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Sixers can’t find a way past the shorthanded Atlanta Hawks, falling 98-96 and suffering worst loss of season

Atlanta had lost seven of its last 10 games and had several players sidelined. The Sixers still could not prevail in a 98-96 loss at home.

Sixers center Joel Embiid walks off the court after missing a last second basket against Atlanta Hawks forward Wes Iwundu on Thursday.  The Sixers lost to the Hawks 98-96.
Sixers center Joel Embiid walks off the court after missing a last second basket against Atlanta Hawks forward Wes Iwundu on Thursday. The Sixers lost to the Hawks 98-96.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

This was a bad loss for the 76ers, likely the worst one of the season, all things considered.

The Atlanta Hawks came into the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday without most of their key players and losers of seven of their last 10 games. Yet they pulled out a 98-96 victory thanks to a balanced attack.

As bad as this outcome was, it was far from surprising. This marked the Sixers’ fourth consecutive game against a squad playing with fewer key players than them. They lost three of those games.

Asked why his team is struggling against teams down so many players, coach Doc Rivers responded, “I don’t know.”

Is it lack of focus?

“I think everything tonight,” he said. “I don’t think we played with great ... We have guys out, too, by the way. Tonight wasn’t our best advantage as far as guys being out. And you got to win tonight, honestly. But we didn’t, because I thought we approached the game very casual, and we played that way. I thought they did whatever they wanted.”

This one was decided when Joel Embiid misfired on a 21-foot jumper with 0.2 seconds remaining. The four-time All-Star center finished with a game-high 23 points to go 10 rebounds and two blocks, while Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris added 17 and 16 points, respectively.

Tyler Johnson had three points in 11 minutes, 1 second of action after signing with the Sixers (16-16) as a replacement player on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Westtown School product Cam Reddish paced the Hawks (15-16) with 18 points. He was one of six double-digit scorers for Atlanta. Bogdan Bogdanovic overcame a rough shooting night by scoring 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter. He missed his first 13 shots en route to finishing 4-for-17.

As in their previous two losses against the undermanned Brooklyn Nets (Dec. 16) and Miami Heat (Dec. 15), the Sixers were lackluster at the start of Thursday’s game.

“It’s the nature of the game, the nature of life,” Maxey said. “You get complacent when you see other guys not playing or top guys not playing and you become complacent and you become content. We can’t do that. We’ve got to approach every single game the same way.”

This game was the equivalent of a split-squad matchup. Both teams had replacement and two-way players available after being decimated by COVID-19 and injuries.

The Sixers went with their 17th different starting lineup of the season, with Furkan Korkmaz starting alongside Matisse Thybulle, Harris, Embiid, and Seth Curry. Maxey, the normal starting point guard, was the sixth man after missing the last two games with a left quadriceps contusion.

Rivers brought Maxey off the bench, because the Sixers couldn’t practice Wednesday.

“Furk’s not going to handle the ball a lot,” Rivers said. “I thought we had a rhythm. So we just went that way.”

John Collins was the Hawks’ only opening-day starter in Thursday’s lineup. A lot of that had to do with Atlanta having seven players in health and safety protocols and three others sidelined with injuries.

Meanwhile, the Sixers had four players in protocols while Ben Simmons hasn’t played this season while requesting a trade.

» READ MORE: Sixers mailbag: Ben Simmons’ trade market, Tobias Harris’ true value and more reader questions

Coping with COVID

Sixers small forward Danny Green along with reserves Andre Drummond, Shake Milton, and Georges Niang were sidelined after being placed in the health and safety protocols.

Niang was placed in protocols on Dec. 15, and coach Doc Rivers had expected him return Monday night against the Boston Celtics.

“His numbers and he just hasn’t passed the [COVID] test,” Rivers said of Niang remaining sidelined.

Asked how Green is feeling, Rivers said, “Everyone’s good.”

“I think Shake had symptoms,” he added. “Danny said he felt normal. George said he felt normal today.”

The coach also said he has spoken to Simmons lately. However, Rivers said he’s unaware of any progression toward a possible return to the team. “That’s the stuff that I intentionally stayed out of,” he said. “I have enough on my plate. I didn’t feel like I needed to add that.”

The Hawks were more decimated than the Sixers.

Clint Capela, Sharife Cooper, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter, Trae Young, and former Sixers Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Lou Williams were sidelined because of protocols. Meanwhile, Solomon Hill (right hamstring tightness) and De’Andre Hunter (right wrist injury recovery) were also out.

For Bogdanovic, this marked his second game back from an ankle injury. But he came off the bench, as he did in Wednesday’s loss to Orlando. And it didn’t help that Reddish (right ankle sprain) and Delon Wright (sprained ankle) left with injuries in the second half.

Atlanta was also playing its second game on back-to-back nights while the Sixers had the previous two days off.

Yet, they were unable to overcome the undermanned Hawks, dropping to ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings.

“I think the overall theme for us through the year is basically when our offense execution lacks when our defense is not up to par,” Harris said, “stops us from getting out and running in the open floor. When we have to take the ball out every time, it forces the other team to be set defensively in the halfcourt and kind of pick how they want to play their half-court defense vs. our offense.”

Struggles against Hawks

The Sixers missed nine of their first 12 shots and trailed by 21-7 early. Things were so bad that Harris inadvertently scored a basket for the Hawks while trying to grab a defensive rebound underneath the basket. The ball bounced off his hands and into the basket, giving the Hawks a 26-13 lead with 2 minutes, 5 seconds left in the first quarter.

But Harris got things together late in the second quarter.

He scored eight straight points to close the gap to one point (46-45) with 2:47 left in the half. The Sixers later knotted the score at 51 on Thybulle’s alley-oop dunk with 30.8 seconds before intermission.

The Sixers took an 85-84 lead on Thybulle’s alley-oop dunk with 7:03 to play. The lead seesawed several times until Embiid hit a pair of foul shots to put the Sixers up 90-86 with 4:31 left. But the Hawks went 12-6 the rest of the way.

The Sixers made only 6 of 27 three-pointers. They didn’t just miss three-pointers. Embiid (6-for-17) Harris (5-for-14), and Korkmaz (2-for-6) had rough shooting nights from the field.

“I think we are just missing them,” Rivers said the team’s three-point shooting woes. “We started the game out, and it was fool’s gold, honestly, because we were getting wide-open shots. You saw that right? But they were not going in. It still wasn’t good offense. We should have taken all those shots, honestly, because they were wide open.

“But the way we were playing with no force, no energy, no attacks, nothing. When you look at the plus-minus tonight and you see every second unit guy has a plus, and every first unit guy has a minus, it just tells you where we were at as a team tonight.”

Curry was a game worst minus 15, followed by Harris (minus-14), Embiid (minus-11), Thybulle (minus-10) and Korkmaz (minus-6).

Johnson’s debut

Johnson entered the game with 37.9 seconds left in the first quarter as the Sixers’ ninth man off the bench. It was obvious that he didn’t know the Sixers’ sets, as he kept trying to figure out what to do. Yet, he hustled during a 5:12 stretch on the floor.

Johnson missed his first two shots before scoring his first basket on a three-pointer with 8:50 left in the second quarter to pull the Sixers within 10 points (36-26).

“It’s not like he’s going to know what we are running or anything like that, you know?” Rivers said before the game. “But there are things like pick-and-roll sets. He can run our delay action. He can run all that. He’ll be fine for sure. It helps him over some other guys [because] he’s been in the league. So he kind of knows.”

» READ MORE: Best and worst from Sixers-Hawks: Horrid three-point shooting, Bogdan Bogdanovic’s big fourth quarter and more

One-day contracts

Before the game, the Sixers surprised 25 youths from the Methodist Services Group with a special game-day experience as part of Holiday Hoopla. They signed one-day contracts, received personalized Sixers jerseys , participated in basketball activities on the court, and received gifts from their wish list.

Next up

The Sixers will have two days off before facing the Washington Wizards on Sunday at the Capital One Center. The Wizards are 17-15 after defeating the New York Knicks on Thursday.