There is a play dynamic that James Harden has long been the NBA’s best at: let’s call it the lob-floater blur. Turning the corner on his defender and seeing a rim protector rush to block his way for an easy lay-up, Harden can loft the ball over a big man’s outstretched hands—either into the basket, or to a teammate near it, who is prepared for a dunk. And the confusion caused from which of the two he might be doing, and its related paralysis (or often, the defense simply guessing wrong) has been distilled into a Cy Young level fastball/changeup duality over the years.
But in 2021, you could argue that Trae Young is even better at it. It helps that he’s working with one of Harden’s very best dunker-spot and roll-man finishers, Clint Capela, and it helps that Young also has superfluous shooting and secondary playmaker release valves all around him—Bogdan Bogdanovic, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, and Danilo Gallinari all make his life much easier. But there’s still no selling it short: at 22, he’s already learned how to twist elite NBA defenses into Sophie’s Choice pretzels, forcing them into corners where they must decide just how it is that he’s going to kill you.
At the moment, such trials are the concern of the Philadelphia 76ers. The Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed after finally putting a modicum of perimeter shooting around the kaiju-like paint monster trio of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Tobias Harris, the Sixers have battered opponents into submission with their length all season. And in Game 1 of their series against Young’s Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, we saw both the extreme benefits of this strategy and the ways in which Young can solve its long-limbed riddles.
What began as an insurgent Hawks beatdown became an exhibition in the Sixers gradually (too gradually, as it turned out) realizing their advantages over the upstart contenders. After allowing Young and company to get out in the frontcourt and punish all nine of their first-quarter turnovers, to the tune of 36 first quarter points, the Sixers locked in. Though it seems Young is too low to the ground and quick with his feet on it for anyone on the Sixers to truly stay in front of him, he was progressively challenged and slowed by the effort involved in getting what he wanted against Simmons or Matisse Thybulle—arguably the league’s best wing defender who’s not in a starting lineup.
This strained Young’s floater, and his passing game, and his control of a live dribble. After being down by 20 at the half and considerably more for much of the second quarter, Philadelphia nearly closed the gap with pure blitzing frenzy down the stretch. Given the rate at which they were eating Atlanta’s lead in the game’s closing minutes, it can be argued that one especially shrewd instance of Young’s game clock manipulation gave the Hawks the padding they needed to hold back their assassins just long enough to gain a 128-124 win, and take home-court advantage in the seven-game series.
On display in the game was the full range of the Hawks’ bravura, and all the highs and lows of the unusually constructed Sixers. Embiid, who entered the game in uncertain shape after missing the closeout game of his team’s first-round series victory over the Washington Wizards with a torn meniscus, soothed his biggest worriers with his typically singular Shaq-Kobe hybrid on offense, equally bruising and smooth on his way to 39 highly efficient points—14 of which he got from the free throw line, bringing the potent Capela to within one foul of having to leave the game.
Simmons, a perpetual target of skepticism and intrigue, turned the ball over too much in the game's opening moments, and also missed 7 of his 10 free throws. He spent the rest of the game making up for these mistakes with outrageously effective defense, nearly wrecking the Hawks’ ball movement and handles so badly in the second half that it nullified their prodigious first-half scoring output. Young was visibly frustrated, but was never taken off his highly cocky horse; the steed of self-assurance he rode through a Madison Square Garden that hated him in his team’s first-round series victory, and that he always seems to be atop of.
Bogdanovic, too, rides along on such unburdened beasts. It was his five points in the final minute that took the game out of reach for Philadelphia, including a three-pointer that led to his replication of Young’s bodacious New York City gesture—a finger raised to pursed lips, telling a jacked-up crowd to shut up while his team does their work and comes out of their hostile building with a win. They are likely to see harsh adjustments from Philadelphia in Game 2—most notably a more consistently trapping intensity—and run into something much tougher than anything the Knicks could have prepared them for. If they’re able to take the Sixers’ next punch, we could be in for a generational basketball classic.