Excellent execution: Hawks shred 76ers defense to make historic comeback
The Hawks use a 40-19 fourth-quarter surge to send the Sixers packing in Game 5, taking control of the series with a 3-2 lead.
The Eastern Conference semifinals series between the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks took a turn on Wednesday. And it was a full 180.
The Hawks trailed Game 5 by as many as 26 points, and they were still down 24 with less than two minutes to go in the third quarter. And somehow, some way, they came away with a 109-106 victory to take a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 in Atlanta on Friday (7:30 ET, ESPN).
It’s been a wild last 72 hours in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Through Sunday, teams were 46-1 in this postseason (including the Play-In games) after leading by more than 15 points, with the one loss coming when the Dallas Mavericks had a 19-point lead midway through the first quarter of Game 3 of their first-round series with the LA Clippers. That lead was gone well before halftime.
But over the last three nights, teams are 1-3 after leading by more than 15. All three losses have come in the East, and the Sixers are responsible for two of the three.
Here are three reasons why the Hawks outscored the Sixers, 48-21, over the final 14 minutes on Wednesday.
1. Brutal Bench
You’ve probably heard this one before, but it bears repeating: The Sixers are not very good when Joel Embiid goes to the bench.
When Embiid sat down with 1:27 left in the third quarter, the Sixers led by 22. And when he checked back in with 10:03 left in the fourth, the lead was down to 11. In that 3:24, Philly scored two points on six offensive possessions and allowed 13 points on seven defensive possessions.
To summarize, the Sixers were outscored by 27 points in the final 13:56, by 16 in 10:32 with Embiid on the floor and by 11 in 3:24 with him off the floor.
Dwight Howard wasn’t entirely responsible for that portion of the collapse, but the guy who led the league in fouls per 36 minutes did put Young at the line (instead of moving his feet and contesting the drive) late in the third quarter, and he did get caught watching a shot as Onyeka Okongwu went untouched for a tip-in on the Hawks’ first possession of the fourth:
2. (Almost) No Stops
The bench got the ball rolling, but that minus-16 in Embiid’s final 10:32 on the floor is also pretty bad. The Sixers had issues on both ends of the floor over those final 14 minutes, but the much bigger difference between the cruising-to-an-easy-win Sixers and the suffering-a-brutal-collapse Sixers was on defense.
For 30 minutes, the Sixers’ defense was terrific, stifling Atlanta’s primary actions, making sharp rotations, and forcing tough shots. The Hawks scored just 54 points on their first 66 possessions (0.82 per) of the game.
And then they scored 55 points on their last 31 trips down the floor (1.77 per). In the fourth quarter, the Hawks scored (40 points) on 18 of their 22 possessions. That’s just four stops for Philly in 12 minutes.
Some of that was just make or miss. In the first half, the Hawks missed some open and close shots. Midway through the fourth quarter, John Collins banked in a 3 as the shot clock expired.
Some of it was the Hawks taking advantage of the Sixers’ lesser defenders. Lou Williams scored 13 points on 6-for-8 shooting in the fourth quarter, and when he had it going, he set his sights on Furkan Korkmaz. Two of those 13 came on a pick-and-pop with Kevin Huerter, with Korkmaz forgetting to stop the ball before retreating back to Huerter:
A couple of possessions later, Seth Curry was scrambling after Williams set a screen for Danilo Gallinari and slow to recover to Williams, who cut the deficit to eight with a long 3. And after the Hawks took the lead, Gallinari took the smaller Curry into the post and drained a turnaround jumper.
Some of it was Embiid, Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle looking unlike three guys who just made the All-Defense teams. With a little more than four minutes to go, Simmons allowed Trae Young to drive by him, Thybulle didn’t commit to the help (or stay home on the strong-side corner), and Embiid didn’t get off the floor as Young laid in an uncontested layup:
The Sixers were still up four with 2:20 to go, but Young then blew right by Thybulle for a short runner with Embiid again not leaving his feet to contest. And the Hawks took the lead when Young got Thybulle to bite on a pump fake 28 feet from the basket.
Credit the Hawks. When the Sixers were a step slow, Atlanta’s fourth-quarter execution was excellent:
3. Coming up Empty
After Embiid checked back in early in the fourth quarter, the Sixers scored 17 points on their next 11 possessions, still up 10. And then they went scoreless on their next eight trips down the floor before getting a meaningless Curry jumper with 0.1 left in the game.
Two of those eight scoreless possessions were empty trips to the free throw line, one from Simmons and another from Embiid. After the Hawks went up three, Curry missed a great look at a pull-up 3 with 45 seconds left.
But three uglier possessions stood out in that collapse. After a (double) timeout, the Sixers ran a staggered screen for Tobias Harris. With Collins being hit by the screen, Clint Capela stopping the ball, and Young following Shake Milton as he cleared to the strong side, Embiid seemingly had a clean roll to the basket. But he stopped short and Harris’ pass sailed by:
On the Sixers’ next possession, Capela did a nice job of denying Embiid’s initial post-up on the left side of the floor. But he was able to get at catch on the right wing with six seconds left on the shot clock. Capela gave him some space to shoot, but with Harris relocating behind Embiid, Collins was able to prevent a comfortable jumper while also staying within reach of Harris. Embiid missed a tough stepback:
Two possessions later, with the Hawks up one and after another timeout, the Sixers ran a Curry/Embiid pick-and-roll. With Capela blitzing the screen, the Sixers had a 4-on-3 situation that they couldn’t take advantage of.
Gallinari rotated up to Embiid on his catch in the paint and Simmons was alone under the basket. But Embiid kicked it out to Harris, who attacked Collins’ closeout. Gallinari rotated over again and then Embiid had two guys on him with both Harris and Simmons under the basket. He got the ball to Harris, who was a little slow to go up with it, allowing Collins to recover and block the shot:
Up next: Game 6
For such a remarkable turnaround to take place, a lot has to go right (or wrong, depending on your perspective). The Sixers’ collapse started with continued bench issues. Williams then got rolling and found some defenders he could pick on. Young took over down the stretch and the Sixers’ best defenders couldn’t stop him. And on the other end of the floor, Philly came up empty at the absolute worst time.
The Sixers were the much better team for 34 minutes, and they can certainly be the better team for the next 96. They’ll need to win in Atlanta on Friday to force a Game 7, but they’ve done that before.
They’ve also suffered two brutal collapses in the last three nights. And recovering from that kind of disappointment will not be easy.
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