The Atlanta Hawks defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 103-96 in Game 7 of the last Eastern Conference semifinals at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday, winning the series as the underdog again and setting up a date with the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Finals.
The series became a bone-crashing game from G5 and the intensiveness reached a peak on Sunday. There were 16 draws and 18 lead exchanges. Neither side reached 30 points in any of the four quarters. The biggest lead one team had in one quarter was five (by the Hawks in Q2, 23-18).
Kevin Huerter dropped a team-high 27 points for the Hawks after making six jumpers around the free throw line. He and Danilo Gallinari, who went 6-13 on the field to get 17 points, made the basic offensive contributions the team needed to stay alive.
John Collins joined hands with Clint Capela to do their best trying to limit oversized Joel Embiid. Unlike Capela whose offensive range was limited under the rim, Collins managed do some extra work exploiting mismatch to get 14 points. He also grabbed 16 rebounds, three of which on the offensive glass.
And then there was Trae Young. Though he's not 23 years old yet, Young has already developed some truly lethal qualities on the court. The 76ers knew they could not stop him when he entered the 3-point line, so they stopped at nothing trying to shut him out. Whenever Young called a screen, he would face either double-teaming or hedge-and-recover defense.
But defenders could not stay focused for every minute on the court. When they were slow trapping Young, he could drive in and make Embiid guess his nest move: if Embiid stepped out, Young facilitated Capela for alley-oop dunks; if Embiid remained, Young shot floaters.
Moreover, not every possession could lead to half-court game, especially under the defensive pressure in G7. As a 1.88-meter-tall guard, Young was always able to find his teammate under the opponents' rim or corner with an over-half-court long pass.
That's why each of his 21 points and 10 assists mattered so much to the Hawks, though it took Young 18 missed field goal and nine 3-point attempts to achieve them.
Usually it takes longer for playmakers to grow mature because they have more things to learn and a lot of choices to make, both with their skills and on the court. This is only Young's third year in the NBA and first playoff trip, he already has such great command of various skills and is about to use it in the Conference Finals.
The Hawks will meet the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 at Fiserv Forum on Wednesday.
On the opposite side of the floor was the crying Joel Embiid, who put down 31 points and 11 rebounds for the 76ers. The Hawks defense on him again cost Embiid eight turnovers and the persisting high intense physical contact consumed his stamina. As a result, Embiid ceased to go the paint from the third quarter. Nonetheless, he still made four jumpers, including one triples to get 11 points in the last quarter.
What about Embiid's teammates? Tobias Harris again worked really hard in spite of his not-so-pretty efficiency – 8-24 in FGs and 2-7 in triples – to get a double-double 24 points, 14 rebounds and four assists. Seth Curry drained three of his five attempts from beyond. When he made his last triple in Q4, the 76ers led 84-80, the last time they led in Sunday's game. Meanwhile, 1.88-meter-tall Curry had to defend 2.01-meter-tall Huerter, who was the hottest in the Hawks' lineup, all by himself.
What was Ben Simmons during all this time? First let's look at what happened at 3:30 in Q4. Before that, Embiid made a jumper to tie the score 86-86 and then Huerter drained a floater in Curry's face to make it 88-86. In the next possession, 2.11-meter-tall, 108-kilogram Simmons posted up against Gallinari, he beat the Italian's defense with a spin and was totally open facing the dunk. The 1.88-meter-tall Young rushed for help defense but he was neither fast nor big eight to challenge Simmons.
Then Simmons passed the ball to Matisse Thybulle, who missed the shot due to defense of Gallinari and Collins. During all that time, Embiid, who averaged 11.7 free throws per game in the series, was stretching out the spacing for Simmons on the head of the key.
We have talked and heard too much about Simmons's shooting problem and offensive desire since he entered the league. But nothing is more convincing than the following stats:
Simmons took only three FG attempts in all Q4s of all seven games and missed them all. He shot seven, two, 11, 10, four, six and four times from the field respectively from G1 to G7. He played 34.6 minutes per game in the series and the 76ers are paying him over $30 million this year.
It's really not hard to decide who the 76ers should get rid of to make a change.
Los Angeles Clippers 114-120 Phoenix Suns (0-1)
Both sides lacked one of the franchise players. Kawhi Leonard's condition remains unclear for the Clippers; Chris Paul shows no COVID-19 symptoms and may return for the Suns in Game 2.
So it all fell to the shoulders of Paul George and Devin Booker to decided the game. George had been doing a quite well going 10-21 in FGs and 7-12 in triples to get 33 points. However, weariness and the Suns' zone defense in the last quarter broke George. He missed all shots in Q4, watching Booker put up epic performance on the floor.
Booker only scored 11 points in the first half due to the trapping defense the Clippers had on him. His 3-7 shooting from downtown and 7-7 shooting from the free throw line were not too impressive. However, Booker drained 11 jumpers from different angles to get 29 points in the second half. He had 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in total, becoming the second Suns player in history to get a 40+point triple-double after Charles Barkley and third in NBA history to do so before reaching 25 years old following Oscar Robertson and Luka Doncic.
This was the first triple-double in Booker's career and he got it in the Conference Finals. The last four who did that were Bill Russell, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, Jerry Lucas and James Worthy, all members of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.
On Booker's side, Deandre Ayton went 10-14 to get 20 points and nine rebounds. His existence posed a new challenge to Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue: If he sends a regular-sized squad to the court, Booker will tear Ivica Zubac with his middle-range jumpers; DeMarcus Cousins' offensive contributions won't be enough to make up for the damage he causes for the team's defense; if Lue goes small again, they can't deal with Ayton's finishing ability and athleticism.
This is a new series and Lue's team began be trailing 1-0. Can he reverse the situation for the third time?
Game 2 will happen at Phoenix Suns Arena again on Tuesday.