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Defense struggles as Hawks suffer second blowout loss in Philadelphia

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A nightmare trip to the City of Brotherly Love.

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks were throttled by the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday evening, suffering their most lopsided defeat of the 2020-21 season. Though that matchup was unfortunate on a number of levels, the Hawks were (much) healthier for the rematch on Friday, as star point guard Trae Young and veteran wing Tony Snell returned to the lineup after multi-game absences. The visitors threw a haymaker in the early going but, once things settled in, the Hawks were unable to generate defensive stops consistently, falling by a final score of 126-104.

The night started in positive fashion, with the Hawks zooming to an 8-2 lead. One of the big stories of the opening minutes was dominant offensive rebounding, but Young also made four quick shots in his return from a hiatus caused by an ankle injury.

Snell also made his presence known with a three-pointer, as the Hawks pushed their lead to 13-2 in the early going.

Even with those returns from injury, the story of the first five minutes was defense, with Philadelphia missing eight of their first nine shots. Simply put, it was a different level of juice from the Hawks when compared to Wednesday, providing optimism for the remainder of the night.

The positivity was short-lived, though, and the game turned when Atlanta’s starters exited and the bench entered. The Hawks led by as many as 13 points at 21-8, but the Sixers threw a counterpunch, scoring eight straight points to slash the margin to five. The ball continued to roll down the hill from there, with Philadelphia climbing within a three-point margin at the end of the first quarter.

In the grand scheme, a three-point edge after 12 minutes was a win for the Hawks, but things continued to spiral. After Atlanta scored 21 points in the first 7:45, they notched only 13 points in the next 11-plus minutes, and Philadelphia found their footing offensively.

All told, the 76ers closed the half on a 57-25 extended run, transforming a 13-point deficit into a 19-point halftime lead. The Hawks trailed by as many as 21 points before the break, and the defense, particularly from the bench, was quite shaky.

Philadelphia generated 40 points in the paint in the first half, with 17 second-chance points coming after 10 offensive rebounds. The 76ers also scored more than 1.3 points per possession, even as they converted at a modest 3-of-10 clip from beyond the arc. There were bright spots — including 16 points from Young and 11 points from Collins — but the bench was walloped and the Hawks were in a perilous spot as a result.

The third quarter was respectable from Atlanta, largely on the strength of Young’s offensive brilliance. He scored 16 points in the period, converting multiple three-pointers and keeping the Hawks within (relative) striking distance.

In fact, the Hawks won the third quarter — albeit by a two-point margin — and that kept things interesting as the fourth quarter arrived. Atlanta didn’t have a run in its bag, however, as the 76ers slowly increased their advantage until the dwindling clock made a loss inevitable.

Individually, the positive story of the night was Young’s return, and he looked like himself. Young said postgame the ankle “felt good” and he scored 32 points in only 28 minutes, converting 10-of-10 at the free throw stripe and shooting 8-of-13 on two-point attempts.

“It was good to have him back out on the floor,” said Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan. “We could run a lot of things we’ve been running. Of course, he had a restriction on minutes tonight, but it was good to have him back on the floor for us.”

While the offense was not spectacular for the Hawks, it was truly the defense that let Atlanta down in this spot. Philadelphia racked up 68 points in the paint, zooming well beyond their season average, and the 76ers scored 24 second-chance points (on 18 offensive rebounds) and 24 points off Atlanta’s 18 turnovers. The 76ers didn’t even need to light up from three-point distance (10-of-28), as foul trouble for Clint Capela and porous perimeter defense sunk Atlanta throughout the evening.

“We didn’t contain them,” McMillan said of his team’s defense. “I think that was the problem tonight. Defensively, we just could not keep the ball in front of us. They had 40 points in the paint at half, finished the game with 68 points in the paint. When a team is playing in the paint, you don’t control the ball. You really don’t control anything. You don’t control the rebounding. You don’t control the perimeter. We just had too many breakdowns on the ball.”

There is no great shame in the shorthanded Hawks losing to the full-strength 76ers, particularly in a building in which Philadelphia has dominated in recent years.

“It’s very tough when you go against a team like this and not everybody is out there,” Young said of the 76ers. “They’re a talented team. They’re a team that’s trying to compete for a championship this year. So, for us, we’ve just got to continue to get guys healthy and go from there.”

Still, Atlanta’s defensive showing left plenty to be desired, and it will be interesting to see how the team responds in a quick turnaround situation.

After spending three days in Philadelphia, the Hawks will take the court less than 24 hours after the final buzzer. The Chicago Bulls visit State Farm Arena on Saturday evening for the third and final meeting between the two teams this season, and Atlanta finishes the 2020-21 season with seven of their last eight contests at home.

Stay tuned.