ATLANTA — Georges Niang had a statement to make.
While lacing up his sneakers for shootaround, eight hours before Friday night’s game, the 76ers power forward yelled to a reporter, “We’re about to get rolling here. Just make sure you tune in!”
He suggested that the reporter be locked in when the Sixers turn things up. Niang knew the reporter was fully aware of the Sixers losing nine of their last 12 games. But with most of his teammates back, including franchise cornerstone Joel Embiid, Niang had plenty of reason to be optimistic.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “We’re getting everybody back and figuring things out. I think we have a good stretch coming out for us.”
Well, that stretch started with a 98-96 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in State Farm Arena.
This was a character win. The Sixers (12-11) had nothing. Joel Embiid had no legs. Tyrese Maxey was out of sorts. But the Sixers gutted this one out.
Now, they head into their two-game series against the Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center on Monday and Wednesday. Philly was without power forward Tobias Harris, who was out with an illness.
Embiid paced the Sixers with 28 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, and two blocks. Sixteen of his points came after intermission. He scored the final two baskets during a game-ending 7-0 run.
The four-time All-Star shot 10-for-23 on the night after shooting 7-for-33 combined in his previous two games. This game marked his fourth game back from COVID-19.
“Like he missed a couple of shots that he knows he can make,” coach Doc Rivers said. “We kept telling him the aggressive attempts we will live with all day. I thought he did that ... When Joel is aggressive like that, more is going to go in than not. And the more he does it, the more it’s going to go in.
“I think that was a breakthrough for him, trying to get his rhythm back.”
Trae Young had 25 points and 10 assists for the Hawks (12-11).
And Niang, who had 13 points while starting in place of Harris, was a prophet.
“What did I tell you this morning?” Niang said. “What did I tell you? I mean, this group is a bunch of fighters. ... This is definitely something that we can build off of moving forward. But like I said, we have a bunch of fighters in the locker room.
“We are gritty. We’re tough, and we never fold.”
For a while, the Sixers looked like a team that couldn’t get over the hump.
They trailed by 11 points, 55-44, early in the third quarter, but managed to close the gap to 67-66. Atlanta responded with timely free throws, and that became the theme the rest of the way: the Sixers were attempting a comeback, but the Hawks would answer with timely plays.
Philly pulled within one again, 92-91, on Seth Curry’s layup with 4 minutes, 27 seconds remaining. But Young responded with a jumper to put the Hawks up three on the ensuing possession. After John Collins blocked Maxey’s layup attempt, Young made another shot to make it 96-91 with 3:38 to play.
But the Sixers knotted the score at 96 on a Curry three and an Embiid basket. Then Embiid gave the Sixers a 98-96 lead with 42.8 seconds left on a 13-foot jumper, marking their first lead of the second half. Curry came up with a steal on the baseline the following possession.
However, Embiid went on to miss a basket with 10 seconds to play. Kevin Huerter grabbed the defensive rebound and Matisse Thybulle later fouled Young with 2.4 seconds left. After a timeout, Danilo Gallinari missed a three-pointer at the buzzer, and the Sixers escaped.
Embiid celebrated the come-from-behind win by leaping up and down three times at midcourt after the buzzer sounded.
“We lost to that team,” Embiid said of last season’s playoffs. “So I’m still pissed off about what happened last year. So it means a lot to me. Anytime you can get this type of win, especially against them, I think is great. And obviously our situation. We got about $400 million worth of contracts [in Harris and Ben Simmons] not playing.
“So anytime you can get a win undermanned, missing two or three keys for this team, I think it’s great. And it’s great confidence for our guys.”
Streaky night for Curry
Curry was greeted to “Seth Curry sucks” chants the first couple of times he touched the ball. It didn’t take long before the Hawks fans realized it was a bad time for that.
The shooting guard made all five of his first-quarter shots en route to scoring 11 points. However, he couldn’t keep them quiet for long. Curry followed up his perfect first quarter by missing his next six attempts before a layup with 4:27 to play.
He ended up shooting 7-for-14 while scoring 18 points to go with five assists and one steal.
Sixers’ stingy defense overcomes Trae Young
Young came into this matchup as one of the league’s hottest players, scoring 30 or more points in five straight games.
If that’s not daunting enough, Young had a career scoring average of 25.7 points against Sixers entering Friday night, and he averaged 29 points while knocking the Sixers out of the playoffs last season. But on this night, the Sixers were able to hold him to four points on 2-for-5 shots in the fourth quarter. That helped them escape with the victory.
The Hawks made just 3 of 20 shots (15%) in the quarter, including missing all seven of their three-point attempts.
Rivers was a standout point guard before joining the coaching ranks.
So one can assume that he could be hard on the young point guards who play for him. Like he’s done all season, Rivers stayed in Maxey’s eyes throughout the game.
“Every coach is, whether he plays the position or not, if you have a point guard-oriented offense,” Rivers said. “In my 20 years, half my teams have been a point guard-oriented offense and half have been motion offense. It really depends on the type of team you have.
“With Tyrese, we really don’t have a point guard-oriented offense. He’s not a point guard. He’s a scorer at the point position. We don’t want him coming down and orchestrating like Chris Paul. [Rajon] Rondo ran a point guard offense because they could call the game and orchestrate everything. When you don’t have that, you need more of a motion offense.”
Friday marked the ninth game Harris has missed this season. He missed six other games after testing positive for COVID-19 and missed two with a strained left hip. Ben Simmons (mentally not ready to play) has yet to play this season.
The Hawks were also without key players. Bogdan Bogdanovic (right ankle sprain), De’Andre Hunter (right wrist tendon surgery), Cam Reddish (left wrist sprain), and Onyeka Okongwu (right shoulder injury recovery) were all out.