What we learned from the Sixers’ 129-112 win over the Hawks on Monday night ...
1) The Sixers are never going to blow anybody out again.
OK, maybe we don’t have enough evidence to reach that conclusion. And they did end up winning by 17. But for the second straight home game, they turned a could-be laugher into something well short of that.
This time, it took them right up until the final split second of the third quarter to finish their destruction of the goodwill they’d built up with a dynamite first half. But, in the end, it was mission accomplished. After Trae Young’s 26-foot desperation three splashed through the net at the buzzer to give the Hawks a 92-91 lead, the boos rained down from the Wells Fargo Center seating bowl the same way they had against the Nets last week after watching the Sixers build upon an early 20-4 lead by playing one of the most abysmal stretches of basketball since the hoops were made out of actual baskets. This time, the lead that they squandered grew as high as 21 points before Atlanta made its inevitable run, outscoring the Sixers by 40-22 in the third period to earn the home team its nightly allotment of jeers.
The easy conclusion is that the Sixers simply do not have the depth to blow a game open once the subs start rolling in. There’s some merit to that line of thinking — the Hawks did much of their damage after Alec Burks, Furkan Korkmaz and Matisse Thybulle checked into the game with six minutes remaining in the third and the Sixers leading 78-67. Whatever the reality, it’s a cause for concern. The Hawks entered the night having won just 17 of their 58 games. Their most recent road game had ended in a 22-point loss to the 13-40 Cleveland Cavaliers.
That being said, the Hawks are not a team devoid of talent, and the Sixers ended up winning comfortably, and they did it with Ben Simmons on the sideline. Still, it’d be nice to see this team put together a win that does not elicit boos at any of the between-quarter breaks.
2) The Sixers have the firepower to keep the offense afloat for however long Simmons is gone.
Or, at least, they should. If these next however many days/weeks are going to test just how capable the Sixers are in the hands of their remaining stars, Monday night was about as good of a start as you could have hoped for. While much of the pregame talk centered around the Sixers’ lack of an obvious primary ballhandler to replace Simmons, a bigger question is who will replace the scoring punch that he has brought over the last couple of months. In the 20 games leading up to his early exit in Milwaukee, Simmons was averaging 21-plus points per game to go with his 7-plus assists and 9-plus rebounds.
Both Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris made their cases against the Hawks. Embiid scored 49 points on 17-of-24 shooting and as every bit the player you’d hope he would be against an undersized Hawks frontcourt. We’ve seen nights like this before out of Embiid, and it doesn’t really tell us much that he was able to do it against the Hawks. Still, it was better than the alternative.
Harris, though, is worth a little bit of closer inspection. He’s going to have the ball in his hands a lot more in the middle of the court with Simmons on the sideline, and he’s going to get plenty of chances to be either a primary scorer or, at least, a 1B to Embiid’s 1A. Against Atlanta, he looked the part, scoring 25 points on 9-of-18 shooting and, most significantly, hitting 4-of-6 from three-point range.
It worked like it should have midway through the fourth quarter, when Embiid drew a double team on the low block and then kicked out to an open Harris for a catch-and-shoot three that gave the Sixers a 105-98 lead. Those catch-and-shoots haven’t been a consistent part of Harris’ game this season, but he’s also a player who seems to develop a better shooting rhythm the more he has the ball in his hands, and it sounds like he’s going to have it plenty for the foreseeable future.
3) The Sixers are going to get tested defensively with Simmons gone.