ATLANTA – In retrospect, the contours of this Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks likely became apparent towards the end of Game 1.
Though Atlanta was desperately fighting for victory, the 76ers’ frenzied comeback in the fourth quarter had opened up some options for attacking the rest of the series, raising doubts that the magic carpet the Hawks had ridden in Philadelphia would soon be falling at them next station.
And little by little, minute by minute, the fundamental truth of this match-up has come to light since that moment: The 76ers have a good deal more than the young Hawks.
You have to walk a fine line between physicality and over-aggressiveness in the playoffs for more repetitions. More size to throw Trae Young and make his ball decisions a fraction harder. More guns to disrupt those fancy cross-court passes and post entries that made Atlanta so much easier in the first round against the New York Knicks. More reliable secondary scoring.
Philadelphia’s 127-111 win in Game 3 the series does not end or even ensures that it does not last a while. The Hawks still have Game 4 at State Farm Arena on Monday, and a win there would lead to 2-2 and reduce the pressure on the 76ers to hold their serve in Game 5.
But to get to the heart of why the 76ers are number 1 in the east and why the young Hawks haven’t arrived yet, Game 4 has told you everything you need to know.
Atlanta was in a rush on the offensive and felt uncomfortable doing almost anything and was completely overwhelmed on the defensive. Philadelphia got the ball where it needed to go (usually to Joel Embiid), opportunistically shooting off the 3-point line (10 of 21) and not giving the Hawks a moment of rest.
Just like a # 1 seed is supposed to do.
“They did a pretty good job and just beat us by taking advantage of their size,” said Hawks trainer Nate McMillan. “We just basically couldn’t get stops. We’re not able to get stops and transition to something simple. When their defenses are on, they’re pretty good.”
As much as Atlanta has shown against the Knicks and comes out hot in Game 1 of this series, the playoffs are really about which team can adapt and move up a level.
The 76ers have these opportunities, not only with Embiid – who scored 27 points in Game 3 and has 47 free throws in the series so far – but also by being able to use both Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle on Young.
Though Young still hit his numbers with 28 points on 9-of-17 shooting and eight assists, anything Atlanta’s offense tried was much harder and crunchy. Unless the Hawks are insanely hot from the 3-point line – and they only got 6 out of 23 this game – they don’t have a lot of options to put pressure on the 76s for the next adjustment in this series.
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“We have stops and that was the biggest thing for us,” said striker Tobias Harris of the start of the third quarter when the 76ers hit 10 of their first 12 possession and claimed full control of game 3 stops and pushes the ball up the floor and really comes into transition. All year round, it’s no surprise that the transition was our best offensive. “
It’s still at the beginning of the series, but it feels like Atlanta is already running out of trains. In three games, there wasn’t much the Hawks could do to disturb Embiid, be it Clint Capela playing him straight or trying to bring in doubles, resulting in many simple baskets in the game on Friday as he either walked right through them to get a clean look, or went to the tailors just below the brim. They also struggled to contain Philadelphia’s roleplayers, whether Shake Milton exploded in Game 2 or Furkan Korkmaz took some hard shots to get his 14 points in Game 3.
Simmons should now also be assertive offensively after he was chased more shots in the second half and was rewarded with 18 points.
But that is exactly what the teams competing for the championship should do in the playoffs. Philadelphia took a hit in Game 1 and everyone’s level of play increased. Atlanta bullied the ’76 for three quarters and has struggled to live up to their response since then.
“We knew it was going to be tough,” said McMillan. “Everything will be on the table when we come out and play because their size is a factor and they pretty much got us in the color tonight. We’ll see if we can make some adjustments here.”
For Atlanta, however, the reality of being a No. 5 seed making their first playoffs with this roster means there likely aren’t many adjustments that can realistically turn things back in their direction.
The rift between the Hawks and the 76ers showed up in a big way on Friday night, and it looked a lot more like the truth than anything else that happened on that series.
Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.