One problem for the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals was the size of their rotation. While most teams are playing fewer guys at this time of year, Sixers coach Doc Rivers went 10 deep against the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday and bench minutes, especially those when none of the Sixers’ starters were on the floor, killed them in what turned out to be a four-point loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
The solution in Game 2 on Tuesday wasn’t to shorten the rotation, but rather expand it. And it was 11th man Shake Milton who pushed the Sixers to a 118-102 victory that evened the series at one game apiece.
An audacious start
Bench minutes were again a problem in the first half on Tuesday. Rivers didn’t use a full, five-man bench unit like he did in Game 1, instead playing Tobias Harris with four reserves. But he still went 10 deep and the Sixers were outscored by 14 points in just 6:21 with Joel Embiid off the floor. They scored 28 points on their first 17 possessions of the first quarter and 20 on their first 11 possessions of the third, but trailed, 80-79, with 2 1/2 minutes left to go in that third quarter.
Bench points can be an overused statistic, because sometimes you have a really good bench group that plays well around a starter who handles the bulk of the scoring in those middle-of-the-half minutes. But at that point late in the third, bench points were 37-0 in favor of the Hawks.
Then came Milton’s moment. He had played just 38 seconds in Game 1, doing nothing but commit a turnover in that brief, fourth-quarter cameo. But he has more skills off the dribble than any of the other five reserves that Rivers had been using. So it was Milton instead of rookie Tyrese Maxey that got the call in the third quarter of Game 2. And he made an immediate impact.
On Milton’s first offensive possession of the game and after George Hill drew a foul, Milton inbounded the ball. He immediately followed his pass, took a hand-off from Hill, used an Embiid screen, and launched an audacious, step-back 3 with plenty of time still left on the shot clock …
That shot put an end to an 8-0 Atlanta run and began a stretch where the Sixers scored 28 points on 14 possessions spanning the third and fourth quarters, turning that one-point deficit into an 18-point lead that the Hawks would not be coming back from.
On the first possession of the fourth quarter, Milton ran a side pick-and-roll with Harris. John Collins switched the screen and Milton beat him off the dribble with a subtle hesi. That got Danilo Gallinari sliding over and Milton tossed a lob to Dwight Howard …
Defense leads to offense
Milton’s 3 at the third quarter buzzer was less audacious than the step-back (he had no choice but to shoot it), but equally ridiculous and important. Also important was the Sixers’ defense, which allowed the Hawks to score just 21 points on their final 27 possessions of Game 2.
The Sixers had the league’s second-ranked defense in the regular season, but they got picked apart by Trae Young in Game 1. And after they held Atlanta to just four points on its first 16 possessions on Tuesday, they let the Hawks climb back.
And then they won the game with those 28 points on 14 possessions, a Brooklyn-esque run from a Philly offense that ranked 13th in the regular season. But part of it was fueled by the stops the Sixers were able to get on the other end of the floor.
The first came right after Milton’s step-back 3. Young zoomed past a Clint Capela screen, but was stopped by Embiid and then blocked by Matisse Thybulle. He recovered the loose ball, but Embiid reacted quickly and blocked his reverse layup. And when Capela rebounded that, Hill dug down and took the ball away …
That stop lead to a fast break where Ben Simmons found Thybulle cutting to the rim for an and-1.
The Hawks called timeout after the Sixers’ second unit (with Harris and four reserves again) started the fourth quarter on a 6-0 run to extend their lead to 13. And then Hill blew up their after-timeout play by intercepting Lou Williams’ hand-off to Bogdan Bogdanovic, racing the other way for a layup.
The next defensive possession was one of the Sixers’ best. It started with Thybulle chasing Kevin Huerter around two screens, getting help from Howard (hedging off Collins) and Hill (pinching off the passer). And when Collins tried to roll to the rim behind Howard, Milton was there to tag …
The Hawks transitioned into a Bogdanovic/Collins pick-and-roll. Howard came up to the level of the screen and stayed with Bogdanovic. Hill switched out to Collins, Howard helped on Collins’ drive, and Hill got his hands on the ball, forcing a tough shot with the shot clock winding down …
After the Hawks made 20 3s on Sunday, the Sixers did a much better job of preventing those same looks. Only 30 (36%) of Atlanta’s 83 field goal attempts in Game 2 came from beyond the arc, down from 47 (55%) of 83 in Game 1.
Three more numbers to know
- After committing 19 turnovers in Game 1, the Sixers committed just nine in Game 2. They had zero turnovers on their first 33 possessions of the second half before Embiid committed a traveling violation with 1:43 to go in the fourth quarter.
- The Sixers have made more than half of their shots from the field in five of their seven playoff games. Embiid and Harris have both shot 80% or better in the restricted area, while Embiid and Seth Curry have combined to shoot 33-for-54 (61%) from mid-range.
- This was the Hawks’ worst defensive game (118 points allowed on 97 possessions) of the postseason. They’re 1-19 when they’ve allowed more than 120 points per 100 possessions.
Up next: Game 3
Joel Embiid is playing through a torn meniscus in his left knee, but has averaged 39.5 points and 11 rebounds in this series. The Sixers have outscored the Hawks by 27 points (18 per 100 possessions) in his 73 minutes on the floor, and they should continue to win those minutes as the series heads to Atlanta for Game 3 on Friday (7:30 ET, ESPN). But those minutes with him off the floor will continue to be critical.
The Sixers might not need another 28-8 run like the one they got on Tuesday, but might need Milton in their rotation from this point forward. Playoff basketball can call for more off-the-dribble creation than the regular season, and Milton a little more off-the-dribble juice than any of the Sixers’ other guards.