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Hawks comeback denied as Sixers run to take Game 2

The series now shifts back to Atlanta on Friday.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks were unable to complete the double on the Sixers’ home floor as the hosts evened the series with a Game 2 victory, 118-102, on Tuesday night.

Joel Embiid erupted for a playoff-career high of 40 points while Tobias Harris added 22 points (16 of them coming in the first quarter). For the Hawks, Trae Young and Danilo Gallinari scored 21 points while Kevin Huerter added 20 points.

Game 2 did not get off to a good start as the Sixers swung heavy in the first quarter, racing out to an 18 point lead as the Hawks struggled for offense in the first quarter. The Sixers feasted in the paint, 16 of their first 18 points on the game came in the paint and no one had an answer for Harris early on, Embiid asserted himself early, Seth Curry was hitting threes...

In short, the Hawks’ starters got crushed by the Sixers.

There have been times this season where the Hawks’ bench has been unable to help the starters but, in this matchup, the bench nearly rescued the Hawks. Huerter and Gallinari both came off of the bench with huge first half performances, both scoring 15 points apiece and combining for 30 of the Hawks’ 32 bench points in the first half. The Sixers, in contrast, scored zero bench points in the first half.

Fast-forward to the third quarter, the Hawks continued to chip-away at the Sixers’ lead and back-to-back threes from Bogdan Bogdanovic brought the Hawks within a point before Young got to the free throw line to give the Hawks their first lead of the game with 2:41 remaining.

The home crowd was anxious, the tension there to see as the prospect of losing both home games became a little real.

Shake Milton did not play in the first half before Doc Rivers threw him into the equation but he instantly makes an impact as he hits a tough, contested three to give the Sixers the lead once again:

Young attempts to respond but his efforts inside are twice denied by Matisse Thybulle and Embiid before Clint Capela is unable to secure the rebound and the Sixers secure the ball:

Off of the miss, Ben Simmons finds Thybulle streaking in transition and is fouled on his way to the rim, plus the foul:

Just like that the Sixers’ crowd was back into the game but the Hawks were very much still in it. Embiid got himself to the line before Lou Williams cut the lead to four points as the third quarter with 4.3 seconds remaining. The Sixers advance the ball quickly up the floor before Shake Milton hits another ludicrously difficult three-pointer at the buzzer to give the Sixers a seven point lead heading into the fourth:

A Dwight Howard alley-oop from Milton to start the fourth gave the Sixers a nine-point lead before the Hawks’ offense went cold.

Gallinari gets things started with a putrid shot that Harris blocks with the utmost ease:

Off of the miss, Milton comes off of the Harris screen and steps-back into a jump shot over Gallinari to push the Sixer lead back to double digits:

The Hawks, again, can’t respond as Gallinari takes Harris off of the dribble and hoists a wild shot inside which misses horribly:

The Sixers’ run continues as Milton’s missed shot at the rim is cleaned up by Howard, extending the lead to 13 points and a Hawks timeout:

The Hawks’ shot quality to start the fourth quarter did not start out well so it was important that the Hawks score something, anything out of the timeout. Sadly for the road team, Williams’ pass is intercepted by George Hill and taken to the rim for the basket:

On the drive, John Collins is blocked by George Hill before collecting the ball again but Collins’ second opportunity is contested by Howard and missed:

The Hawks’ soon-found misery is compounded as Milton comes off the screen and rises into another three-pointer to give the Sixers an unassailable 18-point lead.

What really hurt about that run from the Sixers was that it took place with Embiid on the bench, who looked absolutely exhausted having played the first 30 of 36 minutes. The run from the Sixers allowed Embiid to rest that little bit longer.

The Hawks had no answer for the Sixers’ punch from the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth quarter as the Sixers’ bench finally showed up for Game 2 as Milton ignited for 14 points and four three-pointers in the second half and the Sixers outscored the Hawks 27-18 in the final quarter.

“Whenever we got close, we turned the ball over or we gave up a basket,” said interim head coach Nate McMillan of the end of the third/start of the fourth. “We didn’t do a good job of controlling or establishing our defense all night long. It really started in the first quarter, 24 points in the paint in the first quarter. We had a ton of turnovers. We finished the game with 18 turnovers and those are the two things we talked about that we couldn’t do is turn the ball over and allow them to get out into transition and that’s pretty much what they did.”

The Hawks did well to overcome the deficit the Sixers raced out to but having to play catchup all night did not help. The Hawks have their first quarter offensive issues to thank for that, shooting 8-of-23 from the field and 2-of-10 from three in the first quarter.

Postgame, McMillan discussed how the Hawks settled offensively in the first quarter.

“I thought we settled early,” said McMillan. “I thought we took some quick shots in that first quarter and those were the things that we didn’t want to do. Whenever you’re playing against a really good defensive team like Philadelphia, New York they defend your first and your second option. What I mean by that, if you’re coming down and you’re not passing the ball and you’re just jacking shots or you’re coming down and you’re making one pass and a shot they’re going to defend that. We’ve got to get to our third and our fourth options, make them defend, get them moving from side-to-side. I thought we settled and took some quick, contested shots early. A lot of those shots, along with the turnovers, they turned into transition points and was able to get out and get some easy baskets and attack our paint in that first quarter, really, the first half.”

Young struggled by his lofty standards in Game 2, scoring 21 points on 6-of-16 from the field, 1-of-7 from three to go with 11 assists and four turnovers. Even though he had those 11 assists, Young struggled to excel as he has done in the playoffs thus far.

“As a team, we just didn’t establish our tempo,” said McMillan of Young. “We all turned the ball over, we all allowed the ball to get into our paint. Trae was part of that.”

Ben Simmons took the assignment from the first quarter this time but both McMillan and Young believed that the Sixers didn’t change much of their defensive coverage of Young. Young settled somewhat when guarded by Simmons but I honestly think Embiid’s presence inside was more of a deterrent than Simmons out on the perimeter.

Young also registered four turnovers on the game, part of a larger problem for the Hawks in general: turnovers.

The Hawks committed 18 turnovers on the game, leading to 28 Philadelphia points as the turnover narrative flipped from Game 1 to Game 2.

“Turnovers were really bad tonight,” said Huerter postgame. “Something we talked about at halftime, something we talked about coming into the game, coming into the series that turn teams over, they’re really good in transition when they do. They’ve got big, long defenders. Ben’s a good defender out there, Danny Green is a big physical defender, Thybulle is a big, long defender. They’ve got guys in passing lanes, they’ve got guys who reach a lot. We’ve got to take better care of the ball, we’ve got to make better decisions.”

Young was one of a number of Hawks who struggled in Game 2.

Collins really struggled, scoring eight points on 4-of-11 shooting from the field and struggled defensively too against Embiid and Harris — a night to forget for Collins.

Capela also had a difficult night: a -25 in 27 minutes. Capela has the unenviable task of guarding Embiid, so he shouldn’t draw a ton of criticism for a difficult game. That said, the Hawks will have to find a better way to limit Embiid’s effectiveness and McMillan knows the Hawks can do a better job guarding Embiid than they did in Game 2.

“He’s a problem down in the post,” said McMillan of Embiid. “We’re trying to mix up our defense with him. At times I think he’s getting too deep, our double teams are not getting there quick enough and he’s pretty much taking advantage of the deep post up, getting to the free throw line and scoring. We’ve got to clean that up, get better. He’s pretty much had his way in the first two games down on the block.”

Embiid, as McMillan said, had his way last night: 40 points on 13-of-25 shooting from the field and 12-of-16 from the free throw line. Face-up jumpshots, fadeaway shots, post-up shots, Embiid was able to do it all, and with ease. For someone playing with a meniscus injury, Embiid deserves a lot of credit for what he’s doing, he is dominating this series. When Embiid is on the floor, the Sixers are the considerably better side and when he’s not, the Sixers are not.

Harris, Curry — in addition to Milton of course — all had good games for the Sixers, and the positive for the Hawks is that even with Embiid’s 40 points, Harris’ 22 points, Curry’s 21 points and Milton’s second half outburst in addition to Young’s and Collins’ tough night, the Hawks only lost by 16 points. That might not sound like a ton of consolation but the optimism with the bench battle should give the Hawks reason to believe they can take a few more games from the Sixers.

One of those bench players who pressed his advantage again was Huerter, who scored 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the field and 3-of-5 from three.

Huerter has been absolutely fantastic so far this series and his impact in that first half was a huge reason why the Hawks were able to come back in this game.

“I wanted to put another ball-handler out there, another shooter out there,” said McMillan of Huerter. “We got off to a slow start and was trying to get more offense as well as defense out on the floor. We went to him a couple of times and I thought he did a good job of making some plays, putting the ball in the basket and taking advantage of his matchup.”

“He’s been really good knocking down shots, being ready, being aggressive,” added Young of Huerter. “It’s good to see him doing that. We’re going to need him to continue being aggressive for us and be ready to knock down shots for us. He’s been playing great, we’re going to need him to continue to do that if we’re going to finish off this series strong.”

Game 2 also marked the second game of the series that De’Andre Hunter did not start or appear, missing Game 2 with knee soreness.

“We’re going to be cautious with him,” said McMillan of Hunter. “We have been since he had the surgery and we’re going to continue to do that. If he feels well enough after treatment to play then we will put him out there. If he doesn’t, then we’re going to hold him. We always take that approach with our guys.”

The Hawks are clearly not going to risk Hunter’s long term health, so as much as Hunter’s absence is difficult for the Hawks to make up (as evident from the difficult Solomon Hill minutes last night) the Hawks are making the right choice for Hunter’s long term health, which is ultimately the right thing to do.

All-in-all, a tough night for the Hawks who had a chance to compete for Game 2 but a really poor run at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarter as well as ‘The Shake Milton Game’ flipped things around very quickly for the Sixers. Ultimately, the Hawks do leave Philly with a 1-1 split with the series heading back to Atlanta.

The Hawks (1-1) are back in action on Friday where the series shifts to Atlanta and State Farm Arena.

Should be a fun game.

Until next time...