to score the ball.
Despite not playing the final stretch Young 18 points on 14 shooting possessions to go along with 5 assists. Bembry was active on both ends of the court and ended up with 14 points, six rebounds and five assists. He was +14 in the box score which was only bested by Huerter who was +15.
“Yeah, he’s an energy guy,” commented Pierce about the play of Bembry. “And he got a little bit of everybody. He guarded Ben a couple of times. He guarded J.J. coming off of some of the pin downs. And he’s got Jimmy Butler in ISO situations as well. He’s our energy guy. He’s our top defender. He’s a guy that you have to move around and put in different spots and that’s what he did tonight.”
Both Jeremy Lin and Alex Len contributed 9 points respectively in reserve play. Len was useful when the Sixers deployed small lineups with Simmons defending at the center position. Lin added three assists. It was not his most impressive statistical output but the threat he posed in the pick and roll is what set up almost everything the Hawks were able to get down the stretch offensively. He also took tough defensive assignments to eliminate any opportunity for Philadelphia to try to get their bigger players isolated on Young.
“Just two games ago we were in Toronto in the same situation, late game situation, close ballgame, back and forth and we came out on the short end of it,” Pierce said when asked to compare the way his team closed this game versus the one in Toronto. “So, the maturity, sometimes it happens the next night. We took a step back, we were drained, we ran out of gas in Brooklyn. But I think the guys, obviously feel there is confidence in being in close games and being able to finish close games and makes plays. And they showed that tonight.”
For the home team, Butler had 30 points, five assists, five rebounds and three steals. Simmons posted an impressive triple-double with 23 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds.
Redick had 20 points on 21 field goal attempts. He started slow as a shooter but, as usual, produced big shots when it mattered most. Muscala and McConnell each had 16 points.
Dedmon helped the Hawks get going on offense early in the game by knocking down 3-point shots while the Sixers were committing extra defenders in an attempt to keep Collins off of the rim. He connected on all three of his attempts from the arc in the first half.
Butler has developed a comfort level looking for opportunities to leak out in transition and look for easy scoring opportunities. It’s smart. Simmons is the best rebounding guard in the league and is always looking for the hit ahead pass.
Lin operates in the pick and roll and connects on a shot in the paint. Each of his nine points came in the first half. It does not look like a lot in the box score. But the Sixers saw just enough of this in the first half that it had a significant impact on how they came out looking to defend in the second half.
This play would foreshadow what was to come later in the game. The video picks up just after Philadelphia denies Young and Collins in the initial pick and roll action. The ball is moved to the other side of the floor where the Hawks have to explore a secondary attack. Bembry is able to deliver the ball to Dedmon who converts the on the dunk.
This is an example of what the Sixers were looking to do much of the game on offense. Simmons has the ball in the post and Redick is looking for a screen. McConnell finds an opportunity to cut to the rim and Simmons hits him with perfect timing.
This play also demonstrates a theme in the game. The Hawks had 21 turnovers. Philadelphia looks to use their length to just get a simple deflection which often allows them to use their speed and length to get easy points in transition.
This play is an example of how the Hawks attacked through Len against the smaller lineups deployed by Brown.
Young was able to connect on two three-point attempts in transition in the third quarter. Here, Huerter grabs a rebound, pushes the pace and sets his teammate up for the catch-and-shoot opportunity.
This is a look at a fun ATO (after timeout) play designed by Pierce to get a lob to Huerter at the rim. It’s the first play of this type the Hawks have used this season coming out of a timeout.
Despite not scoring in the second half, Lin continued to generate leverage for the Hawks offensively working hard in the pick and roll. On this play, he is able to set up Dedmon for another score at the rim.
This is the point in the game where Huerter really starts to warm up. Notice how superbly Dedmon contributes on this play by sandwiching McConnell (Huerter’s defender) in between himself and Muscala.
On the next possession, Dedmon frees up Huerter to attack the paint. The big man erases Butler with a firm screen.
Huerter deserves all the credit he is getting for what he did in this game. But the way Dedmon helped him really get going in the fourth quarter should not go unnoticed.
This is a brilliant ATO executed by the Sixers in the fourth quarter. Notice how both Butler and Redick use dummy hand signals to sell the supposed screen. Atlanta doesn’t really overreact to it but opens up just enough space for another excellent pass from Simmons to Butler to produce a bucket.
After getting the switch on to Collins, Butler connects on a tough shot to put Philadelphia up by three points with less than 90 seconds to play.
With Muscala switched on to him on the perimeter, Huerter is able to get separation dribbling to his left as the shot clocks is running down. He connects on the three-point attempt to tie the game.
And the eventual game winner. What composure by Huerter! He lobs the ball to Collins in the post and visibly encourages his teammate to work for a shot attempt despite the fact that the play was designed for him. Collins obliges and the Hawks get the victory.
The Hawks will host the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday at 3:30 pm ET, and they hope to perform better than they did in the match up last week.
“We’re going to go out and compete,” said Young when asked about the rematch in a post-game interview. “We didn’t give them our best shot. I think that’s the main thing is they are a really good team. And we can’t lay down like we did in the first quarter over there. We’ve got to go out and compete and just do what we’ve been doing these past few games and then we will have a shot at winning. But we’ve just got to go out and compete.”