ATLANTA — In retrospect, the contours of this Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks probably revealed themselves near the end of Game 1.
Though Atlanta desperately held on for the win, the 76ers’ frenzied fourth-quarter comeback had both unlocked some options for how they could attack the rest of the series and planted some doubt that the magic carpet the Hawks had ridden into Philadelphia was about to dump them off at the next station.
And little by little, minute by minute, ever since that moment, the fundamental truth of this matchup has come to light: The 76ers have a good bit more than the young Hawks.
More reps in the fine line you have to walk in the playoffs between physicality and over-aggressiveness. More size to throw at Trae Young and make his decisions with the ball a fraction harder. More arms to disrupt those fancy cross-court passes and post entries that came so much easier for Atlanta in the first round against the New York Knicks. More reliable secondary scoring.
Philadelphia’s 127-111 win in Game 3 does not end the series, or even ensure that it won’t last a while longer. The Hawks still have a Game 4 back in State Farm Arena on Monday, and a win there would make it 2-2 and flip the pressure back on the 76ers to hold serve in Game 5.
But in terms of cutting to the heart of the matter about why the 76ers are the No. 1 seed in the East and why the young Hawks have not yet arrived, Game 4 told you all you need to know.
Atlanta was hurried and uncomfortable doing just about anything on offense and completely overmatched on the defensive end of the floor. Philadelphia got the ball where it needed to go (usually to Joel Embiid), shot opportunistically from the 3-point line (10-of-21) and never allowed the Hawks even a moment’s peace.
Just like a No. 1 seed is supposed to do.
“They pretty much did a good job of executing and really just pounding us, taking advantage of their size,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “We basically just couldn’t get stops. We’re not able to get stops and get out into transition to get anything easy. When their defense is set, they’re pretty good.”
As much as Atlanta showed against the Knicks and coming out hot in Game 1 of this series, this is what the playoffs are really about: Which team can adjust and go up a level.
The 76ers have those options, not just with Embiid — who scored 27 points in Game 3 and has 47 free throw attempts so far in the series — but in being able to use both Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle on Young.
Though Young still got his numbers with 28 points on 9-of-17 shooting and eight assists, everything Atlanta’s offense tried to do was a big more difficult, more grinding. If the Hawks aren’t crazy hot from the 3-point line — and they went just 6-of-23 in this game — they don’t have a lot of ways to put pressure on the 76ers to make the next adjustment in this series.
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“We got stops and that was the biggest thing for us,” forward Tobias Harris said of the start of the third quarter when the 76ers scored on 10 of their first 12 possessions and asserted full control of Game 3. “We were able to get stops and push the ball up the floor and really get into transition. All year long, it’s no surprise that transition has been our best offense.”
It’s still early in the series, but it feels like Atlanta is already running out of moves to make. Through three games, the Hawks haven’t been able to do much of anything to bother Embiid, whether it was Clint Capela playing him straight up or trying to bring double teams, which led to a lot of easy baskets early in the game Friday when he either walked right through them for clean looks or passed to cutters right under the rim. They’ve also struggled to contain Philadelphia’s role guys, whether it was Shake Milton exploding in Game 2 or Furkan Korkmaz making some tough shots to get his 14 points in Game 3.
Even Simmons should be full of confidence offensively now after he hunted more shots in the second half and got rewarded with 18 points.
But that’s exactly what championship contending teams are supposed to do in the playoffs. Philadelphia took a punch in Game 1 and has seen everyone’s level of play rise. Atlanta bullied the 76ers for three quarters and have struggled to meet their response ever since.
“We knew it was going to be tough,” McMillan said. “Everything will be on the table as far as how we come out and play because their size is a factor and they just pretty much pounded us in the paint tonight and we’ll see if we can make some adjustments here.”
For Atlanta, though, the reality of being a No. 5 seed making its first playoff appearance with this roster means that there probably aren’t a ton of adjustments that can realistically flip things back in their direction.
The gap between the Hawks and the 76ers began to show up in a big way Friday night, and it looked far more like the truth than anything else that has happened in this series.
Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.