Throughout the regular season, at the top of the Eastern Conference was a three-team race: The Philadelphia 76ers, the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks. Everybody else was seemingly playing for the fourth spot in the conference semifinals.
But the conference semifinals are not the regular season. The team that earned that fourth spot was more playoff-ready than the No. 1 seeded Sixers. With a remarkable 103-96 victory in Game 7 of the conference semis, the Atlanta Hawks have outlasted both Philly and Brooklyn. They’ve crashed the party and they’ll be in Milwaukee for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday (8:30 ET, TNT).
The Sixers outscored the Hawks by 20 points in the series. They won Games 2 and 3 by 16 points each, while all four of the Hawks’ wins were by seven points or fewer. Given the entire resume and taking both ends of the floor into account, you can certainly make the case that, in a comprehensive sense, the Sixers are the better team.
But playoff basketball and late-game situations often come down to having multiple guys who can make plays with the ball. That proved the Sixers’ Achilles heel and the Hawks’ strength. And it’s why Atlanta was able to win another close game on Sunday.
In true Game 7 fashion, this one was a little ugly. The teams combined to score 199 points on 200 possessions. The second quarter (41 points on 51 combined possessions) was pretty brutal. There were no double-digit leads to be blown. And when it was time to make plays, the Hawks — even though Bogdan Bogdanovic was hobbled by a knee issue and even though Trae Young shot just 5-for-23 from the field — made more plays than the Sixers.
Kevin Huerter came up big, scoring 27 points on 10-for-18 shooting to give the Hawks the offensive lift they needed in the biggest game of his life. Danilo Gallinari made two of the most important plays of the night, and Young flashed just enough of his brilliance to put the Hawks over the top.
A big turnaround
The Hawks led by five after the third quarter. And then they scored just one point on their first 10 possessions of the fourth, falling into a four-point hole. The Sixers’ defense wasn’t giving them anything easy and they looked like the moment was getting to them.
But Gallinari drained an absolutely huge transition 3 over Ben Simmons’ closeout to make it a one-point game:
That bucket appeared to take a huge weight off the Hawks’ shoulders, and began a stretch where they scored 16 points on eight possessions, with just one empty trip down the floor. Young finally got himself going with a mid-range jumper after getting the jumpy Matisse Thybulle to fly by. Huerter, who was 0-for-3 in the fourth up until that point, then found his favorite matchup (Seth Curry), draining a pull-up from the right baseline and a tough one-handed turnaround in the paint:
Young then lost his dribble, but didn’t panic, driving by Tobias Harris and drawing Joel Embiid up just high enough so that he could toss a lob to Clint Capela:
The Hawks had no problems getting the ball to their two go-to guys down the stretch. The Sixers’ did. Curry (21 ppg on an incredible 61% shooting) and Embiid (30.4 with 11.7 free throw attempts per night) were their two best offensive players in the series. But down the stretch of Game 7, the Hawks made it just a little too difficult for them to get the ball.
After Huerter’s baseline jumper, the score was tied at 84. The Sixers called timeout and tried to get the ball to Embiid in the post. But Capela fronted him, Gallinari ignored Simmons to prevent a pass over the top, and the Sixers had absolutely no spacing on the weak side of the floor. Embiid eventually got the ball, but outside the 3-point arc and with just nine seconds left on the shot clock:
Curry then dove into the paint and curled around an Embiid screen with Harris handling the ball at the top of the key. But Huerter chased Curry around the screen and John Collins pinched off Harris to prevent a catch-and-shoot 3 or even a one-dribble pull-up (Curry shot an amazing 25-for-35 – 71%! – from mid-range in the playoffs). The result was Harris missing a contested runner in the lane as the shot clock expired:
The possession that came after Huerter’s bucket over Curry in the paint will be remembered for Simmons passing up what would have been an easy dunk. But it began with the Sixers looking to get the ball to Curry. With Embiid handling the ball up top, Simmons set a screen for the shooter to use into a hand-off. But Huerter top-locked Curry, preventing him from being able to use the screen. And with Gallinari again sagging off Simmons, there was no back-door option on the play:
The Sixers actually got a point out of the possession because Thybulle got fouled, but this may end up being the most memorable pass of Simmons’ career in Philadelphia.
The Sixers still had a chance, down four with a little less than a minute to go. They took Simmons and Thybulle off the floor and they got a Gallinari switched onto Embiid. But Embiid’s catch again came outside the 3-point line. And before he could get to the basket (where he would have been met by Collins, because Harris wasn’t spaced), Gallinari had knocked the ball out of his hands:
For the series, the Hawks scored 51 points on 43 “clutch” possessions. The Sixers scored just 35 on 40, shooting 9-for-27 from the field, including just 1-for-8 from 3-point range. And their failure at the end of Game 7 was as much about their inability (with some credit to the Atlanta defense) to just get the ball in the hands of the two guys who were willing and able to score.
The Hawks are moving on … Are the Sixers?
For the Sixers, this could very well be the end of the Simmons-Embiid combination. The questions about their fit have been around for a while, but they will now reach a fever pitch. After his team was eliminated, Sixers coach Doc Rivers was asked if Simmons could be the point guard on a championship team.
“I don’t know the answer to that right now,” he answered.
The Hawks are seemingly ahead of schedule, in the conference finals with a 22-year-old star who’s only in his third season. But the conference finals might not be their last stop. This team can play at a high level on both ends of the floor and has proven that it can make big plays on the big stage.
The Eastern Conference finals begin Wednesday in Milwaukee. The Nets won’t be there. The Sixers won’t be there.
The Atlanta Hawks’ time is now.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.