Philadelphia 76ers

Sixers Observations: Big 3, Second Unit Strong in Another Win Over Hawks

3 observations after Sixers’ Big 3, second unit strong in another decisive W originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Sixers’ home stretch of the regular season was full of potential on-paper wins.

So far, so good with taking care of business.

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The Sixers beat the Hawks on Friday night at Wells Fargo Center, 126-104, moving to 42-21 on the season. 

Ben Simmons recorded 18 points, six rebounds and five assists. Joel Embiid scored 18 points and grabbed six rebounds. Tobias Harris had 18 points, too.

Dwight Howard scored a team-high 19 points and pulled down 11 rebounds. 

The Hawks weren't quite as shorthanded as in their loss Wednesday but still were without Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. 

Next up for the Sixers is a road game Sunday against the Spurs. Here are three observations on their second consecutive win over Atlanta:

Young has success on Sixers not named Simmons 

Seth Curry started on Trae Young, who returned to action after missing four games with a left ankle sprain, and Simmons defended Solomon Hill. That didn’t work well, and the Sixers changed things up after Atlanta took an 8-2 lead, prompting head coach Doc Rivers to call a timeout. Danny Green switched onto Young. 

Young posted 10 points in the first quarter and 32 in the game. After Young's hot start, Embiid came up higher in pick-and-roll coverage and the Sixers mixed up looks. There’s nothing inherently wrong with drop coverage but it can’t be a predictable, default option against a talent like Young.

Of course, relying too much on drop coverage wasn’t the only issue in recent years for the Sixers against shifty, skilled scorers. Pressuring such players while also being sharp with subsequent rotations is always a challenge. 

An interesting playoff question for the Sixers is just how much (and how early) Simmons will defend the opposing team’s best offensive player. Rivers has sometimes preferred to use Simmons as a “rover,” encouraging him to sniff out opportunities for deflections and steals. 

Here’s the type of play Simmons can’t make if he’s forced to stay glued to Young: 

However, it would be damaging if a perimeter scorer lit Curry or Green up in the first quarter, putting the Sixers in a hole early in a postseason game. It will be a case-by-case judgement for Rivers.

The margin for error is not zero, though. In Green, Thybulle, and Hill, the Sixers do have players who can give Simmons time off against star guards. 

Second unit turns tide 

Outside of Simmons, the Sixers did not have a strong start. They fell behind 21-8 and started 3 for 13 from the floor. 

Simmons was aggressive early, scoring 10 first-quarter points, and Rivers left him in to play a couple of minutes with the Sixers’ second-unit players. If Thybulle, Shake Milton, George Hill and Dwight Howard are the team’s rotational bench players and share the floor in the postseason, it will be interesting to see who plays with that group the most.

Tobias Harris has often been the guy, but Rivers rode the hot hand Friday night. Furkan Korkmaz eventually replaced Simmons.

The Sixers’ bench was key in turning the game around, helping erase that 13-point deficit swiftly. The team held a 19-point advantage by halftime.

Milton’s four-point play was a bright spot, along with a display of veteran savviness from George Hill when he pulled the metaphorical chair out from Danilo Gallinari in the post.

Howard had eight points and six rebounds in his first stint. At one point it appeared a few Sixers pulled him away from an animated conversation that perhaps could’ve become Howard’s 16th technical foul (an automatic one-game suspension). He maintained his focus and overwhelmed the Hawks physically on many occasions.

Thybulle continues to look the part of an All-Defensive Team player. His versatility, improved on-ball solidity and knack for offense-sparking steals is a tremendous combination. 

Hill missed all six of his field-goal attempts but doesn’t need to be hitting jumpers to make positive contributions. Still, the Sixers would obviously like if he found a better offensive rhythm in the final nine regular-season games. 

How about that Big 3? 

We’ve tracked this stat throughout the season, but it’s a decent time to employ it again: Entering Friday’s game, the Sixers had a plus-16.6 net rating in 1,566 possessions with Embiid, Simmons and Harris on the floor together, per Cleaning the Glass.

Those three don’t all need to be at their best for the Sixers to win playoff games, but the trio’s excellence is a core part of this team’s personality. When the Sixers’ stars are all very good simultaneously, the team is tough to beat. 

Embiid had a relatively low-key night but still amassed good numbers, as he tends to do.

A 50-40-90 season is still in play for Harris, with the free throw percentage the most difficult hurdle. He’s at 89.07 percent from the foul line after a 2-for-2 game. 

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