There’s one game dynamic that James Harden has long been the best in the NBA: we call it the lob-floater blur. Turning the corner on his defender and seeing a board protector rushing to block his way for an easy lay-up, Harden can drop the ball on the outstretched hands of an older man – either in the basket, both to a teammate next to him, who is preparing for a bath. And the confusion caused by which of the two could do, and their connected paralysis (or often, the defense simply guessing badly) has been distilled into a Cy Young level duel of fastball / change over the years.
But in 2021, you could argue that Trae Young is even better. It helps that he works with one of Harden’s best dunker-spot and roll-man finishers, Clint Capela. It also helps that Young also has shooting valves and secondary players around him – Bogdan Bogdanovic, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari make his life a lot easier. But there’s no short sale: At 22, he’s already learned to twist elite NBA defenses into Sophie’s Choice pretzels, forcing them into corners where they have to decide just how it’s going to kill you.
At the moment, such trials are the concern of the Philadelphia 76ers. The No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference after finally putting a minimum of perimeter shot around the kaiju-like paint monster trio of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, the Sixers beat their subdued opponents with their length all season. And in Game 1 of his series against Young’s Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, we saw both the extreme advantages of this strategy and the ways in which Young can solve his puzzles in the long run.
What started out as a rebellious Hawks insurgency has become a showcase in the Sixers little by little (too slowly, as it turned out) realizing its advantages over upstart contenders. After allowing Young and company to get out on the court in the first quarter and punish nine of their first-quarter turnovers, to the tune of 42 points in the first quarter, the Sixers blocked. Although it looks like Young is too low on the ground and fast with his foot on any of the Sixers to really stand in front of him, he has been progressively challenged and slowed down against Simmons or Matisse Thybulle – arguably the best defender. of the league league that is not in a starting team.
This strained Young’s float, his passing play and his control of a live dribble. After dropping from 20 to half and much more for most of the second quarter, Philadelphia nearly closed the gap with pure frenzy blitzing into the stretch. Given the rate at which they ate Atlanta’s lead in the closing minutes of the game, it can be argued that a particularly astute example of Young’s manipulation of the game clock it gave the Falcons the padding they needed to hold their assassins long enough to earn a 128-124 victory and take a home advantage in the seven-game series.
On display in the game was the Falcons ’full range of bravery, and all of the Sixers’ unusually constructed highs and lows. Embiid, who entered the game in uncertain form after missing the closing game of his team’s first-ever win over the Washington Wizards with a torn meniscus, calmed his biggest warriors with his Shaq-Kobe’s hybrid single on offense, equally bruised and smoothed his way to 39 highly efficient points – 14 of which he scored from the free-throw line, bringing the powerful Capela into a single fault of having to leave the game.
Simmons, a perpetual miracle of skepticism and intrigue, turned the ball too far into the opening moments of the game, and also missed seven of his 10 free throws. He spent the rest of the game replaying those errors with a outrageously effective defense, nearly destroying the Hawks ’ball movement and handling so badly in the second half that he canceled out his prodigious first-half scoring output. Young was visibly frustrated, but was never chased by his very clumsy horse.
Even Bogdanovic, rides on such beasts without charge. It was his last five points that took the game out of Philadelphia’s reach, including a triple that led to his replica of New York City’s corpuscular gesture – a finger raised to his tight lips, telling a silent jacked-up crowd as his team does their job and comes out of their hostile building with a victory.
The Hawks are likely to see tough fixtures from Philadelphia in Game 2 and should get into something much tougher than anything the Knicks could have prepared for. If they are able to take the next punch of the Sixers, we can be in a next-generation basketball classic.