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Sixers lose to Hawks in Eastern Conference semis opener; returning Joel Embiid has playoff career-high 39 points

Hawks point guard Trae Young finished 35 points and 10 assists, with 25 coming before intermission.

Sixers center Joel Embiid defends Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young during the first quarter in Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference playoff semifinals on Sunday, June 6, 2021.
Sixers center Joel Embiid defends Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young during the first quarter in Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference playoff semifinals on Sunday, June 6, 2021.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

The 76ers were unable to flip on the second-round switch.

So, they find themselves trailing the Atlanta Hawks, 1-0, in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series. The Hawks built a commanding 26-point, first-half cushion and held on for a 128-124 victory at the Wells Fargo Center.

“I thought they hit us in the mouth to start the game,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought they were the more physical team. they were the more aggressive team. They played harder early, and they took care of the ball early.

“We didn’t. You can’t have nine turnovers at the start of the first quarter and expect to be up.”

» READ MORE: Will the ghosts of second-round exits haunt Doc Rivers and the Sixers?

The Sixers’ first-quarter blunders led to committing 19 turnovers on the afternoon.

But that was just one of many problems.

The Sixers will definitely look to improve before the squads square off in Game 2 Tuesday night at the Center.

They can start by doing a better job of defending Trae Young from the start. The Sixers must also work on improving their perimeter defense, cutting down the turnovers, and having a higher sense of urgency.

Young, the Hawks point guard, finished with 35 points and 10 assists, with 25 of those points coming before intermission. Danny Green drew the primary assignment of guarding Young. While Ben Simmons, the defensive player of the year finalist, guarded Bogdan Bogdanovic. That turned out to be a major storyline in this game.

Atlanta made 20 of 47 three-pointers. Twelve of the Sixers’ turnovers came in the first half, after which they trailed, 74-54. Yet, they battled back and made it a one-possession game late.

Joel Embiid, whose status was revealed right before game, finished with a playoff career-high 39 points, nine rebounds, and three blocks. The Sixers’ four-time All-Star missed Wednesday’s first-round closeout game against the Washington Wizards with a small meniscus tear in his right knee. Embiid showed no signs of having a knee injury on Sunday, in a game his teammates knew for several days he would play, according a source.

Asked when he decided to play in this game, Embiid responded, “It doesn’t matter.”

“I played,” he said. “I could have played better. We lost the game. So that’s what my focus is on. What to do better next time to make sure we get a win. But, like I said, I played.”

Embiid said his knee felt “all right” and that playing on a torn meniscus is not easy.

He appeared to tweak his knee late in the fourth quarter while landing on his right leg. However, he remained in the game en route to playing 38 minutes, 3 seconds.

“All I have to do is keep managing it, do my best,” he said, “try to get as much treatment as I can. Try to manage it to make sure it doesn’t swell up too much.

“Obviously, the pain is going to be bad. That’s normal. But it’s all about, you know, managing it and doing whatever it takes to win. ... My goal is to win a championship and I’m going to put my body on the line to make sure that happens.”

Tobias Harris added 20 points and 10 rebounds, Seth Curry had 21 points, and Ben Simmons had 17 points and 10 assists, but went 3-for-10 from the foul line.

The Sixers got back into the contest after going to a full-court trap with around four minutes remaining.

They pulled within 118-115 with 1:01 left on Embiid’s layup. They got it to three again, at 121-118, after Harris stole a Young pass near midcourt and scored on a layup with 28.7 seconds left.

However, Embiid was called for a clear-path foul that put John Collins on the foul line with 23.2 seconds left. After Collins made the foul shots, the Hawks regained possession. Collins caught an alley-oop from Young while being foul by Embiid. He made the foul shot to complete the eventual five-point play, which gave the Hawks a 126-118 lead with 16.5 seconds left.

But the Sixers closed the gap to 126-124 on an Embiid three-point play off a putback and a Danny Green steal and feed to Simmons for a layup with 10.5 seconds left.

“I think we waited too long,” Simmons said. “They hit us first. We didn’t hit back. At one point, we were down 26 and we [were] still in the game. That tells you a lot about this team ... what we are capable of doing.

“So, I mean, you never want to do that again, obviously. But we got to start the right way.”

The Sixers came into game with a lot of excitment.

A lot of that had to do with Embiid playing. The crowd was also hyped because Paul Michael Levesque, better known by his wrestling name as Triple H, was the bell ringer, providing the honors with a sledgehammer. Embiid is a big fan of the professional wrestling group DX, to which Triple H belongs. The MVP finalist even thrusts his hips and uses Triple H’s trademark X motion with his hand after big plays.

So it was only fitting to have him slam the bell. And the crowd went crazy when Embiid, holding the sledgehammer, escorted Triple H out onto the court in what looked like a Hollywood production.

The Sixers and Embiid came out amped up.

The crowd erupted with a huge applause as Embiid drained a three-pointer to put the Sixers up, 11-8.

Philly shot the ball well in the first quarter, making 66.7% of its shots. However, they were unable to stop the Hawks, who made 72.7% of their shots in the quarter and led, 42-27.

Taking advantage of the Sixers’ all-bench lineup, the Hawks broke the game open with a 17-0 run that started with 42.9 seconds left in the opening quarter. It was capped on Bogdanovic’s three-pointer with 9:22 left in the half, making the score 53-27.

“I think at the end of the first and beginning of the second, that’s where we kind of lost the game at,” Curry said of the run.

The Hawks went on to take a 74-54 lead at the break. Young’s 25 first-half points came while making 4 of 7 three-pointers with Green the primary defender. Atlanta made 13 of 23 three-pointers in the half. But the point guard got things started with 12 of his points coming in the first quarter.

The Sixers did a better job on Young in the second half.

Not only did Simmons open the second half on the sharpshooting playmaker, the team changed its defense on him. The Sixers began trapping Young higher, near midcourt. It appeared to work in the beginning. But Simmons picked up two early fouls, so the Sixers went back to Green and had Matisse Thybulle on him as well.


Young finished with 10 points on 3-for-10 shooting after intermission. The third-year player missed five of his six shots while scoring six points in the third quarter.

Meanwhile, Embiid scored 11 of his points as the Sixers ended the quarter down 16, at 99-83.

The Hawks committed six of their 17 turnovers and made just 3 of 12 three-pointers in the fourth quarter. Afterward, they were more focused on their late-game miscues than stealing home-court advantage.

“We really kind of lost our composure in the second half,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “We knew they were going to come out aggressive. And we didn’t do a good job of handling their pressure.”

Young takes a lot of responsibility for the Hawks’ turnovers. He committed three of his four in the final quarter.

“The turnovers and kind of managing the game, I can do a little bit better,” Young said. “The best thing that happened today is we won. We have a lot of things we can get better at.

“So I’m not mad about that.”