The Atlanta Hawks’ unbeaten start to the season came to an end on Monday night as they fell short against a team many consider a contender for the Eastern Conference title in the form of the Philadelphia 76ers, 103-100.
Reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week Trae Young led the Hawks with 25 points and nine assists while John Collins added 16 points.
For the Sixers, Joel Embiid was an absolute force, scoring 36 points while grabbing 13 rebounds and was responsible for drawing a lot of fouls from the Hawks which led to free throws: shooting 10-of-10 from the line including the two free shooting that ultimately put the Sixers on top for good.
Heading into the last two minutes, the game was set up perfectly for a photo finish as Al Horford knocks down two free throws to put the Sixers up 101-100 with exactly two minutes to go.
It had been a battle all game long with tensions bubbling at times between the two sides as former Hawk Mike Scott was (perhaps, harshly) ejected and other technical fouls being issued. Being at home and against a top team in the Eastern Conference, it marked a great opportunity for the Hawks to test themselves in a close game down the stretch.
With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at some of the plays down the stretch, and how this one got away from the Hawks late on.
After Horford’s free throws, the Hawks get to work and it’s Trae Young who searches for an opening, be it for himself or a teammate. Marshaled the whole way — and with Embiid floating within arm’s length — Young eventually finds an opening in the form of Alex Len in the corner, who simply didn’t knock down the corner three.
A good contest from Horford on Len, to his credit.
Tobias Harris struggled to make an impact offensively and his three-point shot was not present last night (1-of-9), missing the corner three after the Hawks scramble, but a good closeout by Kevin Huerter helped on this play.
The Hawks still have a chance to win this game but are unable to convert on their next trip down the floor. Young and Collins link up in the pick-and-roll, Horford has to cut off Young’s path to the rim, Ben Simmons is drawn to the ball, Young lifts an alley-oop to Collins, who can’t guide it home.
The Hawks were involved in many close games last year and they certainly got better when it came to seeing some of those games out, coming up with the plays they needed down the stretch. Young was obviously one of those players who, as a rookie at the time, had to learn what it meant to be in a close game and his growth was apparent in this regard (evident, of course, by his play in March and April).
But this was the first really close game with high stakes (yes, in Game 3) for the likes of Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter.
Reddish picks off the pass from Simmons, takes the ball down the court in transition but ends up committing the traveling violation.
This will be a real teaching moment for the Hawks and Reddish. In this scenario, yes, you like to see some aggressiveness from Reddish but he has to get the ball to Young here. This is a kind of play you attempt to make in the second quarter or something, but in the fourth quarter of a really close game, the ball has to go to Young. Reddish will learn from this, but a costly turnover at the time.
Reddish did his best to make up for that travel — something that Joel Embiid then committed (uncalled) on this next possession — by making Tobias Harris work hard for these two points in the paint near the end of the shot clock.
Credit to Harris: that’s a tough shot, that’s a well defended play by Reddish...
But now the Hawks are in a bind: down three with under a minute to go, Trae Young had struggled to score in the second half (six points on 1-of-8 shooting), where do they get a basket from?
Coming out of the timeout after the Harris basket, the Hawks inbound the ball and get it to De’Andre Hunter, who tries to get by Josh Richardson before trying to shoot over him and Richardson blocks the shot and the Sixers come away with the ball.
I’m not sure if that was the play Pierce drew up out of the timeout. If it was, it shows a lot of confidence in Hunter, and while shooting over a smaller defender is usually a fine practice, when that guard is Josh Richardson that’s an issue. Did the Hawks want a quick shot like that, or was there more to run? I would’ve guessed this wasn’t what they were after but who knows... Difficult when Young is denied the ball and knocked to the floor to run the offense. Regardless, the Sixers come away with the ball...
Joel Embiid then attempts a three near the end of the clock, but it’s the battle after it that draws the attention, as John Collins goes flying over bodies and to the floor to come up with the ball, turns — while falling — and gets the ball to his point guard and the Hawks call for time with nine seconds remaining,
“Just winning basketball,” said Collins of the play. “Just trying to do what I had to do. It’s an open ball, saw a couple of teammates on the ground, went and got it, tried to save the day.”
The Hawks diving to the floor and hustling was a theme all night long and it helped them procure possession of the ball here, great work by Collins.
Coming out of the timeout, the Sixers elect not to allow the Hawks shoot a three and Embiid fouls Young en-route to the rim, sending him to the free throw line. Young makes the first, misses the second but John Collins gets ahead to tip the ball in and tie the game:
“I just wanted the ball,” said Collins of the play. “I wanted to get after it, wanted to rebound, wanted to stay in the game. That’s part of that competitive edge I feel like myself and the whole team play with.”
The Hawks are in this game but obviously have to defend heading out of the Sixers timeout with seven seconds left. Embiid created problems inside all night and, decisively, forces a foul from Collins on the pass to Embiid, fouling Collins out of the game and sending Embiid to the line:
“...Joel Embiid was a handful tonight, he gets three of our big guys with three fouls in the first half,” said Lloyd Pierce after the game. “We have to play small and just figure out ways to just get the ball out of his hands. Once he gets it down there, we have to find other ways to try and get it out of his hands as well.
“Basically, that’s what the game came down to,” Pierce continued. “He gets two free throws at the end, just because he’s a load, and they space the floor, and John (Collins) just gets caught in a bad way...”
Embiid makes the free throws and the Hawks, with no timeouts remaining, have to go the length of the floor. Perhaps crucially, the Hawks were unable to get the ball to Young, and it’s Vince Carter who hoists a prayer but it’s not answered and the Sixers prevail.
“They were denying the ball, just trying to get it out of my hands the whole game,” said Young of the final play. “So we threw it to half court, tried to get me on the run going to the basket and they had two defenders on me. I couldn’t get open. Vince (Carter) had a good run down to the side of the floor and threw up a shot that I thought was going in.”
The Hawks obviously didn’t need a three in this situation but I think it’s fair to say — based on Lloyd Pierce’s comments — the Hawks had an eye on tonight’s game against the Miami Heat and preferred to go for the win rather than go to overtime (but it’s also not like the Hawks had a timeout and they were working against the clock to get it up the court: they were up against it anyways).
“We play Miami tomorrow and it’s to get a shot,” Pierce chuckled when asked what he wanted on the last play of the game.
A tough loss for the Hawks, who played well in this game, obviously exploded for 40 points in the first quarter, led by as many as 13 points and led by as many as eight points in the fourth quarter.
The crunch-time lineup were interesting at times.
Obviously, you saw Reddish out there, Alex Len out there and, really, all of that is caused — and Pierce eluded to this multiple times postgame — because Kevin Huerter is still on a (20) minutes restriction, as well as De’Andre Hunter (30 was his limit). This was a game where the Hawks really could’ve done with having Huerter’s skill-set on the floor and for those final few possessions — because Huerter, technically did feature briefly but was then taken back out again once he hit his limit). Reddish has his moments as a rookie and Len, well, was not great last night — the Hawks miss Huerter in these moments.
When you look at the plays down the stretch, you look for the ‘Oh, this was the play where the game was lost’.
Personally, I believe the turning point of this game came before those last two minutes.
The Hawks held an eight point lead in the fourth quarter with under five minutes to go after a momentum swing came in favor of the Hawks after Al Horford missed a three before Hunter made one heading down the other way to give the Hawks that eight-point lead. So, things are beginning to come to a close and the Hawks are in a strong position up eight. The Sixers are in possession of the ball and DeAndre’ Bembry looks to get in a clean steal but is called for the foul:
And another view:
This would’ve been a great spot to use a coach’s challenge but Lloyd Pierce elected to use his challenge earlier in the game, wanting to reward Young for his hustle, diving for the ball which hit Matisse Thybulle (who, just as an unrelated note, is just ridiculous defensively: as advertised) on the way out of bounds:
I understand wanting to reward Young for his hustle but would Pierce have been better off saving his challenge for a situation like that in the fourth quarter?
If that foul from Bembry is challenged, that’s probably being overturned. And if it’s overturned, the Hawks have an opportunity to go up by double digits inside the final five minutes, and then the complexion of the game changes. Instead, the Sixers score after the possession the foul on Bembry is called and score six straight points to score to cut the Hawks lead to two points.
Look, you can spin it a bunch of different ways: two officials raised their hands to call that foul and it just wasn’t a foul, so to see two officials raise their hands on that one — that’s a tough one. Another direction you can spin it is that the Hawks had plenty of other trips after that foul call while the Sixers went on that run to add to their tally and they didn’t. And then the Hawks got lucky with a cheap foul call on former Hawk Al Horford, who was called for, I’m guessing, tripping John Collins, who seemed to simply stepped on Horford and fall over.
Again, a bunch of ways you can spin it but that was a big moment in this game for the Hawks, the foul call on Bembry for a steal that looked clean.
But, ultimately, they were still right there until the very end. The Hawks had everything they needed to win this game, other than the experience the Sixers have, who know what it means to close games out.
Despite that, Lloyd Pierce was proud of his team.
“I was proud of the guys,” Pierce said. “I thought they competed. Obviously, a two-point game that comes down to the last shot—can’t hang your hat on that, that’s a hell of an effort by both teams ... I thought our guys competed from start to finish. I thought they were doing an excellent job - even with them trying to take Trae (Young) out of the action. We continued to move the basketball. Guys made big plays. Very proud of our guys, still.”
Once the first quarter barrage from the Hawks ended, Sixers were able to muck things up and bullied their way back into the game. It took the Hawks out of their comfort zone. They scored just 63 points after the first quarter on 36% shooting from the field, 17% from three and had more turnovers (15) than assists (14).
“That’s not our game,” said Pierce of the slug-fest in the second half. “That’s them. They’re big, they’re physical. They play Al Horford and Joel and Ben as their point. That’s their game and they’re going to try to punish us and that’s basically what the game came down to on the last possession. Our game, the reason why we had 40 points in the first quarter, is they couldn’t guard our reversal. We’ve got to move them, we’ve got to move those big guys and make them play against our speed so it’s a contrast of styles. We led most of the game because of that.”
“But, you know, that’s what the fourth quarters are. It’s a little slower. It’s more physical. Officials will probably let things get away a little bit more and that’s definitely their style, so we’ve got to find ways to adjust and be better in the fourth quarter.”
The Sixers entered this season as one of the teams with the most defensive upside, and they certainly flashed that last night as they slowed the game right down at times, which didn’t come as a surprise to some.
“I expected that from the get-go,” said Collins on the pace slowing after the first quarter. “We knew what we had to do defensively to make this game competitive. I felt like we did that and at least tried to do that. I think that we knew what we had to do on the other end. We knew it was going to be a back-and-forth game with a good team.”
The Hawks played the Sixers’ game for a lot of this game, the encouraging thing is that the Hawks were able muck it up with the Sixers and hang around until the very end with a chance to win the game. They finished with a defensive rating 99.1, which is very positive for the Hawks — they had only eight games in the entirety of last season in which they posted a defensive rating lower than 100 (4-3 in those games last season).
The only issue is that the Hawks met the Sixers when that happened...
The Sixers are a favorite in the East for a reason, so it was a good test for the Hawks and everyone has their takeaways from the game but, internally, the Hawks preferred to temper that somewhat, saying every game is important, no matter who the opponent is.
“Every night is a good test for us,” Young said. “We’re not going to treat any team lightly regardless of who we’re playing. They’re obviously one of the better teams in our league, but we know we can’t look at it like that. We’ve got to take every team seriously and come out with the same mindset each and every night.”
“Every game is the same, every single game that we play,” said Pierce. “There’s not an easy game on our schedule and there’s not one we won’t be able to learn from. We talked about it first day of training camp: we can play with anyone for three quarters. In the last quarter, do we communicate well? Are we on the same page? Can we execute? And that’s going to be for a young team that doesn’t have collective experience, that’s going to be a focal point for us.
“So every game, whether it’s the fourth quarter — or any quarter — just finishing quarters, starting halves, going into the fourth quarter, maybe getting into overtime, how do you execute, do you communicate, do we win the 50-50 battles? We’re going to get something out of every game.”
The Hawks ticked most of those boxes, especially the 50-50 battles — they hustled hard, worked hard and they set that tone early:
Just a few notes on the game itself that haven’t been mentioned so far...
The Hawks, somewhat quietly, left 10 points at the free throw line last night, shooting 22-of-32 from the line. De’Andre Hunter left three on the board, Bruno Fernando had two rough ones fall away and the rest of the missed freebies were scattered amongst the rest of the team (though, Young’s missed free throw doesn’t really count, since Collins turned that into a bucket).
The Hawks made six three-pointers in the first quarter — part of the reason they scored 40 in the first quarter — but things really slowed down after that (as we’ve talked about) and the Hawks made just three three-pointers the rest of the way. Not something you would have expected after that first quarter...
In terms of some individual play, Young struggled a little more in this game as he shot 7-of-20 from the field and with seven turnovers. Tough for a takeaway here because the Sixers I think are going to be one of the best defensive sides in the league and they have multiple guys they can throw at Young: Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle all saw time guarding Young at some stage last night — that’s difficult, and the Sixers made life difficult for Young.
“He jumped into the game,” said Sixers head coach Brett Brown on Trae Young. “They had a 40-point first period, and then, I think, for the rest of the game they had 60. I thought our defense, as a team, was pretty good for the remaining three periods. We turned them over 21 times, I think we had 12 steals, and to your point, trying to figure out Trae is always difficult. I thought Ben (Simmons) coming in when he did, and us putting that length on Trae, it helped us. You know, he started the game so well that we needed to find an answer.”
“I told (Coach Brown), I wasn’t going to guard him until the end – save my energy until the end with Trae,” said Ben Simmons. “He is an amazing talent, obviously very gifted, and he gave us a lot of problems tonight.”
Even with the tough shooting night, Young still dished nine assists, got to the free throw line 10 times — that’s big, and obviously everyone saw that last season that when Young struggled from the field, he can impact the game in lots of other ways.
Tough game for Jabari Parker this time around — six points on 2-of-7 shooting — and he was just bad offensively at times, just one of those games. It’s going to be a mixed bag with Parker at times.
Bruno Fernando I thought enjoyed a fantastic game, especially coming off of that ankle roll on Saturday: 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field and another three-pointer, this one was in the flow of the offense and not at the end of the shot clock. Defensively, Fernando was solid — he had to enter after two early fouls for Alex Len and the Sixers (as they should) went at time defensively and Bruno performed solidly. Throw in three screen assists for Fernando too — a strong day at the office.
“...Bruno really impressed me tonight with his effort, his energy,” Collins said of Fernando. “He’s just ready to play...”
The Hawks (2-1) are back in action on Tuesday evening and this is where things begin to get a little tougher: how do they respond on the second night of a back-to-back against the Miami Heat after a draining game the night before in this loss to Philly?
We shall see... It’s also scheduled to be the debut of Jimmy Butler, having missed the first two games as he welcomed his child to the world. Should be an interesting one.
Until next time...