PHILADELPHIA – Joel Embiid bounded on the court and pointed at Shake Milton following an electrifying stretch that might have saved Philadelphia's season and yelled, “I told you be ready!”
Sure enough, Embiid — who had a sideline confrontation last season with Milton — rallied the forgotten guard with a pregame pep talk.
“For some reason,” Embiid said, “I felt like he was going to be needed.”
Milton buried a 32-footer and scored 14 points, and Embiid had a playoff-best 40 points and 13 rebounds to lead the 76ers past the Atlanta Hawks 118-102 in Game 2 on Tuesday night and even the Eastern Conference semifinal.
Game 3 is Friday in Atlanta.
“It really shows what the playoffs is about,” 76ers forward Tobias Harris said. “You never know who’s going to be able to step up.”
Milton took his turn in Game 2.
Milton shined at times as a sixth man this season before he fell out of favor and slogged through an awful first round against Washington (3.4 points per game).
With the reserves failing Philly for the second straight game against the Hawks — the Sixers had zero bench points at the half — coach Doc Rivers gave Milton a shot in the third.
The Sixers squandered a 21-point lead and Trae Young hit a pair of free throws in the third for Atlanta’s first lead, 80-79.
Then came Shake.
Milton did not play in the first half but promptly buried a quick 3 to make it 82-80 for Philadelphia's first bench points in 34 minutes. He buried a long-distance 3 at the horn that sent the Sixers into the fourth quarter with a 91-84 lead and sent the crowd into an absolute frenzy. He kept it going with a jumper early in the fourth that made it 95-84.
Rivers kept the faith and Shake rattled the Hawks and helped the Sixers roll to a 14-0 run that blew the game open and they avoided a straight second disaster at home.
“He prepared himself and he believed he would get another shot and he got it,” Rivers said.
Milton's 14 minutes were the most valuable of Game 2.
Embiid proved his value all season.
Playing with a cartilage tear in his right knee, Embiid carried the Sixers early not long after he found out he was runner-up in NBA MVP voting. Embiid, Tobias Harris and Seth Curry steadied the top-seeded Sixers a game after they fell behind by 26 and were stunned in a Game 1 defeat.
Young scored 21 points for the Hawks, Danilo Gallinari scored 21 and Kevin Huerter had 20.
“Whenever we got close we just turned the ball over or gave up a basket," coach Nate McMillan said. “We didn’t really do a good job of controlling or establishing our defense all night long.”
The Sixers led by 18 early and Sixers fans — who only recently were allowed to pack the place — unleashed seemingly a season’s worth of pandemonium from the opening tip.
Much like in Game 1, the 76ers reserves could not keep the game competitive. All five bench players used in the first half were minus in plus-minus (George Hill and Furkan Korkmaz were both at -11) and Atlanta came roaring back. Huerter and Gallinari hit consecutive 3s that helped the Hawks pull within 57-55 at halftime.
Young, the breakout performer of the postseason, was held to 11 points in the half after scoring 25 in the first half of Game 1. The difference was defense. Ben Simmons, an NBA defensive player of the year finalist, got the assignment in this one after Danny Green was overmatched in the opener. The Sixers were ready for Young: On one first-quarter possession, Young drove the lane and ran into Embiid. Young retreated beyond the 3-point line but was chased down and pressed by Embiid. Trapped along the sideline, Young threw a wild pass that was picked off by Green.
Late in the quarter, Young took one of his usual long, long distance 3s from closer to the 76ers logo than the 3-point line, but the 6-foot-10 Simmons used his outstretched right arm and deflected the 6-1 Young’s shot straight into the air. Simmons snagged the ball.
“I think it was good we came out here and got a game,” Young said. “Obviously they’re a really good team on their floor. Getting at least one game was something we wanted to do.”
Embiid only had one first-place vote in NBA MVP voting and finished second to Denver’s Nikola Jokic for the award. Both big men still have their teams in the playoffs. Jokic averaged 26.4 points. Embiid averaged 28.5 points. Embiid averaged 10.6 rebounds. Jokic was at 10.8.
So why the big disparity in the voting? Jokic was the runaway winner, getting 91 of the 101 first-place ballots cast.
Jokic played all 72 games while injuries limited Embiid to 51.
“I think it was a two-man race,” Rivers said. “Just so many great players in our league. I do think probably the deciding factor was games played. That played a role for sure. I was obviously hoping for our guy but you can’t take anything away from Jokic.”
Allen Iverson in 2001 is the last Sixer to win the MVP award.
Embiid said the finish was “disappointing.”
“As a player you work hard for moments like this, but it’s out of my control. There’s nothing I can do about it,” he said.
Hawks: F De’Andre Hunter sat out with a sore right knee.
76ers: Julius Erving ran the ceremonial bell. ... Embiid is the seventh Sixer with at least 10 career 30-plus point playoff games.
Curry made his first five 3-pointers until he missed one late in the third. Huerter made his first eight shots from the floor and all three 3-pointers through three quarters.
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