The Philadelphia 76ers came into Game 6 of their Eastern Conference semifinal at the State Farm Arena against the Atlanta Hawks down 3-2. The Sixers, the top seed in the East, were possibly just 48 minutes of basketball away from once again becoming the biggest talking point of the league in the worst way possible.
Coming off two humiliating losses and with disaster looming on the horizon, Philadelphia was expected to fold. The Hawks came out of the gates oozing with confidence and they quickly built a 12-point edge in the first quarter. The Sixers, now an unfamiliar deficit instead, fought back to take a hard earned 104-99 and set up a Game 7 at home.
The Sixers were revitalized by the youngest member of their team, rookie guard Tyrese Maxey, who came off the bench and contributed 16 points in 29 minutes after being unable to find his form all series long.
Maxey, who also had his moments in the previous round against the Washington Wizards, energized the Sixers with his spunky brand of perimeter scoring that they sorely lack.
His style of play is reminiscent of their opponents’ own reserve guard, three-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year and 16-year veteran Lou Williams, and the 20-year-old out of Kentucky looked every bit the part in Game 6. He was given the tall task of being on the floor down the stretch of their Game 6 win and scored seven points in the fourth quarter including three free throws that helped seal the win.
The Sixers’ veterans were not to be outdone by their rookie in Game 6. Tobias Harris bounced back from a four-point Game 5 dud to score 24 points while Seth Curry continued his breakout postseason with 24 points and six three pointers of his own.
Joel Embiid had 22 points and 13 rebounds, continuing his strong series, but his fellow All-Star Ben Simmons was hampered by foul trouble. Simmons, whose free throw shooting has been even worse than usual in the playoffs at 32.8% coming into Game 6, finished with just six points, nine rebounds, and five assists.
The top seeded Sixers were supposed to dispatch Trae Young and rest of the overachieving Hawks with ease and waltz into the Eastern Conference finals, but that has not been the case. Their first challenge of the postseason was expected to come in the next round versus either the Brooklyn Nets or Milwaukee Bucks, but Young, in his first postseason appearance, has made Philadelphia sweat.
After recovering from a Game 1 upset and going up 2-1 following the first three games of the series, the Sixers lost their footing as Young continued his rapid ascent into the NBA’s elite. What happened over the next two games was something straight out of head coach Doc Rivers’ worst nightmare.
In Game 4, with a chance to take a commanding 3-1 lead, the Sixers blew an 18-point advantage in a stunning loss that also saw their three-time All-NBA center Embiid briefly exit the contest after aggravating his lingering knee injury.
Coming into the next game, the Sixers looked determined to make up for their previous mishap and led by 18 points before what was supposed to be an uneventful fourth quarter. Embiid looked healthy and had scored 31 of his 37 points through three quarters while Curry had the game of his career with 36 points, seven rebounds, and seven three pointers.
However, Philadelphia managed to squander yet another seemingly insurmountable margin and they, literally and figuratively, suffered their second consecutive three-point loss after leading by as much as 26 points.
The Sixers have not been able to slow down Trae Young, who has craftily maneuvered around Philadelphia’s long perimeter defenders to average 30.3 points and 11 assists in the series. Young has been the driving force behind the Hawks all season long and was the spark behind their monumental comebacks in Games 4 and 5.
Young was again fantastic in Game 6, with 34 points and 12 assists, but the Hawks’ first of two attempts at a return to the Eastern Conference Finals fell short.
John Collins, who has stepped up for the Hawks for most of this series, was contained to just seven points, but Danilo Gallinari, who has been a consistent source of production against the Sixers, made up for it with 16 off the bench.
Kevin Huerter had zero points in Game 5 but recovered nicely with 17 points and 11 rebounds in Game 6. The insertion of Huerter in the Hawks’ starting line-up for Game 4 in place of the less-nimble Solomon Hill coincided with the Hawks’ two breathtaking victories and while they lost to the Sixers in Game 6, his increased playing time alongside Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic has elevated the Hawks’ offense.
Huerter’s ability to create opportunities off the dribble has been invaluable in relieving pressure off of Atlanta’s dynamic backcourt and opening up more easy attempts for the other Hawks. He will be needed even more by the Hawks come Game 7, especially if the knee injury that caused Bogdanovic to leave the fourth quarter of Game 6 prevents him from suiting up.
These Hawks have already exceeded expectations in their playoff run and they have played under no pressure to win for much of this series against the Sixers. Winning Game 7 at Philadelphia will no longer be a shocker at this point, but it will be a monumental step for a team that did not even make it to the playoffs last season.
The Sixers, on the other hand, responded to their first case of serious adversity this postseason with a gritty Game 6 win, but the job is only half done. A loss in Game 7 could lead to a revamp of their roster, but a win will give them a clean 0-0 slate entering the Eastern Conference finals where they were expected to be all year long.
It has been a roller coaster year for both teams, and it is only quite fitting that this tumultuous best-of-seven affair will culminate with a Game 7.