As the Philadelphia 76ers jumped out to an early first-half lead against the Atlanta Hawks, the series between the Sixers and the Hawks started to look more like most NBA fans had envisioned entering the playoffs - a dominant series win by the number one team in the Eastern Conference. What took place after halftime was the complete opposite as the young Hawks came out of the gates with a fighting spirit to mount a furious comeback led by their savvy veterans and young superstar Trae Young.
The Hawks were fantastic on both ends of the floor in the second half of action, with Trae Young breaking down the defense and creating opportunities for his teammates, while on defense, they were flying around and making on-point rotations that forced the Sixers to try and beat them from beyond the arc. The most critical adjustment - the different looks the Hawks gave Joel Embiid when he caught the ball on the block, mixing up single coverage schemes and double teams that forced the big man into several turnovers in the final quarter. This played a hand in Embiid having one of the worst halves of all time, as he did not make a field goal in the final half of action.
Now, many will call this a choke job and point to Embiid’s lack of conditioning as the reason he is not able to deliver late in games. However, we must remember that not too long ago, the big man suffered a torn meniscus in his knee, and given his injury history, it is remarkable Embiid is even on the floor banging bodies with the Atlanta bigs while trying to get up and down the floor to be the defensive anchor for his team. Embiid’s 0-12 second half in Game 4 ranks as the most attempts without a conversion in the past 25 seasons, and for one with talent such as his, it could be a concerning sign of things to come. Joel seemed to downplay this a little bit in his postgame interview, calling it a bad game.
“I had a bad game. I’ve been playing well but sometimes you can’t control it. I can always be better but tonight was just a bad game.”
Joel Embiid, Game 4 postgame interview
With Embiid’s dominance at his size comes risk, and we saw last night why it is important for the 76ers to be able to lock teams down early and get some easy wins while managing the big man’s minutes. Embiid's averaged around 36 minutes per game in the series against Atlanta - that's a lot of pressure on a torn meniscus. The Sixers know that to make a championship run, they will need Joel at his best and for the other guys to take care of business in earlier rounds to increase the chances for success in the later ones.
It no longer seems as if the Sixers making it to the next round is a foregone conclusion as these Hawks seem to be primed and ready for the spotlight. Give credit to Nate McMillan for his leadership and the Hawks front office for bringing veterans like Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari for moments just like this. Trae Young has been amazing, but it can be argued that the stability and poise he is showing in big games such as these are things he picked up from some of the seasoned vets.
Yes, the series is tied, and the Sixers still have home court, and yes, this was just one game, but this performance from Embiid could mean that he is struggling with his health right now, which could spell a world of trouble for the East’s top seed.
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