Give the Sixers credit, though. They hit the Hawks hard to open the second half – four quick 3-pointers, three by Seth Curry, the fourth by Embiid. Then Curry hit again. The Hawks were no longer ahead; they were 10 points in arrears. Given the Sixers’ maladroitness with managing leads, you really didn’t expect this to last. Somehow it did.
The fourth quarter began with Onyeka Okongwu missing two free throws. Then Bogdan Bogdanovic missed two. Had the pressure of a close-out game finally descended?
Said coach Nate McMillan: “I don’t think we were tight. I think we started settling – a lot of one-pass-and-a-shot, no-pass-and-a-shot.”
Said Young: “I don’t think it was (us getting) anxious. It’s just basketball. It’s hard. It was two good teams battling.”
McMillan: “Defensively they got after us. Offensively we never got that rhythm to start the second half. … Those shots we were taking early, we could have gotten late.”
Inside the final four minutes: Danilo Gallinari’s 3-pointer off a Huerter feed cut a seven-point lead to four; then Young hit a trey at the shot-clock horn over Tyrese Maxey. “The arena was euphoria,” Huerter said. In that moment, you’d have bet several houses on this one ending with Young hitting the winner from 50 feet at the horn. But no.
Young missed a floater on the Hawks’ next possession. Then he lost the ball on a drive. Then Huerter missed a 3-pointer. The Sixers – strategically keeping Simmons off the floor on offensive sets – made enough free throws to carry them over the line. It took a while, but the No. 1 seed finally made a stand.
Now it’s back to Philly for Game 7 on Sunday night. The Hawks have already won twice there in this series, so it’s nowhere near unthinkable that could do it again. Of concern is Bogdanovic’s sore right knee, though the Hawks had no postgame update on the severity. (Bogdanovic had a rough night, scoring seven points on 11 shots and making three turnovers.)
Said McMillan, reminding his audience that all is not lost: “We put ourselves in position to play a Game 7.”
By now, you’re doubtless wondering where the boilerplate recitation of awful moments in Atlanta sports is. Having witnessed (too) many of those, I can attest that this had a different feel. The Hawks didn’t win Game 6, but they didn’t really throw it away. They just got beat. It happens. To quote Mr. Young, basketball is hard.
Can the Hawks win Game 7 on the road? Sure they can. The reason these teams are about to play a seventh time is because they’re well-matched. The Sixers aren’t as overpowering as a No. 1 often is, and the Hawks are way better than a garden-variety No. 5. And the Hawks have Trae Young, who even on a lesser night scored 34 points and made 12 assists. I say it again: Trae Young can do anything.
If I pick the Hawks to win Sunday, you’ll scream at me for jinxing them. So let’s do this: Let’s just say it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if their trip to the Eastern finals was merely delayed, not derailed. And here we’ll turn to center Clint Capela for our parting bit of wisdom: “All we know is we were up 3-2 and we’re not anymore.”