Are the Sixers in trouble?
After losing to the Hawks 128-124 in a game where they trailed by double digits for much of the way, that’s the natural question to ask.
The simple answer is no—or rather, we shouldn’t have any more concern than we had at the beginning of this series. If you expected this to be another four or five-game cakewalk, then I assume this was a humbling experience for you; the Hawks are for real, and won’t be an easy out under any circumstance.
With that said, reacting to Game 1 is always a mistake—win or lose—and this instance is no exception.
Following a timeout halfway through the first quarter, Trae Young sank one of his patented floaters over Embiid, stole the ball on the other end of the floor, then proceeded to connect with Clint Capela for an alley-opp to extend the lead to six points—Atlanta wouldn’t look back as they grew that lead to as high as 26, before heading into halftime up 74-54.
25 points, 4 threes, and 7 assists from Trae Young in the first half helped unleash a Hawks offense that shot 63.4% from the field, and connected on 13/23 threes from deep. A 40-point first quarter saw them record an offensive rating of 160, and once shots started falling they never really stopped.
The essential question is whether or not we can expect this sort of offensive output to continue. Did Atlanta simply have the hot hand tonight, or were they getting the sort of quality looks that they might be able to replicate all series long? If it’s the latter, then the question becomes whether or not the Sixers have the personnel and schematic tweaks to deny that pattern of open shots moving forward.
While we got a pretty good answer to those questions in a second half that the Sixers won by 16 points, for me the truth is a little more blurry than that suggests. Yes, Atlanta did have a hot hand in the first half, but they also created quality looks right up until the final buzzer (the same sort of looks they routinely created in the regular season). Trae Young is plainly unguardable, and the rest of the roster (Bogdonavich, Huerter, Gallinari, Collins, Lou Will) can flat out shoot it. This won’t be the last time the Hawks hit us in the mouth in this series.
At that same time, the Sixers defense did settle in and adjust for a second half in which they limited Atlanta to 54 points on 18/45 from the field (40% shooting), and a meager 7/24 from beyond the arc (not to mention holding Trae Young to just 10 points). If I was a betting man, I’d say the second half is a slightly better showcase of what we’ll see in this series moving forward.
Don’t get me wrong, Atlanta will continue to get decent looks (like they did for most of this game), and they’ll certainly shoot better than the second half 40% mark, but as we move deeper into this series the Sixers will only figure them out more, not less.
For a team that ended the regular season with a slate of cupcake opponents and faced a sub-.500 Wizards squad in the first round, it’s reasonable to believe the Sixers simply needed to shake off some defensive cob webs in that first half. They haven’t faced an offense like Atlanta’s in a while, and the Hawks have been a buzzsaw as of late—in some ways, this sort of start was to be anticipated.
Still, there are concerns following this loss that are more than justified, and need to be discussed. The decision to use Danny Green as the primary defender on Trae Young instead of DPOY finalist Ben Simmons was puzzling, to say the least.
The conundrum there, as we found out, is that Trae can easily put Ben in foul trouble if he’s the primary defender for the entire game. The strategy that Doc tried to balance was using Ben as a change-of-pace option through three quarters before turning him loose on Trae in the fourth. The logic behind that is clear—as much as we don’t want Young doing what he did in the first half, the larger concern would be not having Simmons available to guard him at the end of games when it matters.
What Doc needs to figure out moving forward is how to better slow down Young with scheme, and concern himself less with the primary defender’s individual ability. He expressed as much himself post-game:
We can rag on Danny Green all we want, but the reality is nobody can defend Trae on an island. The Sixers problem is less-so the on-ball coverage of Young, and more the disoriented double teams and how the team recovers/scrambles around those coverages off-ball.
Beyond figuring out how to more effectively slow down Atlanta’s star player (a problem we always knew was coming) there’s no reason to be any more concerned for this series than we ought to have been prior to tip-off. Atlanta can stretch this out to six games, if not a full-seven, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility for them to pull-off the upset here—but the Sixers are still heavy favorites in this series, and there’s no reason to modify that outlook after one loss.