A frantic comeback didn’t have enough gas for the Philadelphia 76ers, who dropped Game 1 of their Eastern Conference second-round series to the Atlanta Hawks 128-124 after they were nearly run out of the gym in the first half.
Trailing by as many as 26 in the first half, the Sixers’ countless comeback attempts finally gained steam in the final quarter to give the young Hawks a serious scare.
A Joel Embiid layup with 1:08 left cut it to five before a five-second violation gave the ball right back to the Sixers. Just seven seconds later, it was a three-point lead through the Sixers’ star center again.
Employing the trap that was giving the Hawks fits, Philadelphia looked like they had them dead to rights on the following possession, but Bogdan Bogdanovic nailed a backbreaker to put Atlanta up six with 41.6 to go.
A Ben Simmons free throw preceded another Sixers forced turnover — a Harris lay-up getting Philadephia back to within three. Yet the Hawks found their way out of the trap near their baseline yet again with Huerter making a circus bounce pass to a wide-open John Collins, who drove to the basket and drew a clear-path foul on Embiid with 23.2 ticks left.
Collins hit both and with the ensuing possession because of the Embiid foul, he provided the exclamation point with a thunderous alley-oop delivered by Trae Young with the foul to put Atlanta back up eight. Yet the Sixers’ trap and Atlanta immaturity left the door open for the Sixers to cut it back to within two with nine seconds to go, but Bogdanovic was able to seal the game at the free-throw line to give the Hawks an unlikely opening victory.
The Hawks were paced by Trae Young, who dropped 35 points and 10 assists behind a barnstorming start that featured 25 points and seven assists in the first half.
He continues his brilliant start to his postseason career, becoming just the second player in NBA history to score at least 30 points in each of his first four career playoff road games, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) in 1970 with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Joel Embiid didn’t seem too impacted by a knee injury that held him out of Game 5 against the Washington Wizards as he dropped 39 points with nine boards while Seth Curry and Tobias Harris added 21 and 20 respectively.
The Hawks flew out of the gate to immediately punch the top-seeded 76ers in the mouth — quickly dispelling the notion that Atlanta’s first-round dominance over the New York Knicks was either a fluke or the product of playing a lesser opponent.
Atlanta hung up 74 points in the first half, putting on an offensive clinic that simply overwhelmed the Sixers’ seemingly unsuspecting defense.
The red-hot Hawks shot 63.4% from the field in the first half while sinking 13 three-pointers. As expected, they were led by the mercurial Young, who shot 8-of-13 from the field and 4-of-7 from three-point range for 25 points with seven assists in just 18 minutes of play in the opening half.
After an 11-0 run put the visitors up 20, Young scored seven-straight to help his side take their largest lead of the half at 26.
The unrelenting attack had the Sixers struggling just to keep the Hawks in view as they trailed by 20 heading into halftime. Embiid didn’t show too much discomfort on that knee, posting 17 points with an additional 15 of support coming from Harris. The problem was the rest of the Sixers could only muster up 22 points in that first half.
What made the Hawks that much more lethal was the deep-shooting support that Young had, ensuring that the Sixers’ defense was spread as thin it could have possibly been.
Bogdanovic added 21 points with five made three-pointers while Collins’ 21 points were sparked by three made from beyond the arc.
The Sixers opted to throw Matisse Thybulle on Young in an attempt to slow him down — and it did work at times during the second half as Young was limited to just six points in the frame. However, Philadelphia could not find a way to cut into Atlanta’s healthy lead out of the break as they only got to within 16 heading into the fourth quarter.
They made a strong push shortly after Young re-entered the game off a few minutes of rest with eight minutes to go in the fourth. With a couple of quick punches and a questionable call that gifted Philadelphia a possession off a Kevin Huerter missed three-pointer, the Sixers’ deficit was cut to 12 with 6:09 to go.
In just 1:22, however, Huerter and Young sparked a Hawks 7-2 run to put Atlanta back up 17 with just under five minutes to go, but the Sixers punched right back with a 7-0 run of their own to cut Atlanta’s lead to just seven inside two minutes left to commence the chaotic ending at Wells Fargo Center.