Discussions about a preferred Eastern Conference finals opponent were briefly put on hold by some 76ers supporters.
Those conversations are now too premature, a twist of reality after what was an awful Game 4 of the conference semifinals Monday night at State Farm Arena.
Looking ahead was shoved to the back burner when the Atlanta Hawks, with Trae Young leading the way, came back from an 18-point deficit to edge the Sixers, 103-100.
The Sixers flew back to Philadelphia following the game, tied 2-2 in the series after a poor performance that saw that their franchise player, Joel Embiid, shoot 0-for-12 in the second half.
But if there’s one thing the Sixers have proved this postseason, it’s that they can bounce back from bad nights.
Improved ball movement, matching the Hawks’ intensity and improved play by Embiid have to be points of emphasis for Game 5 on Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center.
“There were a lot of signs in that game [Monday night] that proved to us we have to be a better version of ourselves,” coach Doc Rivers said following Tuesday’s film study.
Embiid was far from himself in Game 4. He finished with 17 points and 21 rebounds, but made just 4 of 20 shots — including missing all 12 of his second-half attempts. That marked his fourth game playing with small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. Embiid said he didn’t have any lift while missing what would have been a go-ahead layup with 8.8 seconds left.
The MVP runner-up went to the locker room in the first quarter to get the knee examined, but returned. Embiid acknowledged that his knee was bothering him during the game.
The Sixers were fully aware that Embiid would be hampered by his knee in some way when the series started. Yet he averaged 35.3 points and shot 53.3% in the first three games. But he struggled through 20% shooting while looking out of sorts in Game 4. As has been the case all series, Embiid is listed as questionable for Wednesday’s game.
But Rivers’ level of concern has not increased because of Monday’s performance. Nor is he more concerned because there’s only one day to recover between games for the rest of the series. It would be ideal for Embiid to get a couple of days of rest in between games.
“Listen. We walk on the floor, we’re good,” Rivers said. “We wouldn’t put Joel out there [and risk further injury]. Obviously, he’s not going to be exactly what he was, with the injury. But I’ll take what we have. So I have no concern.”
Nor does Rivers want Ben Simmons changing how he plays. The point guard attempted just one shot in the second half of Game 4. “Yeah, I definitely should have been more aggressive and attack more,” Simmons said afterward about shooting more.
Rivers couldn’t disagree more.
“I actually think more aggressive if he’s talking about facilitating,” Rivers said. “Yeah, getting the ball up the floor with better pace. But not as far as shooting or anything like that, just getting us into our stuff more aggressively with better pace and that may end up him shooting the ball of that.”
On Monday, the Sixers walked the ball up the floor at times with very little sense of urgency. One of the Sixers’ bigger problems was a failure to pass the ball to open teammates.
During Tuesday’s film study, Rivers showed the team footage of players, with their hands up, in position to receive the ball. However, the players with the ball kept looking them off and created opportunities for themselves.
“It’s not like a guy was being selfish,” he said. “He was trying to win the game. But we don’t need that. We need to do our jobs. We don’t need to do more than our jobs.”
Outhustling the Sixers, the Hawks had the edge in points in the paint (40-34), second-chance points (21-9) and fast-break points (9-5), and rebounds (55-49). That made up for their shooting just 36.6% from the field.
Young, playing with a sore shoulder, paced the Hawks with 25 points and a game-high 18 assists. Seventeen of his points came after intermission.
The Sixers, however, shot only 32.4% in the second half, including making just 4 of 16 three-pointers.
“I think our defense finally showed up in this series,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said of his squad’s second-half defense. “I thought we did a good job getting pressure on the ball. We did a good of keeping the ball in front of us and really forcing them to shoot over the top.”
McMillan said Atlanta must build on its second-half performance going into Game 5. The Sixers hurt the Hawks in points in the paint during the first three games.
Rivers was asked if Game 4 was decided by what the Sixers didn’t do as opposed to what the Hawks did.
“I think a little bit of both,” he said. “I don’t think anybody did anything. They shot 36%. We shot what we shot [43.5%]. The one thing that they did do that we didn’t do was their energy level was well higher than ours.
“How many shot did they have, 101 shot attempts? I think we had . Yeah, you lose.”