By Connor Thomas
Game 1 of the Sixers-Hawks 2nd round series yesterday was a game to forget for Philadelphia, and for multiple reasons. A 100% capacity Wells Fargo Center crowd witnessed a nightmare start for the Sixers, as Atlanta ran up the score early, leading by as many as 26 points in the 1st half. Just reading that sentence would have been mind boggling to anyone who has followed the NBA this year, but how Philadelphia dug themselves that hole was equally as astounding. There were plenty of things that went wrong for the Sixers Sunday afternoon, but they all pointed back to one source: the game plan of Head Coach Doc Rivers.
Rivers has been a revelation this year in his first season as Sixers Head Coach, seeming to be leaps and bounds ahead of where Brett Brown was last year as a game planner. What happened yesterday does not undo that, but it was his worst game of his tenure in Philadelphia. Looking back at the box score, it’s easy to tell where the game went downhill for the Sixers. Following a Hawks timeout with 2:38 left in the 1st Quarter, Doc elected to go with a lineup of Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, George Hill, and Dwight Howard. That lineup became all bench just over a minute later when Furkan Korkmaz subbed in for Curry, but from the first set of substitutions (2:38 in the 1st) to the starters returning with 8:32 left in the 2nd Quarter, the Sixers got run off the floor. During that time frame – about 6 minutes of game time – Doc Rivers sat idly by while his lineup put up only 5 points. Meanwhile, the Hawks took advantage of a turnover heavy stretch from the Sixers, putting up 19 of their own points and leaving that stretch with a 14 point increase on an already 12 point lead. You can’t play the starters 48 minutes, everyone understands that, but someone needs to let Rivers know that the Eastern Conference Semifinals is not the place to play an all bench lineup. It was an unacceptable lineup that put the Sixers in a hole that was seemingly impossible to climb out of.
That was just the first on a list of issues with the Sixers’ game plan yesterday. While statistically it may be the most obvious, an argument can be made that the most egregious was the refusal to put anyone but Danny Green on Atlanta’s Trae Young. From the opening tip, it was clear that Rivers’ decision to put Green on Young was the wrong one. The Hawks’ point guard penetrated the lane with ease, either knocking down floaters, throwing lobs to Clint Capela, or finding another shooter wide open with a pass to the corner. Yes, the Hawks had a lot of other shooters open, but that was a direct result of the gravity caused by Young’s ability to basically walk into the lane. When you put a slower player like Danny Green on a player with elite speed like Trae Young, it leads to the other defenders having to collapse the lane to defend the lob or the floater. That, in turn, was what gave the Hawks enough wide open threes to knock down 20 in the game, the most given up in Sixers playoff history.
Why was the decision to put Green on Young the most egregious error from Rivers in my opinion? Well, in the 2nd half, DPOY finalist Ben Simmons was finally put on Young and clearly had more success than Green. Matisse Thybulle may have been even better than Simmons in his limited time defending Trae. And yet, after seeing that his strategy was not only clearly costing his team a playoff game, but also that there were TWO better options, Doc went back to Danny Green on Trae Young for points of the 3rd and 4th Quarters. This should have been an adjustment that happened in the 1st Quarter, but instead, Rivers waited til halftime to make the switch, and then reverted back to his original flawed matchup. That is inexcusable in the playoffs.
Here’s the upside: Rivers’ decision to go to the full court press, and balance his starters and reserves in the 4th Quarter allowed the Sixers to make a major comeback, falling just short from outright winning the game. He made some adjustments to the flaws in his game plan, but they took far too much time to happen. With a playoff series against a team you faced 3 times in the regular season, and that you had multiple days to prepare for, it was troubling that so many adjustments were needed in the first place. There is no reason to believe that the Sixers won’t put out a better effort in Game 2 and beyond, but for the first time this year, Doc Rivers has to wear this loss. He’ll have to be much better for the rest of this series if the Sixers plan to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.