76ers' Keys to Avoiding Elimination vs. Hawks in Game 6 of 2021 NBA Playoffs

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 17, 2021

76ers’ Keys to Avoiding Elimination vs. Hawks in Game 6 of 2021 NBA Playoffs

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Twice the Philadelphia 76ers have had a chance to take a stranglehold of their Eastern Conference Finals series against the Atlanta Hawks. Twice the Sixers have failed to capitalize on that opportunity.

    On Monday night, they held a 2-1 series lead and took a 13-point lead into intermission. But the offense stalled, a hobbled Joel Embiid disappeared and that advantage evaporated over the final 24 minutes of what became a 103-100 triumph for the Hawks.

    On Wednesday, history repeated itself—in even more dramatic fashion. This time, the Sixers failed to protect a 26-point lead, mustering nothing over the final four minutes of regulation beyond a two-point shot by Seth Curry with 0.1 seconds remaining. By that time, Philadelphia's collapse was already complete, and Atlanta escaped with a 109-106 road win.

    Now, it's back to The A, where Philadelphia suddenly finds itself just 48 minutes away from elimination. It's win-or-go-fishing multiplied by two, and for the Sixers to force a winner-take-all Game 7, the following three things must happen.

Feed Embiid

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    It says plenty about Philadelphia's tenuous position that its foundation is a 7-footer with a partially torn meniscus. But even a less-than-full-strength Embiid can be spectacular, as he has been for much of this series.

    In Games 1 through 3, he averaged 35.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. In Game 5, he cleared each of those marks with 37 points, 13 boards and four rejections. In between, he hobbled through a rough Game 4 in which he shot just 4-of-20 from the field and misfired on all 12 of his second-half shots. But even then, his final line featured 21 boards and 17 points.

    He's a walking mismatch with a plethora of post moves and a soft shooting touch that reaches out to the three-point line. Hawks center Clint Capela is no slouch on defense, but even he's been rendered mostly powerless against Embiid.

    The Sixers need to squeeze everything they can out of their All-Star center to live to fight another day.

Find Support Scoring

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    When Philly's offense is rolling, there are layers to this attack.

    It's always Embiid-focused (as it should be), but Tobias Harris is dancing around defenders in isolation, Ben Simmons is hard-charging to the rim and shooters like Seth Curry are shredding nets from three. But in Game 5, the offense devolved into Embiid-Curry-or-bust. The other eight Sixers who saw the floor combined to score just 33 points on 10-of-36 shooting (27.8 percent).

    Philadelphia has to know this isn't a winning formula. While Embiid may well deliver another 37 points (or more), the Sixers cannot count on getting 36 points out of Curry again. He played 57 games in the regular season and didn't reach 30 points once.

    Harris (4 points, 2-of-11) has to find some soft spots in an Atlanta defense that ranked just 18th in efficiency, per NBA.com. Simmons might have a serious case of the yips at the foul line (4-of-14 on Wednesday, 8-of-25 the first four games), but he can't play this passive on offense (four shots in 38 minutes). And with Danny Green shelved by a right calf strain, the Sixers must identify a reliable shooting source between Furkan Korkmaz, Shake Milton and George Hill, who went a combined 4-of-17 in Game 4.

Keep the Gas Pedal Floored

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Game 6 is set for a 7:30 p.m. ET tip in Atlanta on Friday night. Sixers skipper Doc Rivers may not sleep a wink between now and then.

    He has the more talented team in this series. He has the best player in this series. He had home-court advantage in this series. His club had an 18-point lead in Game 4 and a 26-point edge in Game 5 and couldn't protect either one.

    That's inexcusable.

    The Sixers can't get comfortable—not on offense, not on defense and not with their approach. No lead is too big to blow, and Philadelphia needs to know that by now.

    Throw the kitchen sink at Trae Young and get the ball out of his hands. Move around on offense. Push the tempo when the opportunity arises. Make open shots when they're there. Pray to the basketball gods that Simmons suddenly becomes competent at the charity stripe.

    Something's gotta give, and that something can't keep being big leads for Philly.