7:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: 76ers -3, Over/Under: 225.5
After a surprising start, this series has gradually turned into what we expected as the (One Seed) Philadelphia 76ers look to take a commanding 3-1 lead on the road as the (Five Seed) Atlanta Hawks attempt to strike back and square things away in this pivotal Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals from State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. After receiving a proverbial blow to the face in Game One, the top-seeded 76ers (49-23, 1st in Eastern Conference) have responded with a fury, handling the upstart Hawks with relative ease over the course of the ensuing two entries of this series, outscoring them by sixteen points in each outing. So what has changed for Philadelphia, you ask? Well, all season long their prowess on the defensive end has propelled them to their lofty standing in the East hierarchy, and a return to form has them on the verge of putting their foot on the throat of their opponent. In Game One (128-124 loss at home), the hosts couldn’t slow down the visiting side, with Atlanta shooting a scorching 51.2% from the field, including a torrid 20-of-47 from beyond the arc (42.6%), outscoring them by a sizable margin of thirty points en route to building a lead as great as twenty-six points. Granted, the Sixers certainly found a good deal of success of their own on the offensive end, netting 54.9% of their overall attempts, ad even cut the deficit to three in the affair’s waning moments, but ultimately fell due to their own carelessness with the basketball, committing nineteen turnovers turning into twenty-seven points for their opponent, while also missing eleven of their thirty-five free-throw attempts (68.6%). And it’s with that said that (Head Coach) Doc Rivers went about making his adjustments for Game Two, and by and large they bore fruit in the 118-102 victory; by switching (versatile Guard) Ben Simmons (14.3 PTS, 55.7% FG, 30.0% 3FG, 7.2 REB, 6.9 AST, 1.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 18.3 PER) onto the Hawks’ Trae Young (more on him shortly) as the primary defender, which helped create all kinds of havoc with the visitors committing eighteen turnovers in comparison to just nine for the home side, parlaying to twenty-eight points for the latter. As a whole, Atlanta cooled considerably on 45.8% shooting, including a more subdued 11-of-30 from downtown (36.7%), while Philly continued to have it’s way offensively on 52.9% shooting, assisting on twenty-nine of their forty-six field goals, and knocking down a much-improved 12-of-26 from three (46.2%). With the series shifting to the dirty south, the general train of thought would be that things would tighten up for both sides, but it was the 76ers who continued to exhibit their dominance in a convincing 127-111 win; the defense was essential again, as the relegated the hosts to a 47.6% shooting, smothering them on the perimeter in an attempt to snuff out their three-point shooting, a strategy that was successful in yielding just 6-of-23 shooting (26.1%). Getting back to Simmons, his dogged tracking of Young throughout these latter two games has completely disrupted the Hawks’ ball-movement; Atlanta dished out twenty-three assists in comparison to fifteen turnovers in Game One, but over the following two chapters of this series have struggled to dish out more dimes (35) than turnovers (28), with Philadelphia all to happy to make them pay with a combined forty points off said mistakes. The Third Quarter was where this contest was ultimately decided, with Rivers’ charges outscoring the hosts 34-19 on a blistering 12-of-19 shooting from the field (63.2%), with the tandem of Simmons and (All-NBA Center) Joel Embiid (28.5 PTS, 51.3% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 10.6 REB, 2.8 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.4 BLK, 30.3 PER) scoring eleven points apiece. Embiid would end the night with twenty-seven points on an efficient 7-of-14 shooting (50.0%), along with a prolific 12-of-16 from the charity stripe (75.0%), continuing to be a nightmare for the Hawks who have been simply unable to contend with his size. Much was made of the health of the towering Cameroon International coming into this series after he suffered a minor tear in his meniscus during the latter stages of the previous series against the Washington Wizards, but through three games he has been met with little resistance en route to averaging 35.3 points on 53.3% shooting, along with 10.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.3 steals, and 2.3 blocks. With all that said, as dominant as Embiid has performed and as stifling as Simmons has been defensively, the Sixers have absolutely flipped the momentum of this series thanks to some timely outbursts from their oft-maligned Bench. In Game One their reserves were outscored 34-23, and through the First Half of Game Two their Bench was blanked altogether before Shake Milton (13.0 PTS, 45.0% FG, 35.0% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 3.1 AST, 0.6 STL, 14.6 PER) exploded after Halftime with thirteen points in fourteen minutes as the hosts went on a 16-0 run to blow the game open and even the series. On Friday Night it was (Turkish International) Furkan Korkmaz (9.1 PTS, 40.1% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.9 STL, 12.8 PER) who poured in fourteen points in just over twenty-seven minutes, while (veteran Center) Dwight Howard (7.0 PTS, 58.7% FG, 8.4 REB, 0.9 AST, 0.4 STL, 0.9 BLK, 17.8 PER) added another twelve points and six rebounds as the Bench outscored Atlanta’s for the first time, 42-32. Look for the Bench to provide another inspired performance for they will need to do so if Philadelphia is to indeed take a 3-1 lead before heading back to the City of Brotherly Love, as (veteran Swingman) Danny Green (9.5 PTS, 41.2% FG, 40.5% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.8 BLK, 12.1 PER) suffered a calf strain early in Game Three and did not return, with Rivers rather coy on whether or not the three-time NBA Champion will be available for tonight’s contest.
Meanwhile, after announcing their arrival in their First Round triumph over the (Four Seed) New York Knicks and putting the top-seeded Sixers on notice in Game One, momentum has dissipated for the Hawks (41-31, 5th in Eastern Conference), who desperately need a win tonight lest they find themselves facing elimination in a few days time. Though it may not seem like it at first glance, their is pressure for Atlanta to progress, which was made clear when management relieved (Former Head Coach) Lloyd Pierce of his duties after a disappointing 14-20 start, and promoting the venerable Nate McMillan on an interim basis. This has certainly appeared to be a gamble that has paid off, with the 56-year old guiding his young charges to a 27-11 record during his time as Head Coach, with all signs pointing toward the franchise lifting the temporary tag at the conclusion of this campaign. With that said, he’s going to have to figure out two things: how to solve Philadelphia’s stifling defense, while also slowing them down on the offensive end. After three games, it may be more likely they do the former than the latter, for at no point in this series have they managed to deter their opponent from getting the shots they want on the offensive end of the hardwood. We already touched upon their mounting struggles when in possession, but at this point in the series the Hawks have their own defensive liabilities to blame for their current predicament; McMillan’s charges have yielded a disappointing 123.0 points on 55.2% shooting from the field, including 42.1% from beyond the arc, with 27.3 assists in comparison to just 12.0 turnovers, all the while getting outscored by an average of 11.3 points in the paint. Of course, the biggest issue here has been the disparity of size between the teams, with Atlanta having found themselves at a noticeable disadvantage in this department; the aforementioned Embiid aside, Philly is easily one of the largest teams in the National Basketball Association, and nowhere is that disparity more apparent than at Point Guard, where the aforementioned Simmons, listed at 6-11 and 240 lbs, has been matched up with (breakout sharpshooter) Trae Young (25.3 PTS, 43.8% FG, 34.3% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 9.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 23.0 PER), who only stands 6-1 and 180 lbs. The 22-year old was an assassin in the previous series against the Knicks, tormenting them (and their fan base) to the tune of 29.2 points on 44.1% shooting, along with 9.8 assists. The All-Star carried that scoring prowess over to this Conference Semifinal, totaling thirty-five points on 11-of-23 shooting (47.8%), including 4-of-11 from downtown (36.4%), with ten assists and a pair of steals in Game One’s shocking 128-124 victory. However, with Simmons draped all over him in Game Two he struggled to reach twenty-one points on just 6-of-16 shooting (37.5%), including a miserable 1-of-7 from three (14.3%). Game Three featured a return to form the young gunner with twenty-eight points on 9-of-17 shooting (52.9%), but as we covered earlier his side simply couldn’t keep pace with the 76ers’ torrid attack. With that said, he’s continued to do an excellent job of drawing fouls and getting to the charity stripe, netting 24-of-26 attempts (92.3%), while also promoting ball-movement with 9.7 assists in comparison to committing 3.7 turnovers. What he really needs though is help, for the supporting cast (which management invested heavily in during the offseason) needs to make a stand. Young’s exploits aside, Atlanta enjoyed their success against New York largely due to having a deeper rotation. (Defensive stalwart) Clint Capela (15.2 PTS, 59.4% FG, 14.3 REB, 0.8 AST, 0.7 STL, 2.0 BLK, 24.3 PER) has been one of the better defensive Centers in the NBA for a number of years now, but has nonetheless been thoroughly manhandled by Embiid, already racking up more fouls (13) in three games than he did in five games against the Knicks (9). Furthermore, McMillan will be counting on the likes of (offseason acquisition) Bogdan Bogdanovic (16.4 PTS, 47.3% FG, 43.8% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.1 STL, 17.6 PER) and (looming Free Agent) John Collins (17.6 PTS, 55.6% FG, 39.9% 3FG, 7.4 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.5 STL, 1.2 BLK, 20.6 PER), along with (veteran reserves) Danilo Gallinari (13.3 PTS, 43.4% FG, 40.6% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 16.3 PER) and Lou Williams (10.0 PTS, 38.9% FG, 44.4% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 3.4 AST, 10.8 PER) to make more of an impact. With their backs against the wall, look for the Hawks to put together a more spirited performance in tonight’s Game Four, particularly when you consider that it could be the final affair contested at State Farm Arena until the Fall; Atlanta has been very good at home this season (25-11), and even carried a thirteen-game winning streak in the dirty dirty before Friday’s debacle, with their last defeat coming to the Milwaukee Bucks back on April 15th.