ATLANTA — Is Danny Green’s absence having a bigger impact on the 76ers than we think?
The small forward has been out since suffering a right calf strain early in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Atlanta Hawks. The Sixers won that game running away, but they then blew leads of 18 and 26 points while losing Games 4 and 5.
The Sixers came back to win Game 6 by a score of 104-99 Friday night to Sunday’s winner-take-all Game 7.
The Sixers can’t use Green’s injury as a excuse, considering the Hawks are playing without injured starters De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, plus reserve Brandon Goodwin.
The Sixers missed Green’s calmness, leadership, defense, and ability to make a big shots in the last two losses.
“To me, that’s what’s been missed the most,” coach Doc Rivers said of Green’s defense. “We talked about that [Thursday] as a staff. Having two guys in the starting lineup that teams feel like they can attack now as opposed to one you can move around and hide.
“That’s definitely been missed, for sure.”
Furkan Korkmaz, who’s known as a sharpshooter, replaced Green in the starting lineup in Games 4, 5 and 6. The Hawks have been seeking him out and taking advantage of his defensive shortcomings. They’ve been doing the same to shooting guard Seth Curry. As a result, it would not have been surprising if the Sixers started Matisse Thybulle, a defensive specialist who was second-team all-defense, in place of Korkmaz in this must-win game.
Some will point out that Green struggled as the primary defender against Trae Young in Game 1. Realizing that, the Sixers assigned him to guard Bogdan Bogdanovic in Game 2. He was more successful doing that before suffering the injury.
Offensively, Green struggled in the series before the injury. He averaged 3.0 points while shooting 30.8%, including missing eight of nine three-point attempts.
Despite that, he was the calming leader and a three-time NBA champion with a knack for stepping up in clutch situations.
The Sixers’ 101-100 overtime road victory against the New York Knicks in March is a prime example. He finished with a game-high three blocks and a co-game-high five steals. Green also scored all 11 of his points during the fourth quarter and overtime. Six of his points came on 2-for-3 shooting from three-point range in overtime.
“Danny saved the game for us,” Rivers said afterward. “He was the only one in my opinion that kept his composure. We made mistakes. The game should have never gone into overtime, let me just put it that way.
“So you could feel our energy. It wasn’t a good energy. Guys were down. They were mad. They thought they had blown the game.”
Rivers kept telling his players they were going into overtime, which means the game is tied. Green was the only player in the huddle telling teammates they were going to win the game.
That’s the type of leadership the Sixers have been missing since his injury.