Good morning, Sixers fans. When the playoffs began, few ever envisioned that the Sixers season might not last past the third week of June.
As the top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Sixers were supposed to get a free run to at least the conference finals. The No. 5-seeded Atlanta Hawks have made this task extremely difficult, but not impossible. The Sixers have to win two in a row to advance out of the second round.
Tonight’s game in Atlanta will be difficult, but getting that final win also won’t be easy for the Hawks, who have shown incredible heart.
Many fans have written off the Sixers after they squandered a 26-point lead in Wednesday’s 109-106 home loss to the Hawks. This came after blowing an 18-point lead in Game 4, a 103-100 defeat in Atlanta.
One could say that the franchise’s present and future are at stake tonight. Win, and the Sixers live to compete another day. Lose, and the chance that this thing could be blown up becomes more realistic.
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Some Sixers suggestions for Game 6
After seeing back-to-back collapses, many fans have lost confidence in the Sixers. The key question is whether the Sixers have lost confidence.
Here are some ideas that would enable the Sixers to return home Sunday for a seventh game:
Put more double teams and traps on Trae Young
Remember when in Games 2 and 3, the Sixers were pressuring Trae Young higher and making him get rid of the ball? In the last two games, he has been dribbling at will. In looking at all 10 of his made field goals on Wednesday, on several instances, he beat any Sixers defender, whether it was Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle or Seth Curry, one-on-one.
Nobody can handle Young in a one-on-one setting, but the Sixers have to try to trap him (which also isn’t easy), make him give up the ball, and see if somebody else on the Hawks can beat them. When Young does beat a defender, the Sixers have to give better weakside help, again no easy task because of Young’s quickness.
Make Young work harder on defense
Young often loses his man on defense and will try to play a roaming role. Curry actually did a good job of making Young work on defense on Wednesday. Among Curry’s 13 made field goals, it appears as if 13 points came against Young: three three-pointers, a short jumper and a driving layup.
As much as Young provides on offense, he gives it back on the other end. Even Wednesday when he scored 39 points, he was a minus-6. He has to be a constant target of the Sixers offense.
Play Tyrese Maxey more
The most incredible stat from Wednesday is that Curry and Joel Embiid were the only Sixers who scored field goals in the second half. Tyrese Maxey was a factor in the Washington series, but he has averaged only 2.6 points in 6.6 minutes during the Atlanta series. Wednesday, he played only 1 minute, 20 seconds.
He is one player who won’t shy away from taking a shot, from driving to the basket, from putting pressure on the defense. For a team such as the Sixers that looked so tired, especially in the fourth quarters of the past two games, he can bring some needed energy. And it’s not like the rest of the bench has played well enough to keep his minutes down.
Emphasize Ben going to the basket
We all know about Ben Simmons’ free-throw woes. In 10 playoff games this year, he has hit just 22 of 67 free throws (32.8%). Against Atlanta, he is 12-for-39 (30.7%).
Simmons has become a reluctant offensive contributor, averaging just seven field-goal attempts against Atlanta. He is someone who needs early confidence in a game.
Simmons should make a conscious effort to get in transition and put pressure on the Hawks defense. It’s probably the only way he will shoot (unless he gets a put-back opportunity near the basket). He even can drive to the basket in a half-court setting. Taking it to the basket with strength and speed is his greatest offensive skill. He has to take advantage of it.
“I thought early in the game he was aggressive, not necessarily shooting but getting in the paint, creating action. That is what I look for in Ben,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said after Thursday’s team film session in Atlanta. “If he gets to the paint, he gets to the basket, I’m fine.”
Rivers understands the impact that Simmons’ free-throw struggles have had on his offensive aggressiveness.
“You start struggling with your free throws, you tend not to want to drive, and what we are doing is urging him to get there and keep going,” Rivers said.
David Murphy writes that Ben Simmons and the Sixers will struggle to live down their historic collapse in Game 5.
Ed Barkowitz lists the nine most famous losses in Philadelphia sports history, not including the Sixers defeat Wednesday. Two of the nine are from the Sixers.
The old Lou Williams emerged in Game 5 enough to put the Sixers in a serious hole.
Keith Pompey has his best/worst awards for Game 5, and there was no shortage of candidates for the worst one.
Pompey writes that Rivers is confident the Sixers can bounce back against Atlanta.
McMillan understands the need to improve
The Hawks have staged wild comebacks in the last two games, overcoming deficits of 18 and 26 points, respectively.
Interim Atlanta coach Nate McMillan wasn’t just talking coach-speak when assessing the task ahead. He understands that it is fool’s gold to depend on coming back from such a huge deficit again.
“We know there is still a lot of work to be done,” he said Thursday. “Philadelphia is going to come back and play aggressive and hard, and we have to come with that same sense of urgency and we’re going to have to play better than we did [Wednesday night].”
McMillan was happy with the fourth quarter, and why not? The Hawks completed the comeback by outscoring the Sixers by 40-19 in the final 12 minutes.
Yet he pointed out that there were plenty of mistakes over the first three quarters. The Sixers shot 51.7%, including 50% (13-for-26) from three-point range, in the first three quarters Wednesday. Suddenly in the fourth, the Hawks defense stiffened.
During the last two fourth quarters, the Hawks have held the Sixers to 9-for-33 shooting (27.2%), including 2-for-10 (20%) from three-point range. In the first three quarters of the past two games, the Sixers have shot 66-for-127 (51.9%), including 22-for-47 (46.8%) from three-point range.
Eastern Conference semifinal series vs. Atlanta Hawks
Tonight: Game 6, 7:30 p.m., State Farm Arena, ESPN
Sunday: *Game 7, 8 p.m., Wells Fargo Center, TNT
Passing the rock
Question: What is going on with Tobias Harris — despite the other problems, he’s counted on to add very good performances as a key supplement or replacement for Jojo and Simmons. He’s disappeared as well. — Robert Goldschmidt on Facebook
Answer: Thanks for the question, Robert. In fairness to Harris, he has played 10 playoff games this season and has had two poor ones — Wednesday’s loss, when he shot 2-for-11, and the Sixers’ Game 4 loss in Washington, when he shot 8-for-24. What has left a sour taste is that Harris has had two straight poor fourth quarters, shooting a combined 0-for-5, with a minus-29 rating.
Rivers says one of the problems is that the Hawks shifted Bogdan Bogdanovic the last few games on defense, and he has matched Harris’ quickness. Here is a look at Harris’ 11 field-goal attempts from Wednesday. He had great looks and wasn’t forcing shots. He simply has to make shots.