The Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks have pushed each other to the limit.
Six games into their Eastern Conference semifinals matchup, we still don’t know who’s going to win, convincingly, regardless of who’s holding a 20-plus point lead at any point in the game. We have no idea.
We don’t know which version of Joel Embiid will show up in Game 7: a 40-13 Embiid or a 0-of-12 Embiid? We don’t know if Ben Simmons will finally have a breakout game offensively. We don’t know if Trae Young has yet one more notch to rise up to.
The only thing we know is that someone else will step up for both teams, as this has been the case for the past six games. Outside of the superstars and the big names, there have been unlikely heroes from both sides that are playoff-ready.
First one to show up in this series was the Hawks’ Kevin Huerter, who scored 15 points in the Hawks’ surprising Game 1 win. When Huerter is stationed for an open 3 in the corner, it’s automatic.
The Sixers fired back in Game 2 with their own version of instant offense in Shake Milton. With the Sixers running the risk of losing two straight at home, Milton shook things up and caught fire in the third quarter. The surprise attack stunned the Hawks and put them in a daze they couldn’t recover from.
The momentum carried over to Game 3, but this time, the Sixers tried on a different approach. It was Furkan Korkmaz and his 14 points that helped the Sixers get back home advantage in a series that was shaping up to be one huge rollercoaster ride.
Game 4 threw us in another loop as John Collins chipped in a big 14-point, 12-rebound performance to tie the series. The Sixers were up 18 at one point, but the Hawks somehow closed the gap because in these very unpredictable playoffs, these things are the norm.
By Game 5, the rollercoaster series went off the rails. The Sixers were up 26 in the third quarter, so the Hawks got creative and put the ball in the hands of Lou Williams, a sure bucket off the bench. In case the Sixers have forgotten that, Sweet Lou reminded them in a big way. Along with Danilo Gallinari’s 16, Lou contributed 15 points to help Atlanta steal another W from Philly.
But because we don’t know anything from this series aside from the basic fact that Joel Embiid and Trae Young are straight-up killers on the offensive end, Game 6 had another trick up its sleeve. Seth Curry, who has been quietly dominating offensively, dropped 24 points in the must-win game. Curry has been an unexpected steady hand for the Sixers, turning into a reliable bucket when things are getting unsafe for Philly.
The interesting bit though was the huge game from rookie Tyrese Maxey. The young rising star only played a total of 33 minutes over the first five games of the series, but Game 6 was his.
He instantly owned it when he entered midway in the first quarter, when the Sixers were down 12 and their season was in jeopardy. Maxey hit all three of his shots and gave Philly the hope they needed to keep up with a confident and surging Hawks team.
In the fourth quarter, Maxey took on the not-for-rookie task of shadowing Trae Young, chipping in a couple of points, and knocking down four tough, game-closing free throws. Maxey ended up with the biggest playoff game of his career yet with 16 points and seven rebounds.
Now heading into Game 7, uncertainty still looming, the Sixers and the Hawks will have to rely on their respective X-factors, shock troopers, and unlikely heroes to complement the stars.
Who will it be for the Hawks’ and Sixers’ biggest game of the season?