There was a very interesting sequence in the second quarter of Game 2 between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks.
Trae Young quickly brought down the ball and, almost impatiently, ran a high pick-and-roll with Clint Capela, just before the Sixers' defense could settle in. Joel Embiid, who up until that point had been focused on hounding the Hawks’ offense, found himself in a dangerous situation.
Young had gained momentum and zooming parallel to him was Capela, ready to launch on command. As Embiid tried to distract Young with his mere monstrous presence, Capela had sneaked behind Embiid to catch a lob.
Embiid challenged, but he was already a half-second too late. Capela threw it down disrespectfully on him. Young, ever the villain, celebrated the moment by Salt Bae-ing the wound with a taunt.
Embiid, a villain himself, didn’t take this lying down. On the very next possession, the Sixers cleared out (they might as well have left the floor at that point), and watched as Embiid did his thing on Capela. He gave the Hawks big man a bone-shattering bump that almost sent Capela flying, before slamming one home. He let Capela know about it all the way back up court.
The Embiid basket gave the Sixers a four-point lead, 39-35. If only this type of heavyweight exchange happened more often throughout the game.
Instead, Game 2 was a series of runs, a game of spurts. The Sixers were always a step ahead and threatened to run away with it, but then the Hawks would always make a run of their own. The Sixers would pull away, then the Hawks would claw their way back.
By the closing minutes of the third, the Hawks held on to a flimsy one-point lead, after playing catch-up pretty much the entire game. Then, Shake Milton showed up.
Milton, who prior to Game 2 only scored a total of 17 points in the playoffs, went berserk in the second half and was a catalyst for the Sixers’ 31-9 run that the Hawks no longer had the strength to overcome. Milton hit four 3s and, finally, the Hawks had no answer.
Philly pulled away for good in the fourth quarter to tie the series at 1-1.
As the series heads to Atlanta with home-court advantage shifting to the Hawks, a lot of adjustments will surely be made on both sides to make things more consistent. A game of spurts isn’t only dangerous, it’s also not sustainable.
Milton’s 14-point gift was definitely welcomed by the Sixers, but they can’t expect that to happen again now that he’s on the Hawks’ radar. Seth Curry, who hit five of six 3s and was the third-leading scorer for the Sixers, might have also been an anomaly.
Where was Ben Simmons? He spent most of the minutes harassing Young on the defensive end, which resulted in him sacrificing his offense.
Simmons only took three field goal attempts, scoring on two for a total of four points. In a way, the Sixers were fortunate that despite Simmons’ low output on offense, they were able to find buckets elsewhere. They can’t always bet on that scenario.
The Hawks, when fully functioning, are a deep team with many weapons. They lost Game 2 partly because the Sixers exposed the not-so-secret flaw of when you stop Trae, you stop everyone else.
With Simmons and Mathisse Thybulle ganging up on Trae, the Hawks' offense sputtered in stretches. Young was held to 6-of-16 shooting and 1-of-7 from 3. Despite that, he still finished with 21 points and 11 assists.
As expected, the first two games were a lot of testing and learning, feeling out, and looking in. The Hawks did what they sought out to do, which was steal a game and gain home-court advantage.
Still, no team has a clear edge yet of knowing how to beat the other.
The only thing certain at this point is that Embiid, on one healthy knee, can just keep on setting new playoff career-highs one game after another. He’s clearly this matchup’s best player, the sun in which all planets orbit.
How will Embiid perform at State Farm Arena, a place where the Hawks have yet to lose a game in these playoffs? There’s no indication that he’s slowing down.
How will Young adjust now that he’s got a much taller Simmons guarding his every move?
A lot of questions will be answered in Game 3. But in a series like Hawks-Sixers, where every run is countered by a run, expect more questions to arise.