For 24 minutes in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals of the NBA playoffs, the Philadelphia 76ers appeared to be their best selves.
A team that ranked near league average in offensive efficiency during the regular season popped the ball around the half court and drove it down the Atlanta Hawks’ throats in transition. Joel Embiid, coming off one of the worst individual offensive halves in NBA history, was indomitable from every spot on the floor. When the Hawks sent double-teams at him on the block, he flicked the ball out to the perimeter, where it found the sweet strokes of Philadelphia’s shooters.
For their part in the first half Wednesday night, the Hawks looked like a young squad overwhelmed by the demands of the moment. They missed three shots at the rim in the game’s first four minutes. Their wings whiffed from distance. Trae Young encountered roadblocks in the half court against the Sixers’ lanky defenders. By halftime, the Sixers had built a 22-point lead that extended to 26 in the first three minutes of the third quarter.
“There’s 48 minutes on that clock and pretty much the conversation was we’ve been here before,” coach Nate McMillan said of the message he delivered to the Hawks in the locker room at halftime. “We’ve been here before, down big at the half. We need to come out with that energy, that urgency. We know what we need to do and we need to do it in a hurry.”
Basketball is an intrinsically frenetic game, especially in the NBA’s golden age of offense. But Wednesday night reached an exceptional level of mayhem, as the energy and confidence of the Sixers and their notoriously boisterous fans leaked out of Wells Fargo Center. The result was a highly improbable 109-106 Atlanta win.
“I thought it started in the beginning of the second half,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said. “Even though we kept the lead, I think we had six turnovers in our first 10 possessions to start the third quarter. That’s why I called the early timeout. You could see we kind of exhaled, relaxed.”
The Sixers racked up seven turnovers in the first 12 possessions, but the spirit of Rivers’ lament was accurate. Only two Sixers made a shot from the field in the second half — Embiid and guard Seth Curry.
“We didn’t get any movement offensively in what we were doing,” Sixers forward Tobias Harris said. “And then defensively, we were just nonexistent out there for their run.”
With the margin at 22 points and just a minute and a half remaining in the third quarter, Embiid and Curry checked out, while the Hawks inserted their second unit alongside Young. That’s when the bloodletting began.
The Hawks stun the 76ers on the road, thanks to a 15-0 run and a key defensive stop from John Collins, to take a 3-2 series lead.
“We just gave it to them,” Sixers point guard Ben Simmons said. “We got too comfortable and didn’t play the way we should be playing. Didn’t move the ball as much in the second half. Didn’t get as many easy shots. And defensively, there were too many lapses where we didn’t communicate.” Embiid did not address the media following the game.
With Philadelphia’s only two productive offensive players on the bench, Atlanta’s second unit led the first charge. Rookie big man Onyeka Okongwu, who played sparingly through much of the regular season and spot minutes in the postseason, wreaked havoc in six minutes, in which he recorded a plus-12: An offensive rebound that led to a couple of free throws. A tip-in off a Lou Williams miss. Then payback from Williams with an emphatic alley-oop just as the Philadelphia cavalry of starters stepped back on the floor.
Williams, a feast-or-famine slingshot, remained on the floor and drained five consecutive field goals over five possessions. The cosmos blessed a 3-pointer from John Collins, banking it off the glass. Then, as the lead dipped to single digits, the Hawks brought out the kitchen sink: “Belt-a-Ben.” Though Simmons converted two of the four free throws gifted by Atlanta’s intentional fouls, Rivers yanked him as his team nursed a six-point lead with 3 minutes, 20 seconds remaining in the game.
“Obviously, I got to knock down free throws and step up and do that, but it is what it is,” Simmons said. “Coach’s decision.”
As Ben Simmons is shooting free throws, a 76ers fan tries to show him the proper form.
Simmons is a star-level player, which lends the spectacle of Belt-a-Ben some intrigue. But Simmons’ pair of successful free throws was actually Philadelphia’s most successful offensive possession in the final 4:45 of the game — and the Sixers didn’t hit a shot from the field during the game’s final six minutes.
The Hawks, suffering from rigor mortis for the better part of the night and ineffectual against Embiid’s dominance in the first half, attacked the Sixers in the closing minutes with both the probable and improbable. Over the course of three possessions that vaulted the Hawks into the lead with 1:26 remaining, Young unleashed his holy trinity: a pull-up, a floater and a devilish 3-point attempt from Easttown that deked Matisse Thybulle into a collision and sent Young to the line. And Williams, an anti-Thybulle on the defensive end if there ever was one, added to his body of work on the night with a crucial steal.
By the time Collins blocked Harris at the rim, Curry missed a bomb from distance and Embiid uncharacteristically clanked a couple of free throws, the Hawks had wrested what little fortitude remained for the Sixers. Young took a trip to the stripe to ice the game with 8.4 seconds left in the third-largest halftime comeback in NBA playoff history — a victory that gave the Hawks a 3-2 lead in the series and a chance to close it out in Atlanta on Friday night.
Asked if he could contemplate how special the win was, Young demurred. “I can’t yet,” he said. “We have to finish the job.”
For the Sixers, the collapse comes only two days after they blew an 18-point second-half lead in Game 4. Prior to Wednesday night, they were 165-0 when leading by 25 or more points over the past 25 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. A snakebitten Rivers has now presided over five of the eight largest blown leads in the past two postseasons.
Harris was at a loss for words when asked to explain the Sixers’ propensity of late for blowing large leads in the second half.
“It’s a great question,” he said. “You know it’s … I don’t know.”