Ben Simmons received an entry pass from Joel Embiid and stood tall in the post, casually palming the ball and surveying for his Philadelphia 76ers teammates.
Danilo Gallinari, one of the Atlanta Hawks’ key offseason acquisitions, had his gaze on Simmons in anticipation of his next move, but was oblivious to what was happening behind him.
Seth Curry, who had just set a pick for Simmons before he received the ball, rushed out to place another screen for Embiid that blindsided Hawks center Clint Capela. Embiid, the runner-up for this year’s NBA Most Valuable Player award, was given an open lane and rushed to the basket.
Simmons, after spotting his All-Star teammate cutting hard to the rim, lobbed a crisp pass over Gallinari that Embiid caught and dunked powerfully with two hands.
The play perfectly encapsulated what kind of a third quarter it was for the Sixers and Hawks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Philadelphia went on to take a 127-111 win on Atlanta’s floor that gives them a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven match-up after dropping the first meeting at home.
Philadelphia blew open the game in the third period, turning a five point halftime lead into a commanding 20 point advantage by the start of the fourth quarter. Simmons, Embiid, and Curry scored the team’s first 24 points of the third while the Sixers grounded Atlanta’s Trae Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic after the dynamic Hawks backcourt partners had another strong first half. The length of Simmons and Matisse Thybulle, who took turns hounding the Hawks’ guards, has bothered Atlanta’s offense that relies heavily on the ability of Young and Bogdanovic to read the defense on drives.
Simmons was the catalyst of the Sixers’ second half run, continuously pushing the ball in transition off the Hawks’ turnovers and misses, and finished the game with 18 points and seven assists. Embiid, who averaged 39.5 points in the first two games against Atlanta, continued his dominance in the series with an all-around line of 27 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists.
Capela, who led the league in rebounds and was fourth in blocks this year, has been overwhelmed and thoroughly outplayed by Embiid in this match-up. Embiid was questionable coming into the game, with the effects of the knee injury he suffered two weeks ago still lingering, but looked like his usual self on the court.
The Hawks will need to find a way to contain the four-time All-Star if they want to entertain the thought of stealing this round, but it will have to be by committee. Their back-up center, rookie Onyeka Okongwu, offers not much help and is still a few years of seasoning away from contributing.
Meanwhile, starting power forward John Collins lacks the physical tools to keep up inside against Embiid and already has his hands full with his assignment on Simmons. Head coach Nate McMillan, whose midseason hiring revived the Hawks’ flailing season, will need to come up with an innovative plan to contain the Sixers’ superstar center if he wants to complete another turnaround.
Simmons has also been another headache for the Hawks on both ends of the court. Collins, Gallinari, and Solomon Hill have the size to challenge him, but lack the foot speed to keep up with the 6’11 point guard in the open court.
The court has opened up for Embiid and Simmons thanks to the lights out play of Curry, who in the postseason is shooting 55% from the field, making 45% of his threes, and hitting his free throws at a 90% clip. Curry had back-to-back 21 point games to open the against the Hawks and added 12 in Game 3. The threat of his shooting makes him a deadly screener that the defense needs to keep tabs on and head coach Doc Rivers has utilized this to free up his two All-Stars in the half court.
Embiid, Simmons, and even Curry get most of the attention for the Sixers both on and off the court, but Tobias Harris continues to produce despite flying under the radar. The Sixers’ second-leading scorer with almost 20 per game, Harris has scored 19 or more points in all eight of their playoff matches and has thrived as both a secondary scorer and playmaker on this team.
The Hawks, as currently constructed, are not built to keep up with this Philadelphia team defensively and if they are to take a few more games in this series, they will have to outscore them like they did in Game 1. The second 20 point outing of Collins, after a poor showing in the previous game, is a welcome sight, but they will need more consistency, especially from their reserves.
Third-year guard Kevin Huerter struggled off the bench in Game 3 after scoring 20 in Game 2 and will be needed by the Hawks to provide stable support for Young and Bogdanovic. Gallinari has had a fine series offensively over the first three games and will have to continue his resurgence, but Atlanta also needs fellow veteran and three-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to turn back the clock and give Atlanta another potent scoring threat.
The Hawks will need their supporting cast to step up and relieve pressure off Young and Bogdanovic who have been the focus of the Sixers’ scheme. The early exit of Philadelphia swingman Danny Green due to injury weakens the Philadelphia defense, but Simmons and Thybulle will still be there together with Curry, Furkan Korkmaz, Shake Milton, and George Hill who are not as lanky but are willing defenders who have bought into Rivers’ system.
The Hawks have a tall task ahead of them–literally and figuratively–in trying to come back from a 2-1 hole against the Sixers, but a loss is not something for them to hang their heads over. This team entered March with a 14-20 record and an outside chance of making the postseason, let alone the second round, before closing with a 25-11 run and clinching the fifth seed in the East. This team is ahead of schedule and are just a few roster moves away from becoming perennial contenders for the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Philadelphia fans, on the other hand, have loftier expectations after a couple of seasons of disappointment following the euphoria of emerging from “The Process”.
The chants of “We Want Brooklyn!”, referring to the Brooklyn Nets who are favored to come out of the other Eastern Conference Semifinal, have echoed through the Wells Fargo Center since their first round series against the Washington Wizards.
If the Sixers’ Game 3 show of force is any indication, they might get what they were asking for soon enough.