Glass Half Full, Remain Positive – Observations from Hawks 128, Sixers 124 (Game 1)

Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

For a moment there, it looked like they might pull off an absolutely ridiculous comeback.

The Wells Fargo Center crowd, which was awesome on Sunday afternoon, finally tapped out and began filing out of the building with the Sixers down eight and 16.5 seconds on the clock. The visiting Atlanta Hawks continued their epic fourth-quarter meltdown, saw their lead trimmed to two just six seconds later, and then hit a couple of foul shots in the dying moments to escape with a Game 1 win.

It was frenetic and entertaining down the stretch, but it was too little, too late. The Sixers couldn’t dig themselves out a 20-point hole that was mostly self-inflicted.

“I thought they hit us in the mouth to start the game,” said head coach Doc Rivers. “I thought they were the more physical team. They were the more aggressive team. They played harder early and took care of the ball early. We didn’t.”

More or less, and because of that, the hill to climb was ultimately insurmountable.

The positive thing for Sixers fans, if we’re going glass-half-full here, is that this team REALLY  stepped it up in the second half. They outscored Atlanta by four in the third and 12 in the fourth. They’ll clean up the turnovers and hit more threes, and the Hawks definitely will not shoot the lights out for the entirety of the series. A brief scan of social media and a very brief engagement of sports talk radio reveals surprising Posidelphia, and most people seem to feel good about the Sixers cleaning up the mistakes and making the necessary tactical adjustments.

And you have to feel good about Joel Embiid not only playing, but starting, and going for 39 points. It’s just disappointing that we had TRIPLE H out here to ring the bell with the damn sledgehammer and yet the Sixers found a way to lose. Outrageous! Now the Triple H bell-ringer game goes down in the history books as a loss, which is such a shame. It’s criminal.

But anyway, you take 19 turnovers, 69% foul shooting, and Atlanta looking like the 1996 Chicago Bulls in the first half, and figure that it’s probably not going to happen again. The errors were obvious and mostly unforced, which means they’re identifiable and fixable.

Trae Young on both ends

25 first half points for Trae Young.


The Sixers put Danny Green on him to start the game and he ended up playing the bulk of the minutes again Young, with final box matchup data coming out this way:

I like these charts, but it’s always a little deceiving when you look at this data because there’s a heavy dose of pick and roll switching and trapping and hedging, and so you draw varying matchups based on defensive scheme. But the bottom line is that they just weren’t slowing Young down or making it hard on him with Green as the primary defender.

“We had a lot of thoughts (going into the game),” said Rivers of the defensive approach. “Overall it was our coverages as much as it was Danny. The (screen) rejects were on Danny, the coverages on the double drag. That’s basically where they hurt us was on the double drag, but that was more on us.”

They did put Ben Simmons on Young to begin the second half, and had Green slide over to handle Bogdan Bogdanovic instead. Ben picked up a foul on his first possession, and then got a SOFT whistle for his third, which made Rivers abandon that change, and they stuck Green back on Young in order to avoid Simmons picking up a fourth. After Simmons went out for a rest, they put Matisse Thybulle on Young, and between those two just showed more tenacity and more energy in trying to contain Atlanta’s star.

“Danny has been pretty good on small guards all year, but Trae is not just a small guard, he’s a terrific guard,” Rivers added. “Everybody had their chance. Ben had him in the first half. You know, it’s funny, I thought Ben picked up a couple of fouls that, we picked up two fouls just for playing defense, and that was frustrating to see on Trae. Then you had to worry about (Simmons’) fouls. I thought Matisse picked up (a cheap foul). I was very surprised, and I’m gonna have to get an explanation on why that call wasn’t overturned.”

Doc is right; that sequence he’s talking about was a horrendous call. Young totally pushed off Thybulle on that particular play and Rivers challenged it to no avail.

Simmons was also asked about the coverage on Young and said this about guarding him to start Game 2:

“I probably would do that. I mean, I want to. If the refs aren’t gonna call so many fouls and I can be physical and be 6’10”, then I’ll be 6’10”. But we’ll see.”

And that’s important, because with Simmons on Young they can hedge and trap and try to smother him a bit more with a taller and longer guy, which will theoretically make it harder for him to get the ball out of his hands.

Which brings me to this clip:

Now this is a good example of how keeping Simmons off Young can help, because here you’ve got Harris on a hard hedge and double team, and Ben does a nice job sticking with Bogdanovic, which paints Young into a corner. One of the problems Sunday was that Trae was able to get the ball out of his hands when the traps and hedges were used, and then the Sixers were scrambling in rotation. Atlanta did a nice job moving the ball and picking out that extra pass and getting the open corner three.

“We showed him some different looks out there,” added Harris of Young. “Obviously the kid is good. He’s real good. Real skilled with the way he uses his body out there. He’s able to distribute the ball and score at the same time. Overall he pretty much had his way with us and was getting guys involved why getting into his game. We’ve got to mix it up and adjust to that, which we’ll do. We’ll show him some different looks and go from there.”

“They have a dynamic roller and a lob threat and they have shooters,” he added. “You give them credit because they made a lot of shots. A lot were contested as well. We’ll go back to the drawing board and figure out a way we can show more bodies and get out to shooters and get more stops out there.”

The other important thing that wasn’t talked about too much was that the Sixers didn’t attack Trae Young offensively. He was guarding Green on the other end and Green took a grand total of zero first half shots and only tried seven in the entire game, with a batch coming in the fourth quarter. That has to be a focus for Game 2, hunting Young, because he is a poor defender and they did not make him work in this one. If he’s worn down from having to defend, he won’t be as effective offensively.

“All bench” and other lineups

Truth be told, this wasn’t a great Doc Rivers game. You can point to the beginning of the second quarter as probably the key coaching moment, when the Sixers were down 15 and yet Doc opened with an all-bench unit that went 0-2 from the floor and was outscored 5-0 while committing three turnovers. Rivers had to use a timeout with 10:06 on the clock to stop the bleeding, with his team down 20 points. At that point, he reinserted Harris and then got the Simmons/Embiid/Green trio back in with 8:32 remaining.

Afterward, I asked if he might try the all-bench lineup again, or if it was deemed not viable moving forward.

“We’ll see,” Rivers said. “Tonight it didn’t work, but neither did the first group, early on. So both (groups) were in the minus department. We typically like one (starter), Tobias or Ben, in with that group. We just played them so deep into the first quarter because we were down, and that took us out of our normal rotation.”

This has been a topic all season long, even when the Sixers were stacking wins and looking good doing it. Doc has a tendency to go all bench in the second quarter specifically, because it keeps the starters grouped up instead of staggering, but come playoff time, unless you’re Mike Budenholzer, minutes increase and rotations shrink.

To Doc’s credit, he does play those lineups with Harris joining four bench guys, or he’ll leave Simmons in the game in a similar fashion. It just really hurt at the time because they were down 15 to begin with, the starting unit wasn’t playing well, and then the second unit allowed the deficit to balloon to double digits.

Every bench player finished in minus territory. Dwight Howard was a -15. George Hill was a -17. Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz logged a -12 and Tyrese Maxey was a -9. Even Shake Milton, who played one minute and committed a traveling violation, finished -2.

Other notes:

  • Looking at the crowd, you can tell that people are ready to be done with the masks. Maybe 40% of people were actually keeping them on. It was something like 90 degrees outside and people are tailgating without masks on, then you gotta walk inside and cover your face, and that juxtaposition just feels jarring.
  • The fans absolutely love Maxey. During these games, he’s getting huge ovations, like top-three on the team. He didn’t play particular well in this game, but his directness and energy off the bench is going to be helpful.
  • There’s always some entitled asshole, driving an SUV, who cuts in line to get into the parking lot. Usually a 40-something year old dad with his 10-year-old son in the front passenger seat. The rules don’t apply to them, I guess.
  • Not sure about the “Trae Young’s balding” chant when he was cooking the Sixers in the first half. To be fair, only 1-2 sections were trying it, while the rest of the arena declined to join in.
  • Thybulle hit a couple of threes in this game, and if he’s contributing on the offensive end, that’s gonna be huge.
  • It was barely talked about, but Atlanta was down a starter in this game. Solomon Hill started for De’Andre Hunter.
  • If you take away Ben Simmons’ free throws, the Sixers would have finished 21-25 from the line.
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