In the end, Trae Young still had some gas in the tank. Joel Embiid did not. And John Collins was the best big man on the floor.
Young scored the Atlanta Hawks’ last six points (and scored or assisted on their final 15) as they tied the Eastern Conference semifinals at two games apiece with a 103-100 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 4 on Monday. He put his team ahead with a deft floater over Embiid with 1:17 left in the fourth quarter, and then gave them a three-point lead by blowing past Furkan Korkmaz in transition and drawing a foul on Embiid with 50 seconds to go.
Embiid shot 0-for-12 in the second half. He still had a chance to put the Sixers ahead with 10 seconds left, rolling to the rim after setting a screen for Tobias Harris. But he didn’t get enough lift as he sliced between Collins and Clint Capela, and his layup was way off the mark. After two more Young free throws, the Sixers had a chance to tie, but Seth Curry’s double-clutch 3 was a little long (and a little late).
The Sixers were rolling, winning Games 2 and 3 by double digits and leading Game 4 by 18 points late in the second quarter. At that latter point, they had scored 60 points on 47 possessions (1.28 per possession) on and were 42-2 (third best in the league) in games they led by 15 points or more. But then, with Embiid struggling and his teammates unable to get enough clean looks at the basket, they scored just 40 points over their final 51 possessions of the half (0.78 per possession).
So, it’s now a best-of-three series, with Embiid seemingly hobbled by a torn meniscus that he suffered in Game 4 of the first round. And to compound that issue, the series is done with two-day breaks in between games. There was a 48-hour rest between Games 2 and 3, and another between Games 3 and 4. But Game 5 is Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT), Game 6 is Friday, and Game 7 would be Sunday. Recovery time is limited.
It seems that, in every side of the bracket, these playoffs are about attrition. But even with Embiid’s struggles, the Hawks needed to make plays down the stretch of Game 4. And it was Collins, who scored only 14 points, who made a lot of them.
After a 31-20 third quarter, the Hawks had cut that 18-point deficit to two. The Sixers’ second unit scored on each of their first four possessions of the fourth, but Atlanta then got nine straight stops, with Collins getting that run started with two big plays at the rim.
With a little less than nine minutes to go, Shake Milton beat Lou Williams off the dribble. Dwight Howard grabbed Collins to keep him from protecting the rim, but Collins fought him off and made a last-second contest (without fouling) to force a miss from Milton…
On the Sixers’ next possession, Tobias Harris got the Hawks’ defense moving with a pick-and-pop drive. Matisse Thybulle attacked Danilo Gallinari’s close-out, drew help from Bogdan Bogdanovic, and dropped the ball off to Harris on the baseline. Howard again tried to hold off Collins, but he was able to shed the Sixers’ big man again and block Harris at the rim…
The Hawks made an adjustment in Game 4, “icing” the Sixers’ pick-and-rolls from the side of the floor, preventing the ball-handler from getting toward the middle. On a few occasions, Curry was happy to reject the screen and take what the defense gave him (a drive, a step-back jumper, another step-back jumper).
But on the last possession of that scoreless nine-possession stretch, Collins was there when Curry rejected Ben Simmons’ screen. Then he contested Curry’s catch-and-shoot 3…
Collins was a little late with his weak-side help on the pick-and-roll that could have put the Sixers ahead with 10 seconds left. But his quick second jump did prevent Simmons from getting a clean rebound…
With Collins on the floor in Game 4, the Sixers scored just 67 points on 76 offensive possessions (0.88 per). With Collins off the floor, they scored 33 on 23 (1.43 per).
The second chance
The Hawks had their own offensive issues in the fourth quarter, two different stretches of five possessions where they went without a point. The second of those looked like it would reach six, but Collins made a remarkable effort to rebound a Bogdanovic miss…
A few seconds later, he drained a corner 3 off a ridiculous wraparound pass from Young…
With the Hawks struggling offensively and with the Sixers just having taken a four-point lead, it was a huge sequence that required an impressive combination of late-game energy and concentration.
Up next: Game 5
A restricted free agent this summer, Collins was set to make some good money no matter what the Hawks did in the postseason. But the fourth quarter of Game 4 was a nice showcase of what he can do on both ends of the floor in the most important of moments. If it didn’t earn him some extra money, it earned the Hawks some extra life in this series.
Now we see how much life is left in the legs of Joel Embiid.