By Rob Mahoney
Although the Sixers weren't able to stretch their lead to double digits in the first half despite dropping 30 in the first quarter alone, high-energy defense and an aggressive transition game allowed them to get the best of the weary Hawks in the third and fourth quarters, clearing the way for a much-needed 99-80 victory.
• The momentum of the game began shifting in the third quarter, when Philadelphia adjusted the orientation of its defense to hone in on Al Horford, Josh Smith, and Atlanta's other various bigs in the post. No Hawks player in particular was torching the Sixers from the block, but Doug Collins wisely identified the importance of Atlanta's post play within the context of their offense. Horford and Smith have particularly great chemistry from that area, and often look to find each other on quick passes out of the block. Smith, in particular, is one of the best kick-out playmakers in the league, as his sometimes unruly game is quieted once he has a moment to stop and read the court at a standstill. Even Ivan Johnson and Zaza Pachulia were able to create some advantages against their undersized opponents, up until the Sixers emphasized post defense early in possessions (by denying prime position) and subsequently attacked the Hawks with a series of hard-to-predict double teams bolstered by active play in the passing lanes. Atlanta frankly wasn't ready for wave after wave of pressure, and though the Hawks were able to keep up their scoring pace for a few minutes in the second half, the squeezing of their post play soon yielded a start-and-stop Sixer run that decided the game.
This was arguably the Sixers' best two-way performance of the season, and Philly can only hope that they ride that high into their upcoming road trip. The Sixers won't be back home for a game until January 8th, and in the meantime will face Brooklyn, Memphis, Golden State, Oklahoma City and San Antonio along with Portland and Phoenix. That's about as trying as road trips come, in that the travel miles and quality of competition will ramp up to wear down a Sixers team that's posted a 4-7 record away from the Wells Fargo Center this season.
• As the game wore on, it grew harder to ignore the fact that the Hawks were playing as if the soles of their sneakers were lined with lead. They were clearly working hard to create and defend, but at a point in the late third quarter, Atlanta's conditioning seemed to collectively give out — a signal to the Sixers that open-court exploitation was now a very real possibility. With Atlanta gassed and trying to scrap together second chance points from the offensive glass, Philadelphia was afforded leak-out opportunity after leak-out opportunity. The Sixers' rebounders did a fantastic job of identifying the right times to jump-start the transition game with a great lead pass, and a slew of guards looked the ball into their hands and converted layups from all angles. One could occasionally catch a Hawks player or two panting to get into the far side of the frame, but their last ditch efforts couldn't stop the Sixers' spirited opportunism.
If not for a a 10-3 solo run mounted by Lou Williams — who was playing against his former team for the first time since leaving the Sixers in free agency — at the end of the third, this game would have been a wrap at the start of the fourth quarter. But all Williams managed to buy was a few minutes' time and an extension of his team's struggles; Atlanta scored at a rate of 94.1 points per 100 possessions overall (a mark several points worse than the Wizards' league-worst season average), drastically underwhelmed in their shooting from the floor, squeezed under their already dismal free-throw rate, and turned the ball over significantly more than is typical. Philadelphia played some terrific defense, but it doesn't help when a team is being ground out of a game by their own lack of stamina — an unfortunate development given that the Hawks will finish up their four-games-in-five-nights run on Saturday against Chicago.