The Hawks were outstanding before wobbling late. For 43 minutes they were quicker, crisper and just plain better than the Sixers. They did it without two-way wing De’Andre Hunter (knee). The Hawks led by as many as 26 points in the first half and were up 116-99 with less than five minutes to play.
Then the Sixers, among the NBA’s best teams at forcing turnovers, turned up the pressure. The Hawks wilted. Young had three turnovers on bad passes. Kevin Huerter was called for a five-second violation. The Hawks couldn’t make a shot.
“I take a lot of responsibility for the turnovers,” Young said. “Managing the game, I can do a little bit better.”
The Hawks were saved by Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic and John Collins.
Bogdanovic made a 3-pointer on a pass from Huerter to push the lead to six points with 41 seconds to go. The Hawks had another calamitous play: Tobias Harris took the ball from Young and scored. Then the Sixers trapped Huerter in the backcourt. He somehow threaded a pass to Collins at midcourt.
Collins collected the ball and broke for the basket. Embiid committed a clear path foul to prevent a dunk. Collins made both free throws and the Hawks kept the ball. Then Young threw a lob to Collins, who dunked the ball while being fouled. He made that free throw and Bogdanovic made two with 8.9 seconds left to finally secure the Hawks victory.
“We know we are going to have to be better in the next game,” Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan said. “They are going to be more aggressive, more physical, more attacking.”
The Hawks were all of that at the start of Game 1. The home fans in Wells Fargo Arena hardly had time to feel good about Embiid returning from a knee injury that kept him out of the final game of the last round. The Hawks sapped the energy from the building by playing their best basketball of the season and burying the Sixers.
Young was the catalyst, as usual. The Hawks ran out to a 34-22 lead with Young delivering 12 points on 5 of 7 shooting, five assists, two steals and no turnovers. Hawks reserves extended the lead to 26 points in the second quarter and the advantage was 74-54 at halftime.
“We know we didn’t finish well, but I liked our start,” McMillan said. “We came in with a lot of composure. We came in believing ourselves.”
There was nothing fluky about the way the Hawks were dominating the Sixers. The Hawks made a postseason franchise record 20 3-pointers on 47 tries, but that’s what they do. And it wasn’t just the 3s. The Hawks were 24 of 39 on two-pointers, including 10-for-10 in the first quarter, and 20-for-21 on free throws.
For most of Game 1, the Hawks treated the Sixers like they did the Knicks.
The Hawks hounded Embiid into turnovers and tough shots, just as they did Randle. Philadelphia, like New York, couldn’t prevent Young from controlling the game. The Sixers joined the Knicks in complaining about foul calls for Young as he got into the paint at will. And Sixers coach Doc Rivers made strategic miscues, like Tom Thibodeau before him.
Rivers started Danny Green on Young instead of Ben Simmons, his best defender. Young’s scores during the 34-22 start included three floaters, two 3-pointers and a layup. Among his five assists in that stretch were a lob to Clint Capela for a dunk and a pass zipped from the baseline to Collins for a straightaway 3-pointer.
Young and the Hawks were so good early they had Sixers supporters turning on their team. They booed a bit when Lou Williams easily glided through the lane for a fadeaway jumper that put the Hawks up 47-27. The grumbling soon would become loud jeers. The Hawks were taking it to the home team.
The Hawks eventually let the Sixers, and the crowd back, in it. Rivers finally figured out it’s better to put Simmons, his 6-foot-11 point guard, on Young. The Sixers started forcing Young to give up the ball by trapping him. Collins (14 points after halftime) and Huerter (10 points) made them pay.
The Sixers, desperate to get back in the game, deployed a full-court press. That’s not supposed to work against NBA teams. They have too many good ballhandlers who can see over the defense. It worked for Philadelphia against the Hawks.
Said Collins: “I don’t think there was panic. You still saw guys make big shots and big plays when we needed to. Obviously, we were just trying to hang on.”
The Hawks showed something by closing out the victory under duress. They also can take confidence from dominating the Sixers for three-plus quarters. The Hawks have played six playoff games and only had two bad quarters. They keep winning on the road.
The Sixers will convince themselves that things will be different in Game 2 on Tuesday. Rivers presumably won’t wait until the second half to change up his team’s defense against Young. Maybe Rivers thinks griping about foul calls for Young will get the Sixers a better whistle for Game 2. Hard to see how: Embiid scored 15 of his 35 points on free throws and Philly shot 14 more of them than the Hawks.
The Sixers sound a lot like the Knicks, who griped about Young but never could figure out how to stop the Hawks. The Sixers looked as beat down as New York did against the Hawks, too, until the Hawks let them back up.