Big, physical Sixers punish Hawks to take control of series

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The 76ers are bigger than the Hawks but also faster. They are more physical and more skilled. They have the best player in the Eastern Conference playoff series, Joel Embiid, and more good players. The Hawks won Game 1 by stunning the Sixers early and hanging on at the end. Philadelphia has run them off the floor since then.

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The Sixers won Game 3 of the East semifinal 127-111 on Friday night. The Hawks are down 2-1 in the series after losing their first game at State Farm Arena this postseason. Beginning with the second half of Game 1, the Sixers have outscored the Hawks by 48 points.

“We’re OK,” Hawks star Trae Young said. “It’s one game. They are up one (game) on us. It’s a seven-game series. I’m not worried. Guys in there aren’t worried.”

It’s the first time this postseason the Hawks have had to offer reassurances. They’d been front-runners until now. They won on the road to open both playoff rounds. They closed out the Knicks with three consecutive wins and spilt two games in Philadelphia.

Now the Hawks are facing their first series deficit up against a foe that’s bigger and better than the Knicks. The Hawks must win Game 4 on Monday or they’ll head back to Philadelphia for Game 5 facing elimination.

“They are a tough opponent, obviously, and it’s only going to be tougher from this point,” Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic said.

Embiid dominated games 1 and 2. He had a so-so performance in Game 3, and the Sixers still blew out the Hawks. Young was just OK by his standards in games 2 and 3. The Hawks lost both by a 16-point margin.

Young scored 25 points in the first half of Game 1. He’s scored 59 points in the five halves since then, including 10 during garbage time Friday. Young’s scoring decline correlates with Ben Simmons becoming his primary defender.

Simmons is built like a center (6-foot-11) and moves like a point guard. Young (6-1) can’t shoot deep 3-pointers over Simmons. When he manages to drive by Simmons, Young still must worry about him getting a hand on floaters from behind. The Sixers also send Matisse Thybulle (6-5) and George Hill (6-4) at Young.

The Sixers are big all over. Embiid is so strong that not even superb Hawks defender Clint Capela can handle him one-on-one. Simmons can bully his way to the basket. Tobias Harris is strong with the ball through contact. Reserve Dwight Howard is 35 years old but still is strong around the basket.

“They did a good job of pounding us and taking advantage of their size,” Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan said.

It’s not just that the Sixers are big. Their big guys are skilled, too. Embiid, Simmons and Harris all can work to get their shots. They all can pass to teammates who flash open when the defense reacts. The Hawks must scramble to account for all those options. They haven’t made the Sixers do the same since Game 1.

The Hawks are constructed so that opponents pay for keying on Young, one of the NBA’s premier playmakers. If he’s not scoring, he’s setting up teammates for easy shots. The Knicks couldn’t prevent Young from controlling the game even when he wasn’t scoring. The Sixers took control of the series once they figured out how to do it.

Simmons and the Sixers have smothered Young on pick-and-rolls. They’ve shut down his driving and passing lanes. The Hawks want to share the ball, but Sixers defenders are everywhere. All that size is giving the Hawks problems.

Said Young: “When you have guys with long arms and tall guys make it more difficult. But it’s not anything we can’t handle and correct and adjust to going into Game 4.”

What’s the best way for the Hawks to counter Philadelphia’s size?

“I don’t know yet,” Young said. “We’ve got to figure it out.”

76ers 127, Hawks 111 (box score)

McMillan offered a glimpse of one option once the Hawks were hopelessly behind in Game 3. He deployed a big lineup with Capela, John Collins and Danilo Gallinari. The problem with that strategy is that Philadelphia’s big lineup is better.

The Hawks could try going small and spreading out the Sixers. That’s risky if it means fewer minutes for Capela, their best rim protector. Then again, Capela has had to stray away from the basket to guard Embiid. And Capela hasn’t scored enough to offset his reduced defensive impact (29 points total in the series).

Anyway, the Hawks haven’t shot well enough to make a small lineup work. They made 13 of 23 3-point shots in the first half of Game 1. They are 24-of-77 on 3′s since. The Sixers don’t have to help as much off shooters when Simmons is keeping Young out of the paint. And did I mention they’ve got big guys everywhere?

There may be no adjustment the Hawks can make to win this series. McMillan would have more options if De’Andre Hunter (knee) were available. Hunter is a big, physical wing player who would help with mismatches at both ends. With Hunter out and Simmons chasing Young, the Hawks haven’t been able to keep up with the Sixers.

In the first half of Game 3, the Hawks controlled Embiid better than they had all series. They still trailed 61-56 at the break. Then Embiid and Simmons combined for 22 points in the third quarter. The Hawks were down 95-75 going into the fourth and their deficit never dipped below 14 points from there.

In games 1 and 2, Embiid schooled the Hawks with an array of deft moves from the high post. In Game 3, he seemed more concerned with hunting for fouls. He got a few calls on flops while scoring 12 of his 27 points on free throws. The Hawks complained about it, and they had a point, but their unfavorable whistles weren’t their problem.

Harris hurt the Hawks nearly as much as Embiid. He went past Gallinari, who is big enough to guard him but slow of foot. Harris scored over Solomon Hill, who is quicker than Gallinari but not as long. Harris is another difficult Sixers matchup.

And Sixers reserves flipped the script for Game 3. The Sixers looked on their way to a rout in Game 2 until their bench players checked in. The Hawks’ bench outscored them 32-0 in the first half of Game 2. In Game 3, Sixers reserves had a 30-8 edge on their Hawks counterparts in the first half and 50-30 for the game.

The Sixers are deeper than the Hawks. They are bigger. They are better. The Hawks will try to figure out how to win this series, anyway.