The 76ers’ reserves stepped up while their injured center had another dominating performance.
As a result, the Sixers avoided dropping into a two-games-to-none hole to the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Sparked by reserve guard Shake Milton’s 14 points (all in the second half), the Sixers defeated the Atlanta Hawks, 118-102, in Tuesday night’s Game 2 at the Wells Fargo Center. Joel Embiid finished with a career playoff-high 40 points to go with 13 rebounds while playing his second consecutive game with a small meniscus tear in his right knee.
The best-of-seven series is tied, 1-1, heading into Friday’s Game 3 at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta.
Embiid is averaging 39.5 points through two series games, setting career highs in each game. The effort came after learning that he was beaten by Denver’s Nikola Jokic for league MVP.
“I don’t know if the MVP thing did anything to him or not,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I remember being on the other side of the night that [San Antonio Spurs center] David Robinson got the  MVP and we had to play Hakeem Olajuwan [of the Houston Rockets]. I was on that Spurs team. That didn’t go well for us.
“Tonight you felt like that Joel. He was that magnificent, dominant for us early on. But it was absolutely a team effort. I just thought he set the tone for us.”
Embiid was undeniably the game’s most dominant player, but Milton’s play was vital to the victory.
He entered the game with the Sixers clinging to a 79-78 lead with 2 minutes, 46 seconds left in the third quarter. This came after the third-year guard, who lost his spot in the rotation, had played only 38 seconds in Game 1.
Rivers inserted him because of the bench’s struggles. They were being outcored, 37-0, before Milton entered the game.
“I talked to Shake today,” Rivers said. “I said this is a long run, man, if we do this right. And everyone is going to get a shot and stay ready.”
He definitely did.
To keep sharp, Milton went to the team’s practice facility Monday at 10 p.m. to play one-on-one. He also did extra shooting.
“I mean, he prepared himself, and he believed he would get another shot,” Rivers said. “He got it. Gave us a huge lift. So I’m very happy for him, just personally.”
On this night, he brought energy and points.
Milton, who played 14:15, made five of his eight shots, including 4-of-6 on three-pointers. His first basket, a three, marked the Sixers’ first bench points. His presence appeared to lift the Sixers’ other reserves, as Dwight Howard, George Hill, and Matisse Thybulle went on to score points and play with energy.
Milton’s initial basket jump-started the bench, as ther reserves scored 26 points of 30 points during a key stretch. Milton refused to speak to the media following the game.
“I thought Shake and George Hill [four points, two steals, and one block] and then Matisse’s defense [two blocks] and George’s defense saved us,” Rivers said. “Dwight [six points, six rebounds] was big on the glass. But we challenged them at halftime. We really did.”
By the time Milton was subbed out for the first time, with 3:36 left in the game, the Sixers had a 113-97 lead.
Tobias Harris had 22 points, while Seth Curry added 21.
Meanwhile, Atlanta standout Trae Young had 21 points on just 6-for-16 shooting, including going 1-for-7 on three-pointers.
“I thought the switching [defense] early on was good,” Rivers said. “We took them out of their 77 and double-drag play for the most part. He’ll be more aggressive next game, there’s no doubt about it.
“I thought you could see his adjustment was trying to attack early in transition. So we’re going to have to adjust to that next game.”
The Sixers tried to send a message early.
Harris was out to spark his teammates while Ben Simmons was out to contain Young. Harris also was solid defensively by switching onto the Hawks’ best player.
Both players were successful, as the Sixers dominated all 12 minutes of the first quarter.
Harris scored 16 points on 8-for-9 shooting. Meanwhile, Simmons, at 6-foot-10, caused problems for the 6-1 Young. As result, the Hawks point guard was held to four points on 1-for-4 shooting in the quarter. In Game 1, Young scored 12 of his 35 points in the first quarter while being guarded by Danny Green.
Philly took a 33-20 advantage into the second quarter, scoring 24 of their points in the paint.
The Sixers started the game by making five of their first six shots for a 10-2 lead. Harris led the charge with six points. The hot start led Atlanta coach Nate McMillan to call a timeout 2:34 into the game.
After the Hawks scored a basket, Harris continued where he left off.
The power forward scored on a 2-foot layup, a 1-footer, and 9-foot turnaround jumper to make it a 16-4 game. Curry and Embiid added baskets to put the Sixers up, 20-4. Green’s three extended the margin to 23-6, forcing the Hawks to call a second timeout.
Philly extended its lead to 18 points on a Simmons dunk. The Sixers shot 60% in the first quarter.
As good as the Sixers were in the first quarter, the Hawks open the second on a 13-2 run to close the gap to 35-33 with 7:48 left before intermission.
The game was competitive the rest of the half.
Things got a little testy after Embiid was called for an offensive foul while being guarded by Danilo Gallinari with a minute left before intermission. After the play, Gallinari impeding Embiid’s path, bumping into him. Embiid responded byshoving him in the back. The two received technical fouls for the brief altercation as Embiid took his seat on the bench after picking up his third foul.
The Sixers ended the half clinging to a 57-55 lead.
Unlike the starters, the bench got off to a bad start.
The Hawks, led by Kevin Huerter and Gallinari, owned a 32-0 mismatch in bench points in the first half. This came after the Hawks broke open Game 1 with a 17-0 run when Rivers went to an all-bench lineup.
The Hawks took their first lead on Young’s foul shots with 2:41 left in third quarter. Milton ended the bench drought with a three-pointer 22 seconds later for an 82-80 lead. At the time, the Hawks led, 37-3, in bench points. Then Thybulle scored on the next possession to put them up by four.
Milton drained a three-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer to put the Sixers up, 91-84.
MVP ... MVP ... MVP
Don’t tell Sixers fans that Denver’s Nikola Jokic won the MVP over Embiid.
It’s no question who the sellout crowd thinks is the real MVP. The crowd chanted “MVP ... MVP ... MVP” several times for the Sixers center.
But Jokic was named the runaway winner before the game, getting 91 first-place votes and 971 total points. Embiid finished second with 586 total points. He received just one first-place vote. Curry was third with 453 points. He received five first-place votes.
“I love the fans,” Embiid said. “They’ve always supported me. ... My teammates believe that I should be it, that I am. I guess you can say that’s good enough.”