Hawks defense in ‘emergency mode’ for Game 4

Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan (center) calls a time out against the Philadelphia 76ers during the final minutes of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinal Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan (center) calls a time out against the Philadelphia 76ers during the final minutes of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinal Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

A lot has been made of the No. 5 seed Hawks missing two of their best defenders — De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish — for the Eastern Conference semifinal matchup against the top-seeded 76ers, and rightly so.

Reddish has been out since February with right Achilles soreness and on Wednesday Hunter was ruled out for the rest of the playoffs, set to have surgery on a torn meniscus in his right knee that has had persistent issues since he first injured it in January. Reddish was limited to shooting in Sunday’s practice, and didn’t do any live work.

“We still feel like we’ve got the guys to be able to beat this team,” wing Kevin Huerter said Sunday. “We’re going to miss Dre, but … He’s kind of been in-and-out all year and we found ways to beat really good teams, really throughout the year. So we’ve just got to play our brand of basketball. Make the pace a little bit more to our pace, our tempo.

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Hawks center Clint Capela grabs the defensive rebound away from Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals Friday, June 11, 2021, at State Farm in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Hawks center Clint Capela grabs the defensive rebound away from Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals Friday, June 11, 2021, at State Farm in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Hawks center Clint Capela grabs the defensive rebound away from Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals Friday, June 11, 2021, at State Farm in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

“We’ve got to limit them. We’ve got to get stops defensively. It really comes down to that. If we can’t stop them, doesn’t really matter what we do offensively, so we’ve just got to be better at that end of the court and we’ve still got the guys that we need to win this thing.”

Even though the Hawks’ 3-point shot hasn’t been falling like it did in Game 1, defense is the main focus heading into Game 4 — down 2-1 in the series. That’s what’s holding them back, and ultimately affecting the offense, too. The Hawks will look to be much more physical and aggressive Monday night in Atlanta before heading back up to Philadelphia Wednesday for Game 5 (7:30 p.m., TNT).

“Just us being more in emergency mode,” center Clint Capela said of what he wants the Hawks to improve on defensively. “Be up on the ball, be more aggressive, basically. They get away with (too much) stuff because we’re not how we want to be, being aggressive all the time. They get away with offensive rebounds, easy catches. They get the ball and they get to see every rebound before, with no pressure, so just be more aggressive.”

After stealing Game 1 on the road, holding off a Philly comeback, the Hawks have now lost two straight games in decisive fashion. They lost by 16 in Game 2, falling behind in the fourth quarter as Philly’s bench — led by Shake Milton — came alive and a dominant Joel Embiid finished with 40 points. They lost again by 16 in Game 2, picked apart in the third quarter.

Philly shot 52.9% from the field (46-87) and 46.2% from 3-point range (12-26) in Game 2, with 52 points in the paint, then shot 58.2% from the field (46-79) and 47.6% from 3-point range in Game 3, with 66 points in the paint.

Whatever shot the 76ers want, they’re getting. And it’s not just Embiid, though the Hawks must manage a way to slow him down to give themselves a chance. Tobias Harris (averaging 21.3 points in the series) has been key, Ben Simmons took over in the third quarter of Game 3. Seth Curry and Shake Milton are hitting shots, too.

Hawks-76ers series point differential

“We are not stopping them,” interim Hawks coach Nate McMillan said Sunday. “They’re shooting a high percentage. They’re very efficient in what they are doing. So defensively, we’re not getting those stops, we’re not defending the paint as well as we need to. Pretty much, those guys are scoring; it’s not just Embiid … We just have to get back to being disciplined defensively. Get stops. Defend our paint. Do the things that we’ve been doing all season long; do a better job of defending the paint, forcing misses and then hopefully that will allow us to get out into transition and play before they can set their defense.”

When the Hawks don’t get stops, and if Philly scores on a possession, Atlanta’s offense is playing against a set, prepared 76ers defense every time. They don’t get the chance to quickly get down the floor and churn some points in transition, or try to catch the defense off-guard.

If Atlanta can disrupt Philly more, they help themselves in more ways than one. The Hawks had 10 fast-break points in Game 1; nine in Game 2; and just six in Game 3. They had 23 assists in Game 1; 20 in Game 2; and 15 in Game 3.

“It’s tough to be good offensively when you’re always taking the ball out of the net, so we’ve got to figure out a way to get stops,” said Huerter, who has demonstrated ample defensive improvement but wasn’t much of a factor in Game 3, thanks to foul trouble. “Offensively, we’re a team in Game 1, we were great in transition. The ball was moving, we were crisp in our movements. And it just felt like we were out in transition, we were playing a little bit faster in Game 1, and I think the last two games, especially last game, they got us in the half-court a little bit more. The game felt slower. It didn’t feel like we had a great rhythm. And we’ve got to try to find that next game, especially early.”

There’s no doubt that missing Hunter and Reddish (who albeit wasn’t shooting the ball well) hurts the Hawks defensively, particularly when up against the top team in the East, which has a size advantage.

But, the Hawks will work with what they’ve got to try and turn the series around.

“It definitely makes such a difference with their length, with their athleticism,” Capela said of Hunter and Reddish. “By helping a guy like me rebounding the ball, whenever I go for a block and they’re having my back with their length and their athleticism. Our mentality is next-man-up with our other guys that are ready to step up and have to help and do the job also, and we have to figure it out.”

Hawks vs. 76ers

Game 1 - Hawks 128, 76ers 124

Game 2 - 76ers 118, Hawks 102

Game 3 - 76ers 127, Hawks 111

Monday, June 14: Game 4 - 76ers at Hawks, 7:30 p.m., TNT

Wednesday, June 16: Game 5 - Hawks at 76ers, 7:30 p.m., TNT

Friday, June 18: Game 6* - 76ers at Hawks, TBD, ESPN

Sunday, June 20: Game 7* - Hawks at 76ers, TBD, TBD

* — If necessary