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Hawks execute improbable fourth quarter comeback to take series lead over Sixers

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A truly remarkable comeback from the visitors to take the 3-2 series lead.

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Five Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks completed one of the most spectacular comebacks in NBA Playoff history as they rallied from 26 points down to take Game 5 in Philadelphia 109-106.

Trae Young scored 39 points on 10-of-26 shooting from the field and 17-of-19 from the free throw line. John Collins added 19 points and 11 rebounds. For the Sixers, Joel Embiid scored 37 points while the only other Sixer to score in double digits, Seth Curry, added 36 points.

Game 5 could not have gotten off to a worse start as the Sixers ran out to a double digit lead in the early exchanges of the first quarter as Embiid came out on a mission, scoring 17 points in the first quarter on a perfect 8-of-8 shooting as the Sixers shot 80% from the field.

The Hawks had an opportunity to dig into the lead as the Sixers’ second unit played below par but the Hawks could not take full advantage. The Hawks should have closed the game within single digits but ended up giving the Sixers the opportunity to stretch the lead once Embiid and Curry returned to the game, and the Sixers ended up not only restoring their 20 point lead but ended up pushing that lead to 26 points before heading into the half up 22.

Even the third quarter was largely similar as the two sides traded baskets and the Sixers still held an 18 point lead heading into the fourth quarter, seemingly right in position to win Game 5.

A tip-in from Onyeka Okongwu and a made shot from Williams marked a 12-2 run from the Hawks, cutting the Sixers’ lead to 14 points and leading to a quick timeout from Sixers’ head coach Doc Rivers. However, the Sixers couldn’t stop the bleeding as Williams the Hawks’ 11 straight points for the visitors before a three from Collins cut the Sixers’ lead to just eight points.

The Sixers found themselves in the bonus early in the fourth quarter and it was confusing as to why the Hawks didn’t initially return to their third quarter tactic of intentionally fouling Ben Simmons and sending him to the free throw line. This was the first time the Hawks properly employed this tactic for a prolonged period of time and it’s something they definitely should have explored this more earlier in the series as Simmons shot 4-of-14 from the line.

After a Clint Capela dunk cut the Sixers’ lead to six points, the Sixers took a timeout and pulled Simmons from the game. Needing a basket to try restore their rapidly disappearing lead, the Sixers throw the ball away with Tobias Harris missing Embiid, and Williams picks up the loose ball for the steal and draws the foul:

Coming the other way, the Hawks find themselves a great look as Young comes off of the Capela screen and with Embiid sitting back, Young is able to rise into an easy jump shot to cut the Sixer lead to four points:

In the first half, it seemed as though Embiid couldn’t miss, and defended by Capela on this next possession, Capela contests Embiid’s shot which is badly missed this time around:

The Hawks continue their quest as Young takes Matisse Thybulle off of the dribble before getting to his floater in the lane before Embiid can intercept any shot attempt, and Young gets the kind roll:

An absolute blitz out front from Young against an All-NBA defender at a time where the Sixers continue to implode.

The Sixers couldn’t respond as Harris tries to take Capela from the perimeter as the shot clock winds down but can’t hit the jumper inside the paint:

The Hawks now have the opportunity to tie the game or take the lead, Young is defended by Thybulle in isolation before drawing the contact and three free throws:

After the made free throws to give the Hawks their first lead of the game, the Sixers take a timeout. Out of said timeout, the Sixers can’t find a way to break through and Harris ends up having his shot swatted by Collins:

A fantastic block from Collins on the recovery from the Embiid double but it begs the question what on earth the Sixers drew up coming out of a timeout where they have just lost the lead.

Now with an opportunity to increase their newly found lead, the Hawks find themselves in a dream scenario where Danilo Gallinari is defended by Curry inside. After being unable to find a favorable look on the first entry, Gallinari fades away and hits over Curry on the second entry to give the Hawks a three point lead:

Curry hit seven threes in this game but coming off of the screen from Embiid he is unable to make that eight on a decent look as the game now reaches critical point:

The Hawks now have the chance to basically kill the game but settle somewhat as Young takes the isolation three with Simmons guarding him, only to miss and give the Sixers one more chance:

A bit of a hero shot from Young here and the Sixers use their final timeout to draw something up.

The Sixers are unable to find anything from the outside and take far too long to go for the ‘quick’ two, and Gallinari ends up fouling Embiid for two free throws:

Embiid, incredibly, proceeds to miss both free throws — having shot a perfect 11-of-11 up to that point in the game — and the Hawks use their final timeout to advance the ball.

The Hawks get the ball to Young, who dispatches both free throws to give the Hawks a two possession lead and Curry’s shot at the end of the game ends up being nothing more than consolation points as the Sixers’ meltdown was completed.

A 40-19 fourth quarter in favor of the Hawks capped one of the most incredible playoff comeback performances of recent memory.

“We’ve been doing this a lot recently,” said Young. “Especially after the break, we’ve been doing a lot better at closing out games and finishing games no matter what the score is.”

Postgame, Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan praised his side’s character after another comeback victory in this series after winning Game 4 in a similar fashion.

“These guys just continue to show true character,” said McMillan postgame. “We’ve been in that position before, we were in somewhat of a similar position our last game against Philadelphia. We’re down 13, 14 at the half and just no quit in these guys, they continue to stay with what we were trying to do. We eventually found a hot hand in Lou and found a rotation that was working for us. We started to get stops and just continued to stay with it. We talk about our three C’s: being calm, being clear about what we need to do and being connected out there on both ends the floor. They showed their true character tonight.”

“I really don’t have words to describe this comeback tonight,” McMillan would later add.

Down 26 in the first half and entering halftime trailing by 22 points, on the road, Embiid is torching the Hawks, the Hawks having missed a chance to close the margin against the second unit, a season-low three assists at the half and shooting 31% from the field, it would have been easy to give up given how things were going.

“We talk about that all season long,” said McMillan of maintaining composure. “Just keeping your head and not losing your head, staying together, continuing to work to try make breaks for yourself and they’ve been doing that. We’ve been down in games and they continue to just stay with the game plan, continue to fight, continue to stay connected. As we talk about being clear about what we need to do in the fourth quarter, we knew we needed to get stops and we needed to score some baskets and that’s what they did. This is something we’ve conditioned ourselves to do. That fourth quarter, look at where we are, make our adjustments and try to finish strong. Tonight, these guys don’t give up. They continue to fight.”

Still, what does one say after being almost run off of the Sixers’ home-floor in the first half in a pivotal Game 5?

“It’s 48 minutes on that clock,” said McMillan on the conversation at halftime. “Pretty much the conversation was ‘We’ve been here before. We’ve been here before down big at the half, it’s the second half, we need to come out with that energy, that urgency, we know what we need to do and we need to do it in a hurry.’ It was very similar to the second half of last game where we came out of the second half with energy, started to get some stops and was able to fight our way back into the game and eventually win it. Same thing happened tonight. Just no quit. We always talk about playing a 48 minute game, it’s a long game and it took all 48 minutes tonight to get it done.”

“I told them when they walked into the locker room, if you don’t believe, you’ve got to believe now,” added McMillan. “Just stay with it, stay together. These guys continue to fight. They didn’t drop their heads. We had to fight until we could find a rotation that was working. I thought our bench really came in and really gave us a lift at the end of the third, going into the fourth. We found the hot hand in Lou and he was able to get us back in the game. Defensively, we were able to get enough stops to get this game and close and I thought the pressure was back on them and we did a really good job of executing down the stretch.”

The old cliché ‘one possession at a time’ might sound a little tired when it comes to comebacks but it’s still one that rings true for some.

“You just try to go out and the do the same if it was a two point game,” said Williams. “Go out maximize your minutes, remain positive and just try to have a positive impact on the game when you go out on the floor. It’s not like a big ‘Remember the Titans’ type thing where everyone all gets juiced up, we’re pros. Everybody has to believe in their abilities to hold their weight and go out on the floor and try make a positive impact. Sometimes those positive impacts become huge impacts and you chip away, you chip away and before you know it you’ve got a game and you want to stay the course. That was what we were doing, just trying to staying the course. We realized we only had three assists at halftime, we weren’t sharing the ball, we weren’t playing our brand of basketball and we made our adjustments and continued to play.”

Something that the Hawks felt confident about was their ability to turn their tough field goal percentage around, missing a number of good opportunities near the rim in the first half that was part of the advantage they should have pressed better before things got out of hand in the second quarter. With multiple players who can ignite, the confidence was easy to have.

“It’s not very difficult (to maintain confidence) when you know the weapons you have on this team,” said Young. “We know we’ve got a lot of guys who can make shots and make threes and can really get our offense going. We can put up a lot of points really quick. I think early on we were missing a lot of open shots. It was one of those first halves again and hopefully we shoot a lot better at home than we did tonight and the last game. I think we always have belief that we’re in the game.”

Even in the third quarter, this game was still very much Philadelphia’s to control, holding a 85-61 lead with 2:10 remaining in the third quarter. The Sixers, however, ended the third quarter poorly as Doc Rivers seemed to take the end of the third quarter for granted.

When the fourth quarter began, it was about Williams finding his form, scoring 13 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, including 11 straight for the Hawks as they tore into Philly’s lead.

“Lou started it all,” said Young postgame. “Lou started off that fourth quarter aggressive, attacking, scoring and it really opened up everything else for us. Without his scoring and his impact on tonight’s game who knows if we come back in the game. His offensive performance definitely opened up things for every body. It’s a big part of the reason why we came back.”

Once Williams gets going in that manner, it’s hard to stop him and that growing confidence, describing the zone he gets into when shots begin to fall.

“In the moment, I don’t see it like that,” said Williams when asked if he knew it was going to be one of those nights for him. “You give me an inch, I try to take a foot. You give me a foot, I try to take a mile. Before you know it the basket looks like the ocean to me and I start playing with a lot of confidence and then everybody else starts playing with it. It just starts clicking. I’ve done it so many times, honestly, it’s just a zone you’re in where everything is blacked out. You don’t hear the crowd, sometimes you don’t even see the defender in front of you, you’re just zoned out. Probably two or three shots in I’m like ‘Alright Lou, here we go again.’”

Without Williams — as Young alluded to — it’s hard to see the Hawks pulling off this comeback. He was hugely important on a night where both Kevin Huerter and Bogdan Bogdanovic struggled to the extreme between shooting percentages and foul trouble.

“No,” said McMillan when asked if they’re in this position without Williams. “But we’ve had guys all season long to step up like this. It’s been somewhat of a different guy each night but tonight we needed someone to get hot. Lou, this is something he’s been doing for a long time and we certainly needed his offense tonight.”

Both Williams and Gallinari are no strangers to seemingly impossible playoff comebacks. Both were part of the Los Angeles Clippers team that overturned a 31 point deficit to the Golden State Warriors in 2019 to win Game 2 at Oracle Arena.

“I’ve done it already and we were down 31,” said Gallinari. “26 is better than 31. I think you can always do it as long as you believe, and ‘everybody believes’ has been the main thing since the beginning of the season. When you keep believing and keep doing your job amazing things can happen.”

Williams scored 36 points that game in and was instrumental in this latest of comeback playoff wins for both himself and the Atlanta Hawks, a plus-31 on the game.

“Huge role and that’s the Lou that I know, that’s the Lou that I’ve played with and that’s what he can do,” said Gallinari of Williams. “I’m glad he did it tonight, I’m very happy for him.”

The coach of that Clippers team that day? Doc Rivers.

Speaking of Rivers, his side absolutely melted in the fourth quarter (like Clippers owner Steve Ballmer melted in his seat when the Clippers blew a huge lead — also coached by Rivers — in Game 6 at home the 2015 series against Houston, who would go on to win Game 7), truly one of the most spectacular playoff bottle-jobs you will ever see.

The Sixers’ offense completely dried up in the fourth quarter, and in the second half.

Not including Curry’s meaningless basket at the end of the game, the Sixers didn’t make a field goal for the final 6:25 of the game and were stuck on 104 points from the 4:23 mark until Curry’s basket at the end.

The Sixers shot 25% in the fourth quarter, Embiid again faded when it mattered in the fourth quarter, Simmons’ inability to make free throws/contribute offensively in crunch time and Harris was similarly no where to be seen when the Sixers desperately needed offense out side of Embiid and Curry.

In fact, no other Sixer other than Embiid and Curry made a field goal in the second half and no other Sixer even scored double digits on the game outside of Embiid and Curry.

Everything in terms of percentages and probability pointed categorically in Philadelphia’s favor and they still couldn’t close the deal at home.

“We just gave it to them,” said Simmons via Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN. “We got too comfortable and didn’t play the way we should be playing. Didn’t move the ball as much in the second half. Didn’t get as many easy shots. And defensively, there were too many lapses where we didn’t communicate.”

The Hawks deserve a lot of credit for not folding, they deserve credit for staying together, they deserve a lot of credit for their execution in the fourth quarter. Truly, the Hawks deserve a lot of credit for putting the 1-seeded Sixers in the position they are in.

But Game 5 will ultimately be remembered for the Sixers and one of the great capitulations in NBA Playoff history. It truly was historic, and the national media will be all over it (and rightly so).

But going back to the Hawks, they have been underdogs for this entire postseason and they continue to defy expectations and beliefs.

“For a team that has no All-Stars, no All-Defensive players, no All-NBA players this team is fighting,” said Young. “We’re in the second round of the playoffs and I think we’ve had that chip on our shoulder all year of being overlooked and having that underdog mentality. We’re playing with that chip on our shoulder right now and guys are continuing to do that and we’re going to need to keep it up.”

The Hawks have done this in this series without playing exceptionally well. Even last night, the Hawks did not play a fantastic game — their first half was abysmal.

They tried to intentionally foul Simmons in the first half and one of the players who took those fouls, Huerter, ended up in foul trouble in the first half. Huerter and Bogdanovic both ran into foul trouble and easily had their worst games of the series — Huerter scoreless on 0-of-7 shooting from the floor and Bogdanovic (who picked up his fifth foul in the third quarter) scoring just six points on 3-of-9 shooting and did not play at all in the fourth quarter Williams ignited.

Added to that, the Hawks registered a season-low three assists in the first half and a season-low 14 assists on the game in total. Comeback aside, the Hawks can certainly play better.

Capela has had a tough series and a tough Game 5 too as Embiid, to put it flatly, torched him in the first half. It’s an impossible spot to guard Embiid but Capela has also struggled offensively with Embiid’s presence at the rim.

That said, the Hawks received strong performances from Collins, scoring 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the field, Gallinari scored a hugely significant 16 points off of the bench

But, of course, the Hawks were led by the monster performance from Young — 39 points on the road in a pivotal Game 5, getting to the free throw line 19 times on the road, slicing open the Sixers’ All-NBA defense (with Embiid, Simmons and Thybulle all named to the All-Defensive team) to ribbons.

“He’s a monster, this dude is a monster,” said Williams of Young. “It’ll be one of those things where I look back when he’s a Hall of Famer, he’s an established superstar in this league and I can say I was a part of that process and I worked with this gentleman. Seeing Trae up close and the things he’s able to accomplish and the things he’s able to go out on the floor and do night in and night out at such a young age with the poise that he has, the swag that he has, the confidence he has in his abilities. I’m proud to be a part of it, He listens to me and I try to help him as much as I can with little tid-bits here and there. Just to see him night in and night out, I’m extremely happy for him and proud of it and I’m happy to call him my teammate.”

Now, the Hawks find themselves in position to do what many would have considered unthinkable: to close out the top-seeded Sixers at home in Game 6, one win away from the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Sixers will be ready to fight in an elimination Game 6 — and I’d probably bet on Embiid getting at least one technical foul — but the optimism for the Hawks is that there are significantly better games to be had from Bogdanovic, Huerter and Capela too. Buoyed by their home crowd, the Hawks will be hoping for a better first half performance.

A chance to make history awaits on Friday for the Atlanta Hawks, who return to their home floor for Game 6 and the chance to close this series out.

It is not one to be missed.

Until next time...