3 observations after Embiid scores 42 and Sixers avoid collapse vs. Hawks

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Two nights after a dismal offensive performance in Atlanta, the Sixers bounced back Saturday against the Hawks. 

The team held off a second-half Atlanta surge and improved to 6-7 on the season with a 121-109 win at Wells Fargo Center. 

Joel Embiid had 42 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Tyrese Maxey added 26 points and nine assists. 

Hawks star Trae Young scored 27 points and dished out 11 assists. Dejounte Murray had 23 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. 

James Harden (right foot tendon strain) and De’Anthony Melton (back tightness, left side) were out for the Sixers. Harden, who’d been away because of a family matter, was back with the team and watched the action from the bench. 

Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanovic (right knee injury recovery) and Onyeka Okongwu (personal reasons) also were sidelined. 

The Sixers will play again Sunday in Philadelphia against the 10-4 Jazz, who lost to the Wizards on Saturday. 

Here are observations on the Sixers’ victory over the Hawks: 

Embiid’s near-flawless first 

Embiid delivered something quite close to his peak level in the first quarter, beginning 4 for 4 from the floor and posting 14 points, four rebounds and four assists. 

He scored the Sixers’ first 10 points on three mid-range jumpers, two free throws after a spinning drive on Clint Capela, and a fast-break layup following a Matisse Thybulle steal. Crucially, he also drew the second foul on Capela with 3:44 left in the first. Not a wise play by Capela, who bumped Embiid about 85 feet from the Sixers’ hoop after the MVP runner-up grabbed a defensive rebound. 

With Okongwu out, Atlanta was significantly worse behind Capela. Hawks head coach Nate McMillan had mentioned pregame that he expected Capela would play more than his usual minutes and John Collins would see time at center, but the Swiss center’s foul trouble led to an extended first-half stretch for Frank Kaminsky. Embiid drained a turnaround jumper over Kaminsky right away and Shake Milton then drove in for a lefty layup that gave the Sixers a 26-13 lead. 

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers kept Embiid in for the first 10 minutes and 22 seconds. He also re-inserted Embiid for the Sixers’ final possession of the first quarter. That decision paid off when Embiid kicked the ball out to Maxey in the corner and the 22-year-old made a three. Intelligent, unselfish and mature play by Embiid to prefer a wide-open shot for a struggling teammate over a mid-range attempt for himself. 

No shortage of playmaking this time 

Furkan Korkmaz received first-quarter minutes and took almost no time to make a very noticeable impact.

In four minutes, Korkmaz converted a trio of flashy layups, taking advantage of the cavernous rim protection drop-off from Capela to Kaminsky. The Sixers initially used zone to compensate for the weaker defensive lineup with Korkmaz on the floor, but Young got hot and finished the first period with 13 points on 4-for-7 shooting. However, the Hawks were frigid as a team from long range, missing 11 of their first 12 three-point tries. 

Korkmaz was ruled out for the night in the second quarter with a left knee injury, per a Sixers official. 

Rivers said pregame that, during minutes without Maxey, he wanted to have either three ball handlers on the court or two ball handlers and Embiid. Though Rivers broke that guideline briefly to begin the second quarter, he called a timeout 54 seconds into the period and subbed Maxey and Harris back into the game.

Indeed, without such an influential playmaker in Harden, Rivers and the Sixers need to be more intentional about putting sufficient playmaking on the floor. While it’s far from the playoffs, the Sixers’ start to the season has been seriously disappointing overall. They’re a team that should care a good deal about each regular-season game right now and be coached as such. 

Both Harris (21 points) and Maxey were strong in the second. Harris converted an and-one layup off of a pick-and-roll with Milton, knocked down a three, and scored a muscle-enabled bucket inside on second-year Hawks forward Jalen Johnson. 

Maxey’s recent slump (29.7 percent from the field over his past three games) continued in the first quarter. He missed a layup, got whistled for traveling on an after-timeout play, and generally appeared frustrated with his poor luck. His fortunes turned in the second period, though. Maxey rediscovered his three-level scoring and especially enjoyed playing in transition. The Sixers scored 18 points off the Hawks’ 10 first-half turnovers. 

Lots of defensive lapses, but no catastrophe  

Thybulle started in Melton’s place and opened the game on Young. Maxey started on Murray and conceded an and-one leaner to him on the game’s first play. 

The Sixers’ mixture of coverages didn’t always work, but the team at least played active defense in the first half, made relatively few blatant mistakes, and didn’t allow too many clean looks to the Hawks’ complementary players. 

For Paul Reed, fouling was again a problem. Reed’s excessive aggression led to the 23-year-old picking up four fouls in his eight minutes, and Atlanta started eating into the Sixers’ 27-point lead in the third quarter. 

Thybulle’s offensive showing also wasn’t a positive; in his 30 minutes, he had three points on 1-for-5 shooting. Thybulle air-balled a corner three in the third quarter. On the ensuing trip, he fell behind as Young drove toward the hoop but then appeared to pull off a sensational recovery block. Thybulle was whistled for a foul, however, and the reality is he often will be in those situations when he’s playing catch-up against a star player. 

The Sixers’ defense looked slow, porous and casual late in the third. The Hawks made them pay time after time. Layups from Aaron Holiday and Johnson cut the Hawks’ deficit to 12 points. Harris then threw a pass from the wing to the baseline … where no one in either jersey was standing. Twelve seconds later, Kaminsky threw down a dunk. 

Ultimately, though the Sixers have done it before against the Hawks in more important games, blowing leads over 20 points in the second half is rare. The good work they did for much of the evening helped them avoid anything disastrous, as did timely three-pointers by Georges Niang and Maxey.

Still, the Hawks kept competing and the Sixers kept giving them clear chances to score in the paint. Capela's layup with 5:19 to go in the fourth trimmed the Sixers' lead to 109-100. An A.J. Griffin three-pointer made it 113-107.

Finally, Thybulle built the Sixers' advantage back to 11 points with a corner three and a win was secure.

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