The Atlanta Hawks certainly seem to have a propensity for the dramatic when they match up with the Philadelphia 76ers, as the last two contests between these two teams have both come down to the final moments. On Saturday night at State Farm Arena, the Hawks were once again victorious as a Trae Young floater nestled into the bottom of the net and the hosts walked away with a 129-127 victory. In what was a mere mathematical formality, Atlanta was eliminated from the playoffs earlier this week – though the innumerable questions head coach Lloyd Pierce and his players have fielded about it would indicate that it was some sort of shock – but that doesn’t mean the local professional basketball team was rolling over to die over the last several games of the season. Now with back-to-back victories over Utah and Philadelphia in hand, the Hawks have pushed their record to 26-48 and can officially say they’ve shown growth over the 2017-18 team, which won 24 games in the first year of the rebuild. Of course, this year’s iteration could have won 22 games and anybody with a pulse and a pair of working eyeballs would have been able to tell that this team was a massive step forward over the previous, but it’s at least nice to see that feeling backed up in the standings and on the stat sheet.
In the grand scheme of an 82-game season or a multi-year rebuild, no single game really matters than the overall near-Sisyphean goal of burning a roster to the ground and rising from the ashes better than before. Still, it takes a number of these individual moments to add up the experience a team needs to turn the corner from rebuilding to contending, in addition to the natural passage of time that (usually) adds high-end draft talent to an organization. Pierce was asked specifically about the game’s penultimate full possession, in which the Hawks forced a shot clock violation that set the stage for Trae Young’s heroics, but his response doubles as a microcosm of where the team is at the moment and where they’re going: “This is the goal. This is what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to gain experience and we’re trying to put ourselves in positions where we either learn from mistakes or learn from the opportunities to do it. We’ve done this a few times before, so our guys were able to make the right adjustment at the right time tonight.”
Ultimately, being victorious in clutch games is a small part of a team’s winning profile – the Milwaukee Bucks have played the fifth-fewest clutch games in the league this season and are doing pretty well for themselves. However, for a young team like the Hawks, these contests are of utmost importance, both to teach the players how to win in tight situations and to learn which players can be relied upon in the future. The guys on the court aren’t the only ones under the microscope, either – the head coach also has a particularly outsized impact on the game in the waning minutes.
In that vein, it seems most appropriate to walk through the last five minutes of the game, which began as DeAndre’ Bembry streaked from one end to the other for a layup to put the Hawks up 115-111 and drew a timeout from Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown. Coming out of the break, Atlanta had their full bench lineup on the floor, while the 76ers were rolling with their vaunted starting lineup of Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid. The rotations were odd for the Hawks throughout this game; it’s rare that the team will come back at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters with their full starting lineup. As a result of that decision, Pierce had to buy his team a few minutes’ respite with the bench in the middle of the fourth quarter, rather than the more traditional beginning of the period. The starters had, just minutes before we pick up the action, given the team a four-point lead, though that gap evaporated quickly as soon as Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, and John Collins exited the game. Bembry saved his best for the fourth, however, scoring two big buckets in his short stint in the game’s deciding period to keep the team afloat while the starters got a quick break, the first of which triggered the aforementioned timeout from Brown.
Coming out of the timeout, we see the first look at what will become an increasingly-present theme, both in this game and for the team as a whole as they improve: opposing offenses attacking the Hawks’ defensively-challenged point guards. In this case, Philadelphia went after Jaylen Adams, but it was no different when Trae Young replaced his similarly-sized backup after a few possessions. The 76ers’ entire offensive game plan throughout the final five minutes centered on using J.J. Redick, their smallest player and best shooter, as a screener, in an attempt to get a switch and punish the Hawks with any one of Simmons, Butler, or Embiid.
On this play, Redick steps up to set a ball screen for Embiid at the left elbow. Alex Len ducks under the screen to meet Embiid at the rim, but it’s Adams who saves a surefire dunk but poking the ball out of Embiid’s hands on his way to the popping Redick. Unfortunately for Adams, he couldn’t follow up his great play on Embiid with a stop on Redick, who pump-faked a couple times and eventually drew a two-shot foul on Bembry to bring the Hawks’ lead back to two points.
Bembry draws criticism for his lack of a jumper and tendency to turn the ball over more than he should, but there’s one area in which he excels: getting to the basket. Pierce has hammered home throughout the year that Bembry is the only player on the team who can get to the rim with no screen and no initial advantage, and on the ensuing possession, he did just that, blowing by Simmons to finish with his right hand:
Philadelphia switched the high ball screen to put Simmons on Bembry and the former was fully ready for anything Bembry could throw at him; it wasn’t as if Simmons was still recovering or was in any way in a bad position to defend Bembry. Once Bembry began his drive, however, Simmons never quite got in front of him, riding his hip all the way to the rim and watching helplessly as the Hawks reestablished their four-point advantage.
Simmons, not to be denied himself in similar situations, gave it right back to Bembry, blowing past him for his own right-handed finish after the 76ers’ screen-the-screener/dribble handoff set went mostly nowhere:
As Simmons handled against Bembry on the right side of the floor, Redick set a flare screen for Tobias Harris before faking his own ball screen on Bembry and coming around to take a handoff from Simmons, but Atlanta had it all bottled up, as Bembry hedged just enough on Redick to take away his jumper without losing sight of Simmons. After everything broke down for Philadelphia, Simmons did as he has done so many times this season and took two long dribbles to jet right past Bembry to the rim.
Pierce called timeout after that possession to begin trickling his starters back in the game, starting with Young and Huerter replacing Adams and Bembry. The ensuing rotation decisions were particularly odd, as Young and Huerter would play a single offensive possession with Vince Carter, Justin Anderson, and Alex Len before the latter trio would be replaced by Taurean Prince, John Collins, and Dewayne Dedmon. It’s not often that Pierce will choose to leave Anderson on the floor for a single offensive possession like that, but since Young was able to draw a foul out of the timeout, it gave him an early opportunity to get his full starting lineup back on the court to close out the game. It’s likely that particular set of circumstances wasn’t Pierce’s initial plan when he took the timeout, but it definitely looked weird in the moment.
Young has become a master of drawing this sort of foul, using Simmons aggressiveness defensively against him. As soon as Young turns the corner in pick-and-roll and feels a defender’s arm on his hip, he loops his left arm under the defender’s and jerks upwards, essentially initiating that contact and all but forcing the referee to blow the whistle. It shows in the numbers; no point guard draws more non-shooting fouls as a portion of his team’s plays than Young, and a majority of them are due to veteran moves like this one.
With Young back on the floor for Atlanta, the 76ers had their target fully in view, as they continued to attack with Redick as the screener in inverted screening actions.
There’s no place to put Young other than Redick, so using him as a screener is particularly difficult for the Hawks to defend, as bigger players aren’t as accustomed to getting through screens and switching is nearly impossible. Redick stepped up behind Dedmon to get Embiid going toward the rim for a lob from Simmons, but Young smartly reached out to grab Embiid before the ball gets there. Fouling him on the pass made it a floor foul, which still sent Embiid to the line because of the bonus situation but didn’t allow the all-world big man to finish through contact for an and-one opportunity.
We’ve written extensively in this space about the Hawks’ preferred Double Drag early offense that’s given the league fits, so it should come as no surprise that Atlanta broke out various versions of it throughout the final few minutes of this game.
The ubiquitous offensive strategy had a little twist to it in this iteration, as Prince was one of the screeners for Young as he swept from one side of the floor to the other, rather than the traditional setup with both big men screening on the ball. Additionally, Huerter left his post in the left corner to cut along the baseline, perhaps to exit out to the right corner for a shot or handoff. Philadelphia’s switching scheme rendered everything Atlanta was trying to do moot and forcing a contested pull-up three-pointer from Prince over Simmons.
On the ensuing trip down the floor, the 76ers went back to a similar play that put Embiid at the line moments before, but the timing wasn’t quite there this time around.
Dedmon got through the screen much better on this play, pushing Philadelphia to their second option, which was to swing the ball to Butler and either hit Embiid in the post or drive to the rim. Butler opted for the latter, taking Huerter off the dribble toward the basket and nearly getting there, if it weren’t for Collins leaving Simmons alone on the perimeter to help at the basket. This won’t be the last time Collins correctly decides Simmons doesn’t need to be defended and flies around to help his teammates.
After Collins stopped Butler at the rim, he found Huerter on a quick outlet pass and the Hawks were off and running in the other direction, though Philadelphia was good about getting back in transition and presenting no immediate scoring opportunity for Atlanta. Young attacked through a pitch-and-catch with Collins at the top of the key and just missed on a short floater over Embiid, but there’s a moment just before Young began his move that’s particularly important and perhaps one of the final criticisms of his offensive game.
It’s hard to blame Young because of who he is, his stature within the organization, the kind of game and year he’s having, and the immense confidence he has in his own abilities, but it would have been nice to see what Huerter could do in this spot as the primary ball handler. Young veered from one side of the floor to the other to essentially take the ball from Huerter, rather than spacing out to the corner and letting his running mate do his thing with the ball in his hands. As this team grows together, it will be imperative for Young to cede some of his stranglehold over the team’s offense to his teammates, if only to empower those guys to be able to take over the game when needed. It’s difficult to label a player like Young as “selfish”, given his willingness and acumen in the passing game, but there’s something to the fact that he has the ball in his hands as often as he does and that the Hawks have gone away from the ball movement-based offense they had been running earlier in the year in favor of double drag screens for Young on most offensive trips.
Butler answered Young’s missed floater by getting to the line, once again through attacking Young with a ball screen from Redick. The mercurial Philadelphia star knocked down the pair of free throws to give his team their first lead since it was 104-103 early in the fourth quarter.
Atlanta went away from Double Drag to run a quick-hitting Chest Chase action for Young and Collins to run a two-man game, but the 76ers’ switching swallowed up whatever advantage the Hawks were hoping to create and it ended in a tough late-clock turnaround for Prince along the baseline:
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, so Philadelphia went right back at Young on the next possession, this time through Simmons:
Redick doesn’t have to get a particularly hard screen on Collins to give Simmons enough room to score; Simmons will take care of the rest as long as Redick makes some sort of contact with his defender. Most point guards would be completely ineffective defending Simmons at the rim, but it’s particularly stark watching Young do whatever he can to help out as Simmons rises above him to finish.
Collins was able to get those two points back on the other end, slipping out of Double Drag a moment early and drawing a foul on Simmons, who wasn’t prepared for Collins’ physicality on the duck-in.
After Collins knocked down the pair of free throws to bring the Philadelphia lead back to one point, the Hawks opened the final two minutes of play with a massive turnover and dunk sequence that put them back in the lead:
Philadelphia once again attacked Young, this time using Butler as the focal point. As Butler worked in the mid-post, Atlanta brought a hard double through Dedmon, forcing Butler to give up the ball to Embiid at the top of the key. Prince rotated up from Harris to defend Embiid and Dedmon X’d out to cover Harris in what was a nicely-orchestrated set of defensive maneuvers. It’s relatively rare that the Hawks have played defense on a string like this throughout the season, but when it happens in a big spot, it has to be acknowledged. Prince doubled down on his smart rotation by poking the ball away from Embiid as the big man tried to isolate his way to the basket, leading to Huerter’s poster dunk over the trailing Butler in transition.
Philadelphia took their first timeout of the last two minutes after Huerter’s dunk, but the next possession was no better for them than the previous:
The 76ers came out of the timeout with an Iverson Lob set for Butler, but he was unable to get a look at the rim and had to kick it back out to Embiid, who turned the ball over for the second consecutive possession. Dedmon stonewalled Embiid as he attempted to drive to the rim, then got his hands in the passing lane to tip away the pass.
Young gave it right back on the other end, as the crowd probably took away any chance the Hawks’ point guard was going to hear his teammates call out Simmons stalking behind him. In order to prevent an odd-man break the other way, Young grabbed Butler to send him to the line, where he knocked down a pair of free throws to put Philadelphia back in the lead, 123-122.
After a few hectic moments, the Hawks ran an evolved version of their normal Double Drag early offense, this time including Huerter in the screening action to create what was essentially a Triple Drag set.
Huerter dove out of the screen before actually making contact, but the formation did its job as Redick had to hedge out on Young and eventually make the full switch. Young worked with Collins in the final screen in Triple Drag and some confusion between Redick and Embiid gave way to Young nailing a deep three-pointer. The Redick-Embiid combination is one of the only spots Philadelphia was unwilling to switch, as leaving Embiid on an island against Young or Redick down low against Collins are both negative matchups for the Sixers, but the pair could not get their communication lined up in time to stop Young’s three.
If you guessed that Philadelphia would go away from attacking Young on the next possession, you’d be dead wrong. The 76ers’ embarrassment of riches offensively gives them so many different avenues through which to attack Young and we saw nearly all of them on Saturday evening, though Harris was interestingly absent from much of the late-game action.
The 76ers went with Redick screening yet again and got the full switch. Young was about as effective as tissue paper at stopping Butler from waltzing right to the rim, though it’s hard to expect anybody of Young’s size to stand up to Butler in that spot. Philadelphia’s consistency in attacking Young is something around which the Hawks will have to work throughout his career in Atlanta; he’s going to be a magnet for this sort of thing as long as he’s on the floor.
Atlanta came back with the same Triple Drag setup, though this time Redick got out of dodge to ensure he wasn’t involved in defending Young.
The issue with Redick’s disappearance is that nobody else stepped up to defend Young, who was left open for a 31-footer that, luckily for Philadelphia, missed very badly; the jumper was so off-target that it nearly banked in off the backboard. For most players in the league, this isn’t a particularly good shot, but Young has clearly shown that he has that sort of range and actually shoots better from a few steps beyond the three-point line than he does right at the arc. Those shots are less contested than their closer brethren and he never suffers for confidence at that range.
Butler leaked out as Young pulled up for his deep three, which put the Hawks behind the play as soon as the ball caromed off the backboard. Simmons, as he is wont to do, put the touchdown pass to Butler right on the numbers, and Atlanta had to foul to keep him from immediately scoring. He made the pair of free throws anyway in what would be the 76ers’ final points of the game. Atlanta called timeout after Butler’s free throws to set up their 2-for-1 offense, as there were 39.9 seconds left and they could push for an early attempt and leave themselves with enough time to have another possession at the end of the game.
Philadelphia took the opportunity to make a substitution, getting James Ennis in the game for Redick. Atlanta went back to the Triple Drag setup they’d used the previous two possessions, but this time it was Ennis stepping up to switch onto Young, not Redick, which left the Hawks with no advantage at the top of the key.
Ennis’s presence also allowed Embiid to switch onto Young on the final ball screen without having to worry about Collins in the post against Redick and when Young had to give the ball up, Embiid made the right play, essentially blitzing out at Young to deny him a renewed dribble. Big men often will sit back and try to be as defensively sound as possible, but rushing out to deny Young was precisely the right play from Embiid in that spot.
Prince, who to this point had played very little part in the final few minutes outside of the steal against Embiid a few possessions prior, was stuck with the ball and time running out – remember, Atlanta wanted to attack quickly so as to get another possession at the end of the game – so he did what he does best: attack. Prince has never been one to lack for confidence in his own abilities to score the basketball and while that sometimes can be frustrating for those watching him, it was absolutely the correct decision here and paid off in a big way for the Hawks. Prince was fantastic throughout this game, giving the Hawks a reliable secondary scoring option and playing solid defense.
Atlanta followed up the huge play from Prince with one of their best defensive possessions of the year, shutting down the 76ers’ late-game offense to force a shot clock violation.
On the other hand, perhaps this was a miscalculation from Brown, as Pierce has often left Young in the game on crucial defensive possessions late in close games in order to give his point guard experience in those spots. The focus isn’t entirely on winning with the Hawks at this point in their development cycle and Pierce has consistently made the choice to leave Young out there, even if it gives the opponent an easy place to attack.
As the 76ers brought the ball up the court on their final possession of the contest, Collins once again made the decision that Simmons did not have to be guarded and that Butler was going to be the man to take the final shot. Ennis screened for Butler in an attempt to get the switch they want, but Collins offered a third body with which Butler had to contend and it’s Atlanta’s second-year big man who was there to hedge when Ennis set the screen, rather than Young, which threw a wrench into the Sixers’ plans. Perhaps it would have been prudent for Brown to call a timeout at this juncture, but he let the game play out and Butler was unable to get up a shot before the buzzer rang.
The final play for the Hawks needs no real explanation, as Young isolated at the top against one of the game’s top perimeter defenders and hit the floater to win the game:
Young’s make against Philadelphia to give the Hawks the (almost) walkoff victory mirrors his attempt over Tyson Chandler in Los Angeles back in November, when he took one extra dribble and had his game-winner tipped away:
It was a slightly different situation to start, but it quickly devolved into the same look for Young: a longer defender hanging all over him in isolation, with another man at the rim ready to take away any drive all the way to the rim. Against the Lakers, Young got into the paint against Brandon Ingram, but Chandler was waiting for him at the rim to seal the win for Los Angeles; against the Sixers, Young pulled up one dribble earlier to take Embiid out of the action and nailed the runner to win the game.