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Hawks struggle to contain Embiid in loss to Sixers

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Off of the heels of a comeback victory on Saturday, the Atlanta Hawks hit the road to take on the Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers — a formidable 26-2 at home prior to last night’s game — took care of business at home without Ben Simmons, notching a 129-112 victory over the Hawks.

Trae Young led the Hawks in scoring with 28 points while De’Andre Hunter enjoyed a strong game, adding 22 points. John Collins also added 21 points.

For the Sixers, Joel Embiid scored a career-high 49 points while grabbing 14 rebounds. Tobias Harris added 25 points to the Philly cause.

If you need to catch up on this game as it happened, you can do so here, but the Hawks did not play a stellar first quarter.

A poor start offensively (in addition to conceding 41 first quarter points) meant that they were chasing the game pretty much from the start, before quickly falling into a double-digit hole and, not too long after that, a 21-point hole. Though the Hawks cut the lead in the second quarter, the lead ran up to 17 heading into halftime and the Hawks were left with a lot of work to do.

But the Hawks were up to the task and they chipped away in the third quarter as the Sixers — who looked poor at times — struggled. Eventually, the Hawks cut the lead to single digits and took the lead of the game itself as Young hits the three-pointer to close the quarter:

That three-pointer would cap off a 40 point third quarter for the Hawks, and a quarter where they outscored the Sixers 40-22.

But this would end up being as good as it would get for the Hawks because once the fourth quarter started it was all Philadelphia.

The Hawks proceeded to shoot 9-of-30 in the fourth quarter and 0-of-11 from three-point range. It was this offensive stall that allowed the Sixers to breath again after a third quarter where the Hawks seized the momentum, and home side eventually re-established a double-digit lead.

Shooting 0-of-11 from three in the final quarter is difficult, that’s probably not going to get it done, especially on the road and the home team is 26-2.

Young shot 0-of-4 from three in the final quarter while Cam Reddish shot 0-of-3. The Hawks themselves shot 8-of-38 from three on the night, so no one really shot the three-pointer well. Collins shot 2-of-5 from distance and that’s about as good as it got from three.

With the Sixers shooting 3-of-7 from three in the fourth quarter, the Hawks were behind the scoring curve but they also fell behind in terms of free throws in the final quarter — the Sixers shot 11-of-12 from the line in the fourth versus the Hawks’ two free throws.

Embiid was responsible for a lot of those, shooting 7-of-8 from the line. We’ll touch on Philadelphia’s big man later, but he was obviously a huge problem last night and in the fourth quarter in particular, scoring 22 points in the final period — two more than the Hawks managed for the quarter themselves.

This was a game that didn’t spiral out of control in a hurry for the Hawks but gradually slipped out of the their reach, and that down to the Hawks’ offensive struggles throughout the quarter.

It was a little familiar for Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce.

“It’s like the first time playing these guys where I felt we struggled to score when we needed to most”, said Pierce postgame via Fox Sports Southeast. “We’ve been pretty efficient moving the basketball, getting downhill and putting pressure on them offensively and in that fourth quarter, they dropped into deep center-field on all of the pick-and-roll and we ended up shooting a lot of floaters and it was more of a settle game whereas before we’ve been able to get downhill, paint to great. I thought our guys were brilliant in that third quarter to really compete, take the lead after the way we started the first half. Shots weren’t falling tonight but I thought our defense really turned up, especially in that third quarter.”

Nearly a third of Atlanta’s shots in the final quarter were floaters and many of these were missed. Had they been converted, this game could’ve been a different story.

As satisfied as Pierce was with the Hawks’ efforts, he believes that the team didn’t run out of gas as they attempted their comeback and pointed the finger to slow starts instead as an area the Hawks can grow.

“We had it to six and there’s five and a half minutes to go in the third quarter, so it wasn’t like we were flying around all-over,” Pierce continued. “It was seven minutes of basketball and we cut the lead. The game was very manageable with a lot of time to go. We weren’t flying around or anything, we got stops and made some big baskets. Again, it was the inability to score for a long stretch in that fourth quarter which, playing these guys, has not been the case in most situations and tonight in the fourth quarter it was, in the first quarter it was.”

“The real lesson is how to avoid the slow starts,” Pierce said. “We don’t want to be in this predicament all of the time. We know we can climb back — the NBA is 48 minutes and there’s a lot of time. In the third quarter, we got it to six with five and a half minutes to go, so there was a lot of basketball left to play. We’re trying to figure out how do we manage the game from start to finish and not put ourselves in these tough situations where we’re always playing that way. But our guys are resilient, our guys are tough. They play with momentum, they feed off of each other’s energy. I think if we can control and dictate that style of play from the start, I think we’ll create more momentum as we’re going.”

Slow starts are a problem for the Hawks and that’s a well-chronicled issue, but another issue for the Hawks last night was Embiid.

49 points on 17-of-24 shooting and 14 rebounds — that’s problematic.

The majority of Embiid’s work was done at the rim, as you can imagine, and with Clint Capela still absent, the Hawks have limited bodies to throw at Embiid.

Starting center Dewayne Dedmon was obviously be the best option to throw at Embiid last night but, when he ran into foul trouble, things got difficult. To be fair, things were already difficult for the Hawks when Dedmon was on the floor — Embiid is just a tough matchup for everyone.

During this pick-and-roll, Hunter gets a little confused on the defensive end and this lapse allows Embiid a free run at an easy shot off of the find from Harris:

Between Dedmon needing to stay in front of Harris, and Hunter getting a little lost, does Collins need to be a little more alert in this situation and rotate sooner to challenge Embiid?

Soon after that play, Josh Richardson sets a good screen on Collins as Embiid heads towards the rim. The pass to him is not perfect but Embiid gathers, takes a dribble and scores at the rim, drawing the foul in the process:

Once Richardson sets that screen on Collins, Kevin Huerter probably needs to be more alert of what is happening and rotate/go with Embiid. It might not be effective given the height and size difference but had the pass been better, this is an alley-oop and there’s no chance for the Hawks to recover.

When Dedmon is out of the game, it’s a lot to ask of Collins and Vince Carter (for the brief period he played) to slow down Embiid near the rim:

Embiid grabbed four offensive rebounds on the game but seemed to score off of every single one:

Again, a tough ask for Collins and Carter here, Embiid is just too big and too strong:

As we’ve kind of touched on, Embiid was very aggressive in the fourth quarter — and that’s exactly what the Sixers needed him to be after the Hawks’ 40 point third quarter — and I think that was reflective right from the off in the fourth quarter and highlighted by this play:

To cap off his career-night, Embiid hit a three-pointer but, to be fair, a number of Embiid’s fourth quarter points came when the game was already over and it became clear a new career-high was in play for the 2014 3rd overall selection. We (collectively) saw this recently when Young went for 50 points against the Heat and how he got up a few extra shots once he hit 47 points and a new career-high was in play, so Embiid can be forgiven for that.

What others are finding it a little harder to forgive Embiid for was the apparent middle-finger he gave to Huerter for this play:

Postgame, Huerter said he didn’t see Embiid’s gesture and explained why he went for the steal.

I’m sure the league office will want to have a word with Embiid’s wallet today, but the All-NBA center certainly inflicted damage last night.

“We went zone sporadically, it wasn’t really a set defense,” said Pierce postgame. “We were just trying to move and shift, and obviously Joel is a handful. We were blitzing in the first half and our rotations were poor. I thought the blitz was great because we got it out of his hands, our rotations were poor behind it. We didn’t want to give him a steady diet. He knew we were blitzing, they were capitalizing on it. We tried to throw defenses at him in the second quarter and a lot in the third quarter.”

Pierce obviously worked with Embiid during his time in Philadelphia as an assistant coach and has seen how Embiid has grown since then.

“He’s just a smarter player,” Pierce said of Embiid. “He knows how to attack against the double team a little bit better. He’s a load with the duck-ins, he’s using his size and physicality a lot more. Tonight, he was really tough on the offensive glass, just cleaning up a lot of missed shots, especially when we were scrambling or rotating.”

Embiid is just a tough matchup, tougher when Dedmon — and then Collins — get in foul trouble and once the career-high was in sight, no one was going to be able to stop Embiid from attaining it.

As tough as the fourth quarter offensive struggles and Embiid’s 49 points were, there were some positives in the game for the Hawks.

Hunter enjoyed a strong game offensively (he struggled defensively at times) and what stood out in particular was his 10 attempted free throws, marking a season-high and Bruno Fernando also enjoyed a strong game, arguably his best for a while.

Fernando scored 10 points and grabbed four rebounds in 20 minutes, and just looked like an impactful player — he hit his first three since November 30th, he was screening well and enjoyed some good moments at the rim too.

While he was out on the floor, it was easier for Philly to slip into a zone but if Fernando can hit the three like he did last night, that’ll make it harder for the Sixers — or any other team — to go into that zone. To be fair, he shot three threes last night, which is a season-high. Defensively, a tough time of things versus Embiid at times but so did everyone last night, and there’s no shame in that either.

Embiid is, on his night and when he wants to be, extremely good — top-10 in the entire league good.

This was a game the Hawks would have been (or, rather, should have been) expected to lose and they gave this one a good effort having trailed by 21 points to take the lead into the fourth quarter, but the offense just let them down. Oh, and Embiid’s 49. That’ll also hurt.

The Hawks (17-42) return home to Atlanta where they’ll begin a four-game homestand, starting Wednesday against the Orlando Magic — a matchup the Hawks have enjoyed this season.

Should be fun.

Until next time...