The Atlanta Hawks defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 103-96 on Sunday to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2015. The Game 7 loss sent the No. 1 seed home early after one of the most bitterly disappointing series losses in recent memory. The 76ers blew enormous leads in Games 4 and 5, and now, they’ve blown the series as well.
As he has throughout the series, Joel Embiid led the charge for the 76ers on the offensive end of the floor as he finished with a team-high 31 points to go along with 11 rebounds. On the other side, Trae Young struggled mightily finding his shot in this one but Kevin Huerter picked up the slack in a major way, finishing with 27 points. While the Sixers were favored entering the matchup, it was Atlanta that was able to finish the job and knock off the top seed in Game 7.
With the win, the Hawks advance on to face the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals with Game 1 of that series scheduled for Wednesday night at 8:30 p.m. ET at Fiserv Forum. Here are the three biggest takeaways from Game 7.
1. Sorry Simmons
Ben Simmons’ night, and really, his series, can be encapsulated by a single moment. With 3:30 left in the fourth quarter and his team trailing by two, Simmons spun around Danilo Gallinari and had a wide open dunk sitting there for him. This is what he did.
Whether it was a fear of being fouled and having to take free throws or simply a poor decision, we can’t say. But Matisse Thybulle missed one of the free throws generated by that poor decision. That’s a free point down the drain. Simmons gave up plenty of them. He attempted only four shots in this game and 45 in the series. More distressingly, he took only three shots in the fourth quarter in seven games against the Hawks. Ironically, he made all of them.
It’s hard not to think of all of the different opportunities Philadelphia has had to replace Simmons as their primary ball-handler. They had Jimmy Butler on the roster and apparently preferred Simmons. Negotiations for James Harden went down to the wire. The list goes on and on. Now, after Game 7, the 76ers are unsure of what the future holds for their former No. 1 overall pick. When Doc Rivers was asked if he thought Simmons could be the point guard on a championship team, he responded “I don’t know the answer to that right now.”
Maybe Simmons can be salvaged on another team. Maybe he needs more shooting around him, or a less ball-dominant center, or the right coach, or simply a change of scenery. We’ll probably learn the answers to those questions in the coming months and years. But the 76ers were a No. 1 seed playing against a team with almost no playoff experience. That team was without two important young players in De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. Philadelphia led Game 4 by 18 points and Game 5 by 26. That they managed to still lose this series should be a referendum on the idea that Simmons and Joel Embiid can win a championship together. It’s time to break that duo up, and with the way Simmons played against Atlanta, he’s the one that needs to go.
2. A superstar outing
Trae Young shot 5-of-23 from the floor… and was the best player in this game. He did exactly what a superstar needs to do when his shots aren’t falling in an elimination game. He got to the line, attempting 11 free throws. He excelled as a passer, dishing out 10 huge assists that often amounted to easy lob points for his big men. He never tired, creating good shots for his team for four full quarters. And when the Hawks needed him to finish things off, he delivered with some of the biggest plays of the night.
There is an unrealistic expectation among fans that superstars need to do what Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo did in their Game 7 duel on Saturday: score 40 or more points, make every single play and thrive on both ends of the floor. That’s an unrealistic expectation for 95 percent of the league, and especially players as small as Young. Sometimes shots don’t fall. It’s a part of life in the NBA.
Young averaged over 30 points in the first six games of this series. He had nothing to prove as a massive underdog in Game 7. But he still found ways to impact the game enough to carry the Hawks to the finish line. That’s what superstars do.
3. Huerter hurting the Sixers
When Kevin Huerter last played in Philadelphia in Game 5, he scored zero points. He couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, and that’s not overwhelmingly surprising. They say role players are better at home in the postseason. Sharpshooters like Huerter have been dropping left and right lately (go cringe at Joe Harris’ numbers against the Bucks). This time of year tends to belong to a different sort of player. If any Hawk was going to score 27 points tonight, Young was the obvious candidate.
So naturally, Huerter went out and shot 10-of-18 from the field in the biggest game of his career. He drew the biggest foul of the night and pulled down seven rebounds. He even helped get Seth Curry into foul trouble, and in that sense, is responsible for the 76ers playing 17 full minutes without, yes, I’m going to say this, their second-best player.
That’s how Game 7 matchups tend to go. Remember, the Nets didn’t get a single bench point in their loss to the Bucks on Saturday. Pat Connaughton made three 3-pointers and the Bucks won his minutes by 10 points. That was the difference. It’s not always as glaring as it was for Huerter, but these games almost always come down to one role player having the game of his life. That was Huerter tonight, and since he’ll become extension-eligible after the season, that game couldn’t have come at a better time.