The Philadelphia 76ers received big news just before tip-off on Sunday afternoon with the announcement that All-NBA center Joel Embiid was cleared to start in Game 1. The Atlanta Hawks wouldn’t be as fortunate, as a lingering knee issue sidelined starting small forward De’Andre Hunter. Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan tapped Solomon Hill to replace Hunter in the starting lineup but, despite a stellar game from Embiid, the Hawks used a first half barrage to take Game 1 in Philadelphia.
Atlanta took control in the early going, burying triples and forcing turnovers. After taking a 20-point lead into halftime, and a 16-point lead into the final period, the team made the fans sweat en route to just a four-point win. Still, with the victory, they accomplished, at the very least, a split of the first two road games for the second time in two series.
Spectacular play from the Hawks’ star
Trae Young became the second player ever to score 30 points in his first four career road playoff games (after only Lew Alcindor, later named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). He in particular was fantastic in the first half, logging 25 points on 8/13 shooting (61.5%) with seven assists to boot. Young would finish the contest with 35 points and 10 assists on 11/23 (47.8%) shooting.
Trae Young finished with 35 points on 27 true shot attempts and 34% usage. All of his baskets were self-created. His 10 assists included 5 at the rim and 4 behind the arc, leading to another 24 points. pic.twitter.com/5ujx8psiKE— Positive Residual (@presidual) June 6, 2021
Young’s isolation play — in particular in cooking matchup Danny Green but even Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle at times — opened up the court for the sharpshooters in the first half.
Here, Young rejects the screen and draws the attention of Ben Simmons to give Bogdan Bogdanovic just enough daylight to open the scoring.
But getting to his floater has been maybe the most major aspect of Young’s game so far in his young career as a scorer. We’ve seen this type of play seemingly a million times. Young comes off a screen, gets his defender on his backside then sees Embiid backing up, unwilling to challenge Young that far from the basket as the rolling Capela puts the center in a bind. It’s seemingly an impossible situation to solve.
One more for good measure, as Young keeps dribbling until his finds open space along the baseline.
While at this time the lead was large, the above play would prove important as the margin would nearly evaporate toward the final seconds.
Philadelphia would switch up their scheme in the second half after Young’s brilliance, occasionally sending a second man out toward him as soon as he crossed half court.
“They started with Ben [Simmons on Trae],” said Huerter. “Ben’s a physical defender against him on the ball. Took Ben off of him and used him as a free safety off the ball. They tried not to switch too much. We knew that they blitz him on the ball screens. A lot of it was trying to get the ball out of his hands.”
“Play within the game,” Young responded on his approach to the trapping efforts by the 76ers. “If they’re going to be physical, use the physical aggression to my advantage. If they’re going to do that or if they’re going to be off, use that to my advantage. It’s really just about figuring out what type of defense they’re in and attacking it.”
Young would finish just 3-of-10 shooting for 10 points in the second half after the first half explosion, but not before logging a few key buckets and assists to help seal the game for the visitors.
Balanced playmaking and “defense to offense” from the supporting cast
Both teams started out hot, hitting 15 of their first 19 shots combined. But from that point on, the Hawks turned on the jets and left Philadelphia behind. Five players would end in double figures, including a combined 36 points for Bogdanovic and Huerter. That duo would also chip in needed ball handling and facilitation once the attention was drawn to Young, leading to nine assists and many easy lobs.
This is some great ball movement here, as Huerter and John Collins help to collapse the defense for a Clint Capela lob finish.
“[The ball movement in the first half] was really good,” McMillan remarked. “That’s our number one key in this series. [The Sixers] do such a good job forcing turnovers. We must take care of the ball.”
Here, a pick-and-roll with Capela allows Huerter to turn the corner. Embiid jumps out on him, forcing Ben Simmons to tag the rolling Capela. Huerter’s vision allows him to send the ball the opposite diagonal to Bogdanovic in stride.
The Hawks set a franchise playoff record with 20 made three-pointers, shooting 42.6% on 47 attempts. Some of that came with a 13/23 mark from long range (56.5%) in the first half, which was also a franchise playoff record, with 42 points total in the first quarter, second highest in the regular season or postseason.
The bench also used their energy and active hands to force turnovers and getting out and running in transition was a huge part of running up the score in a flash.
This play by Onyeka Okongwu typified the effort from the role players all game long.
Here, Collins is able to dispossess Simmons in the post and secure it to head the other way. The possession ends with an incredible whipped baseline pass out to reward a spotted up Collins for three.
The Hawks finished with 19 forced turnovers resulting in 28 points the other way. Certainly the focus waned down the stretch, but the coaching staff and fans have to be thoroughly pleased with the disruption and energy the Hawks brought in Game 1.
An Atlanta team does Atlanta things down the stretch
Philadelphia hung in the contest behind the post dominance of Embiid, who had 39 points on 12/21 (57.1%) shooting and nine rebounds. While the Hawks brought a double team often, the Hawks sometimes left Capela on an island down low with the MVP-candidate, resulting in five personal fouls.
Embiid went to the free throw lines 15 times — knocking down 14 of them for a 93.3% average there — with plays like the below.
“We know [Embiid] is a beast,” McMillan said. “He’s a monster in the post. Tonight we did a good job of mixing up our coverages with him. The main thing is to try to get him off the block and not allow him to get to the free throw line or just punish us. I thought our defense was good. He’s going to score. We did a solid job of making him earn his points, though.”
The biggest worry for the Hawks was how they handled the full court press from Philadelphia late in the game (spoiler: badly). The Sixers brought a 17-point deficit with 4:42 left in the fourth quarter down to two points within the final minute. Six turnovers in the closing period led to eight points for the home team.
It was a combination of inexperience in these big moments, combined with the pressing aggression and length of the Sixers to keep turning the Hawks over for stolen possessions and easy buckets.
“Late in the game, I take a lot of responsibility for the turnovers,” said Young, who totaled four in the game but three in the final five minutes of the contest.
Huerter had a few shaky-at-best sequences, using the Hawks’ last timeout with over a minute left to play after being trapped near halfcourt and later turning the ball over on a 5 second call while inbounding after a make.
“Up until the last five minutes, things were going pretty well,” Huerter said. “We’ve got to close games better. Thank God we were up 20. Too many turnovers, we came into the game knowing that they’re number one in turning you over. 17 [Hawks turnovers] and I’d love to know how many were in the last five minutes. That can’t happen. In a lot of ways we got lucky tonight. A win’s a win. We’ll take it.”
Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari gifted the Sixers with one last hope with under 10 seconds left to go with the fifth turnover in the last five minutes, to answer Kevin’s ponderance.
“Their press, obviously it bothered us. That’s something we’re going to watch, the last four minutes of the game or whatever it was, we’re going to watch and get a lot better,” Huerter remarked postgame.
“We’ll certainly be watching film on that tomorrow.” McMillan said to lead his postgame comments. “You definitely love to teach off a W. We were able to get this first game. I think that’s really big especially for a young team to get confidence certainly out on the road. We know we’re going to have to be sharper going down the stretch. And I expect us to do that.”
Still, not many expected the Hawks to walk into Wells Fargo Center against a fully healthy squad and put on the type of show they put forth. Despite the near collapse, Atlanta successfully stole home court advantage and the team knows they can not only hang with the No. 1 seed in the East, but topple them.
From here, it is a short turnaround for both team, as Game 2 will be Tuesday night, with Atlanta embracing a chance to take a 2-0 series lead.