NBA in-season tournament

3 observations after Sixers keep in-season tourney hopes alive with win in Atlanta

The Sixers improved to 2-1 in East Group A.

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The Sixers’ hopes of an NBA Cup run remain alive.

They moved to 2-1 in East Group A by earning a 126-116 win at State Farm Arena on Friday night over the Hawks. 

Joel Embiid recorded 32 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.

Tobias Harris scored a season-high 29 points and grabbed 10 boards. Tyrese Maxey had 19 points and eight assists.

Atlanta’s star point guard Trae Young posted 22 points and 13 assists.

The Sixers, who are now 9-3 overall, were without Kelly Oubre Jr. (fractured rib) and Nicolas Batum (personal reasons). 

The team's last group-stage game is next Tuesday against the Cavaliers. 

The Sixers are currently second in the East Group A standings behind only the Pacers (2-0). Atlanta and Cleveland are both 1-1, while the Pistons are 0-3. The top team in every group and two wild cards — the best-performing non-winners from each conference — will advance to the NBA Cup quarterfinals. 

Before that in-season tournament game in Cleveland, the Sixers will head to Brooklyn and play the Nets on Sunday afternoon.

Here are observations on their win over the Hawks:

Harris, Sixers flexing early 

Harris scored the Sixers’ first four points, including a layup after he made a flex cut out of a beautifully executed Horns set.

The Sixers had gone to the same action early last Friday in their win over the Pistons, though Harris wasn’t open there and Oubre missed a tightly contested layup. 

Called plays featuring Harris flex cuts have generally been promising for the Sixers. Any confusion in coverage has tended to result in a Harris layup or dunk, and the 6-foot-8 forward has finished well inside. 

In Atlanta, the Sixers had Harris make that flex cut over and over from Horns. He got one more easy first-quarter hoop from the action, and the Sixers’ offense still flowed nicely when Harris wasn’t available. Embiid posted 11 points and four assists in the first. 

The balance between hammering a play relentlessly and having sufficient variety is sometimes hard to strike, but the Sixers seem to be progressing at running effective, multi-option sets and reacting sharply to the defense. 

First-half transition defense woeful

Maxey was scoreless for a third consecutive first quarter. It’s not a problem if he’s a bit deferential early when others are getting high-quality looks, but the Sixers obviously won’t want that trend to persist. 

The team led by six points after the first period, but Atlanta immediately wiped out its deficit. The Hawks made a 12-0 run capped by two Saddiq Bey dunks to start the second.  

Jaden Springer remained in the Sixers’ rotation after a strong showing Wednesday vs. the Celtics. Marcus Morris Sr. stayed in the mix as well, though he appeared to injure his ankle late in the first quarter and did not re-enter the game. 

Springer spent significant time defending Young, a player he’d guarded impressively in the Sixers’ penultimate regular-season game last year. Springer had a rough run early in the second quarter, missing a three-pointer and committing a turnover that fueled a Hawks fast break. He then sprinted back and recovered to block a Bey layup attempt, again displaying his knack for explosive, basket-erasing defense. 

Several other Sixers had bad turnovers in the second quarter, and transition defense plays like Springer’s block were rare. Remarkably, Atlanta scored the night’s first 19 fast-break points. (The Sixers were much better in that area after intermission, conceding only three fast-break points in the second half.)

Maxey’s dozen second-quarter points were important in mitigating the Sixers’ transition defense struggles. He snapped a skid late in the second by draining a long-range jumper created by a Robert Covington offensive rebound and ensuing kick-out pass. 

Springer was good in the third quarter and Sixers head coach Nick Nurse again made the reasonable decision to leave him in for an extended stint. The 21-year-old closed in Covington's spot, played sturdy defense and hustled productively. In his 22 minutes, he had eight points, three rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal.

Welcome contributions from House

The Hawks' starting small forward was ejected with 10:27 left in the third quarter. De'Andre Hunter got assessed two straight technicals for his “continued profanity” to officials about a foul on Embiid. 

However, Atlanta played well over the next few minutes and the Sixers seemed like they’d need Embiid, Maxey and Harris to do it all offensively. When Patrick Beverley air-balled a three late in the shot clock, the Sixers’ bench players were 1 for 7 overall from the floor. 

The Maxey-Embiid duo was sharp in the third quarter and the Sixers were surely also grateful that Danuel House Jr. added 14 points Friday night off the bench. After a pick-and-roll with Maxey, Embiid quickly dished to a cutting House for a layup. He later assisted a House corner three. 

It’s fine if defensive-oriented players like Springer and Beverley don’t often provide much scoring, but the Sixers still need second-unit players who cut smartly, inject open-floor athleticism and hit an open jumper or two, especially without Oubre and Batum. House was valuable in all those ways Friday. 

House’s early-season minutes have been sporadic under Nurse, but the 30-year-old wing is very familiar with adapting to whatever situation’s in front of him.

“Just go up in here and be confident,” House said Monday. “Be aggressive on both ends when you get a chance, and that’s it. I’ve been doing it for a while so it’s nothing new. … You’ve just got to earn and gain trust, so you’ve got to take it one step at a time, one day at a time, concentrate on the (scouting) reports and how we’re guarding people, and make shots. Make shots and be athletic at times — easy job for me.”

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