The first Matisse Thybulle swat on Cam Reddish flew into the first row, where an unsuspecting fan in a blue 76ers cap turned gleeful when the ball landed in his grasp.
The second Thybulle swat on Reddish came less than three minutes later, when Thybulle practically palmed the ball to keep it in play, eventually leading to a Shake Milton finish at the other end.
Those sequences epitomized how the Sixers flashed their ideal identity in a key early-season game Saturday night, using stingy defense and a ruthless transition game to blast the Atlanta Hawks, 122-94, at the Wells Fargo Center.
“Most of the plays I make I feel like ultimately come from people expecting me to quit when I hit the screen or when I get out of position,” Thybulle said of those two blocks. “Just the fact that I keep pursuing the ball, good things tend to happen. But those plays are really fun, and it leads to great energy and usually good plays on the other end.”
Philly held the Hawks to 37.9% shooting, racked up 34 fastbreak points thanks to an emphasis on kick-ahead passes, and led by as many as 33 points late in the second half. And Atlanta did not stage a furious rally on this night, which plagued the Sixers during their painful Eastern Conference series loss to the Hawks last season.
The Halloween Eve victory certainly does not make up for last summer’s heartbreak. But it was the Sixers’ best end-to-end performance of the young season against a quality opponent, and an emphatic response two nights after star Joel Embiid criticized his teammate’s ability to guard their man against Detroit.
“I didn’t bring it up,” coach Doc Rivers said when asked if there was any extra motivation in facing the Hawks. “I didn’t think I needed to. I think they already knew it.”
Tobias Harris led the Sixers with 22 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists, with Rivers highlighting how Harris played downhill and was decisive with his first step. Tyrese Maxey added 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting and three assists while limiting offensive star Trae Young on the other end. Seth Curry contributed 15 points, including a transition corner three-pointer that put Philly up, 84-62, with 3 minutes, 18 seconds to play in the third. Thybulle finished with a season high in points (11) and tied a season high in steals (four) in addition to his three blocks.
“He went for one of those blocks like he was a volleyball player,” Harris said of Thybulle. “That was impressive.”
Both teams shot less than 35% from the floor in the first quarter. But the Sixers built a 15-point lead — and held the Hawks to 15 points — because they shot 9-of-10 from the free-throw line (the Hawks did not attempt a foul shot until the final minute of the period), converted five Atlanta turnovers into nine points, and notched 12 fastbreak points.
The Hawks’ shooting struggles continued through the opening minutes of the second quarter (14-of-42), until a mini spurt got the Sixers’ lead down to single digits when Bogdan Bogdanovic converted a transition layup with 5:46 to play in the half.
But the Sixers answered practically every Hawks bucket for the rest of the quarter, including when Harris hit a pull-up jumper to cap a 7-0 run in the final 1:15 that gave Philly a 60-46 lead at the break.
“We told them at halftime we keep moving the ball ... the shots eventually will fall,” said Rivers, who highlighted those advance passes as a key to igniting the offense. “So don’t worry about that, just keep playing the defense.
“We had the right spirit. We played the right way throughout the game. The ball was humming. When we play like that, we’re really good offensively.”
Locking down Young
When asked before the game if Maxey would start the game guarding Young, Rivers responded with, “Yeah. It’ll be fun.”
Indeed it was for Maxey and the Sixers. The second-year point guard spearheaded a sound overall effort to limit Young, who went 5-of-16 from the floor and finished with 13 points and 10 assists. He hit just one of his signature deep pull-up three-pointers in the game.
Rivers said the Sixers did not do anything “tricky” against Young. The coach credited Maxey with playing “smart pressure” and for continuing to pursue on the pick and roll.
After missing six of his first nine shots, it looked like Young might get going in the second quarter when he drew two fouls on Maxey in the lane during the Hawks’ surge to cut the lead to 48-39 with 3:27 left in the period. But Young missed both free throws on that second trip to the line, and did not get up another shot in the half.
“I had to remind myself to stay solid,” Maxey said. “Drawing fouls is a skill now, and I think he’s mastered that skill. He knows when to go back or pump fake when a guy’s out of position, so you’ve just got to stay solid and keep pursuing and keep trying to make it tough on him.”
Throughout the night, the Philly crowd serenaded Young with taunts. They initially booed every time he touched the ball. They cheered when he air-balled a three-pointer. When he picked up a technical foul after expressing his displeasure for being called for a foul on Seth Curry as he was shooting a three-pointer, fans made fun of his hair.
Embiid’s uneven performance
Embiid grimaced during the first quarter, clearly disgusted with himself that he could not convert an and-1 with the much smaller Young suddenly guarding him in the post.
That captured an uneven performance for Embiid, who finished with 19 points and five rebounds. He started 1-for-7 from the floor and finished 5-of-13, but went 8-of-9 from the foul line. He also first pushed the Sixers’ lead to 20 points when he finished inside to make the score 71-51 with 8:52 left in the third.
This outing came after Embiid’s best of the season, when he totaled 30 points and 18 rebounds against the Pistons. He came into Saturday averaging 21.4 points per game on 43.8% shooting and 9.4 rebounds through five games. The preseason MVP contender has been battling soreness since knocking knees in the season opener on Oct. 20, but has said that is not an excuse to his slower-than-expected start to the season.