In today's newsletter:
- About last night's 104-101 win.
- Key stats from the game.
- Stray thoughts.
- Quotes and press conference audio.
- Link roundup.
Midway through the second quarter the Sixers trailed the Atlanta Hawks 51-36. Joel Embiid, in his first game back after missing the previous four with a mid-foot sprain, was shooting just 1-7 from the field and the Sixers' perimeter shooters, playing on the second night of a back-to-back, were just 4-13 from deep. Overall the Sixers had just 34 points on 12-39 shooting at that stage of the game.
I was, at that point, ready to chalk this one up to a schedule loss, similar to how the Charlotte game played out last week.
But this one was a little bit different than the typical second night of a back-to-back blues. Sure, the Sixers' perimeter jumpers were hitting front rim more often than not (and when they weren't, they were 2' wide to the right), but they were oddly winning the hustle categories. While Atlanta was building that 15 point lead the Sixers had more offensive rebounds (7-5) and were winning the turnover battle (9-5). That's not typical for a team with dead legs on the second night of a back-to-back, and it made you feel as though if the Sixers could just get Embiid going, if they could just get a couple of stops here and there, they had a chance to claw their way back.
And turn it around the Sixers did. Led by Embiid, who scored eight points on four shots in the final 3:20 of the second quarter, the Sixers went on a 12-4 run to close out the first half and give them a fighting chance after intermission.
Overall, Embiid would go on to make eight of his final 11 shots for 24 points after his 1-7 start to the game. Embiid finished the night with a dominant 30/8/7/2/2 line after missing over a week of game action because of the injury. The Sixers as a team dropped 65 points on 25-45 shooting in the final 27 minutes of play.
The Sixers' defense, which started playing a heavy amount of zone in the second quarter, made just enough stops to give them a chance. And Embiid finished it off by executing with precision down the stretch, hitting a step-back jumper with 18.6 seconds left to give the Sixers the lead, goading Trae Young into a lob that wasn't there on the ensuing possession, then making three of four from the line to seal the win.
It wasn't, for much of the night, the most technically sound game the Sixers have ever played, and the ball movement wasn't something you're going to show tape of during an instructional video of how to play perfect basketball. In fact, after the game head coach Doc Rivers described it as "you kept feeling like someone's going to win this ugly game, and let it be us."
But they gutted out a win against a decent (albeit flawed) opponent on a night when they had every excuse to mail it in, while missing their top two perimeter shot creators.
The Sixers have now won 11 of their last 16 games to improve to 12-9 on the season, and have moved up to 5th in the Eastern Conference standings, just a half game behind the Pacers (12-8) and a game behind the Cavs (13-8). It's too early to start watching the standings, but the Sixers' disastrous start to the season hasn't hurt them too much so far.
- Synergy Sports charted 27 possessions of zone defense from the Sixers in last night's game. That is the most zone they've played in a game all season. The Sixers allowed just 88.9 points per 100 plays while in the zone last night, per Synergy.
- The Sixers have now played the third most zone defense in the league, doing so on 7% of their possessions (they're significantly behind the top two teams, though, with the Heat in a zone 30.3% of the time and the Blazers at 16.0%). Their overall effectiveness in a zone, allowing 98.4 points per 100 plays, is just mid-pack (14th), however, and lags behind their man-to-man defense (92.9, 2nd).
- Atlanta ball handlers had an eFG% of just 35.3% when shooting when coming off of a pick-and-roll, per Synergy.
- The Sixers did not take a single corner 3 all game, which isn't something that you see very often, and certainly not something you usually see in a victory.
- The Sixers won despite being handily outshot from both 3-point range (12-27 for the Hawks vs 10-28 for the Sixers) and midrange (14-29 vs 11-31).
- Atlanta had a significantly more effective half-court offense (100.0 points per 100 plays vs 88.6) than the Sixers. The Sixers won this one in transition (155.6 points per 100 plays vs 106.7) and on the glass.
- I thought this was a good game for Matisse Thybulle to contribute in, and I think maybe the best example of this was when Thybulle and House successfully trapped Trae Young on the final possession of the third quarter, forcing Atlanta to take a timeout with 2.8 seconds left on the shot clock. Thybulle's length was important in man-to-man, and his uncanny ability to wreak havoc in a zone was exactly what the Sixers needed on a night when their perimeter shot wasn't there.
- Shake Milton shot just 9-20 from the field and had just one 3-point attempt, but he hit some huge shots midway through the third quarter as the Sixers were clawing back into the game, and finished the night with seven assists and no turnovers. He had good chemistry in the two-man game with Embiid, and continues to run good offense for the Sixers.
- Tobias Harris pretty much single-handedly kept the Sixers in the game in the first quarter, when he went 4-6 for 9 points, while the rest of the Sixers went 4-15 for 14 points. Sure, he had a 22-foot corner 3-point attempt that traveled just 20 feet when all was said and done, which is when you really started to worry about the Sixers' tired legs, but other than that he was fantastic.
- I guess the rule changes made to not reward unnatural shooting fouls were a one-year experiment and I just missed the memo.
- Not Paul Reed's finest game by any stretch, but it was the right call by Doc to go to him in this matchup, and I was encouraged by the fact that Reed came out and got the backup center minutes after intermission, despite struggling in the first half.
"We didn't have a great rhythm tonight. Neither team really did, and you could see that. It's one of those wins you kept feeling like someone's going to win this ugly game, and let it be us. That's how you felt throughout the game." – Doc Rivers on the win.
"I thought our guys just hung in there. What I liked is there was no frustration. There was none of that." – Doc Rivers on the game.
"I thought he was almost trying too much to get everybody involved. Which we want, but we want to get him involved too. He's pretty good. I thought as the game went on he warmed up to that in trying to find the right mix." – Doc Rivers, on Joel Embiid's performance.
"We're playing great as a team defensively. These are the nights that your defense wins games for you, when you struggle offensively." – Doc Rivers.
"We loved it. They were killing our man (defense) early, and you just need to go to that to get them out of rhythm...On back-to-backs zones are great, because guys can get some rest and still be out on the floor and play offense." – Doc Rivers, on going to the zone.
"Miami yesterday played 80% of the game in zone, so we got a chance to really look at their zone offense. It's funny when you look at it, teams have one or two zone offenses (plays). They have 15 to 30, to 40, man plays. We just felt like it was easier to scout their zone offense than it was trying to guard them in man." – Doc Rivers, on using the zone against Atlanta.
Reporter: "You've mentioned that you work on that zone (defense) every day." Doc: "Every day." Reporter: "How has it progressed..." Doc: "It's progressing. I love it. It's won some games for us already this year." – Doc Rivers, talking about the progression of his zone defense throughout the season.
"Not that much. Honestly, we haven't practiced zone that much, and they were able to make a lot of shots." – Tobias Harris, when asked what about their zone defense was working against the Hawks.
"Honestly, it's focus level. We kept coming to the huddles, and we kept our energy positive throughout those times. We kinda realized we don't have it right now, but if we just keep fighting, if we keep going, we're gonna find it. We're gonna get it. We're gonna get in a little flow, we're gonna have some energy plays that pick our crowd up, and that picks our energy up, our spirit up...I thought we did a good job of when we were able to find our momentum we kept going with that, and we were running with that the whole way through." – Tobias Harris, on surviving the early game struggles.
"We feel great. The whole group. The energy, the vibe, is extremely positive. If I'm really being honest I think all that is attributed to the way that we've been winning, everybody feeling themselves out there, everybody getting into a groove, into a good rhythm...To be able to win seven out of nine, with all the injuries that we had, it's a great feeling, but we gotta keep it up." – Tobias Harris, on the mindset of the team.
"I came in with a mindset to get my teammates involved, because everybody has had it going and they've been playing so well so I just wanted to keep that going...I think lately they've been moving the ball, they've been making shots, and then we've been playing great defense, so I just wanted to come in and just fit in and trying to make sure that everybody keeps doing what they've been doing." – Joel Embiid, on taking a back seat offensively to start the game.
"From the start of the play, you could tell he thought we were going to trap him...The way I positioned myself, I acted like we were gonna trap him and try to take the ball out of his hands... I just tried to play a cat and mouse game where I had him thinking that he had a wide-open lob, while at the same time I knew I was giving that space for a reason." – Joel Embiid, on intercepting the lob from Trae Young with seven seconds left and the Sixers holding a one-point lead.
"It's been hard. I would say the two days after I got hurt, because I was extremely worried about what it might have been, because I couldn't walk. I was just happy that it wasn't as bad as I thought it was, and I [didn't] miss a lot of time." – Joel Embiid, how he was feeling while missing four games because of a mid-foot sprain.
"It's a testament to our coaching staff. Obviously the players have been doing a great job. Gotta give a lot of credit to guys like Shake, Furk, guys coming in, they haven't gotten minutes all season, they're just coming in (and succeeding). I'm just proud of them because they're ready. You can tell that they were waiting for this moment for their name to be called. I'm just proud." – Joel Embiid, on the team succeeding in spite of all the injuries.
"From what I've heard, in his old days [Rivers' teams] didn't used to practice a lot. We practice every day, and we have shootarounds every game. Which is good. That's what you need to be able to win. But I think that goes into making sure everybody is ready, making sure everybody knows the plays, making sure we keep that cohesion where everybody is on the same page. Whether you play or not, you still gotta know what you gotta do when you get on the floor." – Joel Embiid, on players being ready to step into larger roles when they've been called upon.
Press Conference audio
($) Gina Mizell, Philadelphia Inquirer: "It was another impressive victory for the still-shorthanded Sixers (12-9), who rallied from a 16-point first-half deficit in their fifth game in seven nights to set up the down-to-the-wire finish. It was their seventh victory in their past nine games, which have all been played with at least Embiid, James Harden, or Tyrese Maxey — and sometimes all three — out due to injury."
($) Keith Pompey, Philadelphia Inquirer: "The Sixers standout’s defensive number are down due to limited minutes. But what he able to do on limited action against the Hawks shows why he’s a two-time All-Defensive second-team selection. He’s averaging 2.7 steals per 36 minutes, which is the second highest of his career."
Kyle Neubeck, PhillyVoice: "Even before some late heroics, this was a good return game from Embiid, as he continued to embrace a playmaking role in the middle of the floor while trying to find his own offensive rhythm. A better shooting effort would have been helpful, but I think the best/most encouraging thing was Embiid's activity on defense. He has been pretty transparent over the years that it's hard for him to stay in proper shape without actually being able to play in games, and he showed plenty of energy and activity in his first night back after a small layoff."
($) Rich Hofmann, The Athletic: "Just over two weeks ago, Embiid singlehandedly dragged the Sixers to a victory in a manner you rarely see. But the irony of his all-time performance against Utah is that it does not come close to resembling the style of basketball that Embiid prefers to play. The same supporting cast that looked hopeless in that game just rang up 133 points on Orlando. They have proven plenty capable if put in the right positions. With that in mind, Embiid just wanted to keep the ball hopping. He leaned into the facilitator role, taking seven shots in his first 15 minutes against Atlanta."
Austin Krell, TPL: "That activity, and, really, the connectivity and communication that catalyzed it, helped the Sixers equalize the game and even take a brief lead before the fourth quarter. It was the latest adjustment in a line of recent coaching from Rivers that, if we’re being fair, has been quite excellent. His game strategies have been strong. He’s quickly carved offensive principles to counter the absence of the team’s best players. Rivers has also adjusted well on the fly and inspired total buy-in from his available players through adversity. The head coach and his staff have been nothing short of sensational lately."