Tougher Hawks show ‘true character’ to stun Sixers

Unbelievable!!: Trae Young scored 39 points to lead the Hawks, who once trailed by 26 points, to a 109-106 victory over the Sixers Wednesday in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Hawks now lead the best-of-seven series three games to two and could end the series with a victory Friday in Game 6 at State Farm Arena.
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Unbelievable!!: Trae Young scored 39 points to lead the Hawks, who once trailed by 26 points, to a 109-106 victory over the Sixers Wednesday in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Hawks now lead the best-of-seven series three games to two and could end the series with a victory Friday in Game 6 at State Farm Arena.

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

After the Sixers romped in Game 3 of this playoff series, I opined that they are bigger, faster and more physical than the Hawks. Philadelphia has more talent, including the best player in the series, Joel Embiid. All that is true.

The Hawks are on the cusp of winning the series, anyway, because they are tougher. Sixers coach Doc Rivers said it after the Hawks came back to win Game 4 at State Farm Arena. The Hawks proved it again Wednesday night in Philadelphia.

They stunned the Sixers with a furious second-half rally to win 109-106 and take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal.

“We’re a team that has No All-Stars, no All-Defensive players, no All-NBA players,” Hawks star Trae Young said. “This team is fighting. I think we just have that chip on our shoulder all year, being overlooked and having that underdog mentality. We are playing with that chip on our shoulder right now.”

It’s working for the Hawks. For most of the night it looked as if the they would return home on Friday needing a victory to avoid elimination.

The Hawks were down by as many as 26 points in the third quarter. They trailed by 24 with 19 minutes to go. Their deficit was 15 points with eight minutes left and 10 with less than five minutes on the clock.

The Hawks kept coming. They put pressure on the Sixers, who folded.

“I really don’t have words to describe this comeback tonight,” Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan said.

I’ll give it a shot.

The Hawks were poised during the rally. They were feisty. They were spirited. They were, as their team theme goes, clear, calm and connected.

The Sixers were the opposite of all that. Philadelphia scored 19 points in the fourth quarter and gave up 40. The Hawks closed the game with an 18-0 run before Philadelphia’s Seth Curry made a meaningless basket at the buzzer.

“It’s on all of us,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s on me. It’s on the players. We have to figure out how to get back up, which we will and bring that back here for Game 7.”

That was an acknowledgment that the Sixers are down. Not that Rivers could claim otherwise. How could the Sixers not be reeling after the Hawks stole this victory?

The Hawks overcame a 13-point halftime deficit to win Game 4. That was at home. The Hawks went on the road and topped it.

“It happened twice in a row,” Curry said. “We’ve got to figure it out.”

The Sixers had the best record in the East this season. They’ve gotten four great games from Embiid, who’s playing with torn cartilage in his right knee. And yet the Sixers are facing elimination by the Hawks, seeded fifth in the East but ranking much higher in toughness.

“These guys just continue to show true character,” McMillan said.

The Sixers started their party too early in Game 5. Their fans gave Embiid an ovation when he went to the bench late in the third quarter with his team leading 85-63 lead. Dwight Howard pointed at Embiid, who pointed back as the crowd roared. It was appreciation for a job well done, except that it wasn’t.

Rivers was forced to bring Embiid back in with 10 minutes left in the game. The Hawks’ plan to wear out Embiid worked. He apparently didn’t like when Hawks center Clint Capela laid out the strategy after Game 4. Embiid labored through that contest whole missing all 12 of his shot attempts after halftime. He blew a layup to put the Sixers ahead in the closing seconds.

Embiid was trash talking Capela in Game 5 while going for 31 points through three quarters. Embiid made his first eight shots from all areas of the court. Capela was having a hard time dealing with his strength and skill. But Embiid was 1-for-5 in the fourth quarter. Those cheers for him turned into heckles when Embiid missed two free throws with the Sixers trailing 107-104.

Young soared as Embiid faded. He lifted the Hawks to victory in Game 4 by orchestrating a marvelous floor game with 18 assists against two turnovers. This time the Hawks desperately needed Young to score. He responded with 39 points, his highest total in his 10 postseason games.

But the comeback was sparked by old pro Lou Williams, pride of South Gwinnett High. He scored 11 straight points in the fourth quarter with a fantastic display of shot making. Eventually his teammates joined in on the fun.

The Hawks will have up to two chances to win one game and clinch the series. They can reach the East finals for just the second time since the team moved to Atlanta. The Hawks first did it in 2015. Two years later they tore down the roster. Tanking got them Young in the draft and this season general manager Travis Schlenk built a better team around the star point guard.

The Hawks already have exceeded most expectations, except maybe their own. Eliminating the Sixers and going to the East finals would be another level.

Said McMillan: “We’re excited to be going back home, but we know we have to play this game and beat this team. They are not going to give up. They are not going to throw in the towel. They are going to come back scrapping and fighting.”

I’m sure the Sixers will do that. The problem for them is that the Hawks are the tougher team and they always fight back.

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