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The Philadelphia 76ers will have to pick their poison with Trae Young

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The Philadelphia 76ers had seen enough in the first half, when the Atlanta Hawks bludgeoned them 74-54 behind 25 points and seven assists from Trae Young.

As he did to Reggie Bullock and the rest of the New York Knicks backcourt in the Hawks’ first-round victory, Young diced up Danny Green in single coverage prior to intermission. While the Sixers made it a game late by unleashing intense ball pressure on the Hawks, whatever concerns Atlanta might have about its iffy execution in the closing minutes of its 128-124 Game 1 win over Philadelphia, the Sixers have far more to concern themselves with in the matter of how to guard Young.

There’s no right way to guard Young, only a menu of bad options.

The Hawks’ double-drag screen action with center Clint Capela and power forward John Collins screening high for Young is tailor-made for Young’s talents: the floater, the lobs, the ability to draw contact against off-balanced defenders at the point of contact, and his capacity to fire up a jumper from any distance.

Young exploits not only a defender’s weaknesses, but his strengths too. Witness any aggressive on-ball defender who tries to blow up a screen for Young, only to hear the referee whistle him for contact. And while it’s easy to prioritize getting the ball out of Young’s hands, a defense has to extend out to 35 feet to do it, which is suboptimal. It’s simply impossible to hone in on a single tactic without exposing a vulnerability elsewhere.

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers acknowledged the challenge postgame with a dash of gallows humor when asked if he had any thoughts in the first half about deploying Ben Simmons on Young or other strategies.

“We had a lot of thoughts,” Rivers said. “We probably thought of all of them.”

Rivers noted that there were multiple diagnoses for Young’s first-half explosion: Broadly speaking, the coverages weren’t well-conceived; the Sixers’ defensive rotations weren’t sharp after Young turned the corner or made the pass; Green struggled when Young rejected screens (The Hawks beat up Green for eight points on three first-half rejections by Young.)

“Danny’s been pretty good on small guards all year,” Rivers said. “But Trae’s not just a small guard — he’s a terrific guard.”

When the Sixers returned to the floor for the third quarter, they changed up their defensive game plan on Young.

“They started with Ben on him,” Hawks guard Kevin Huerter said. “They blitzed some of his ball screens. A lot of it was to try and get the ball out of his hands. [Young] did a great job. We’re really effective when we move the ball and make extra passes. We get the ball moving side to side and we can make 3’s.”

In the opening two minutes of the second half, Young threaded the needle of a hard trap by Simmons and Tobias Harris 30 feet out on the right sideline to find Hawks forward John Collins for a wide-open 3-pointer.

On the very next possession, when Embiid joined Simmons to trap Young at the same spot, Hawks center Clint Capela slipped to the foul line, where Young hit him. Though Capela missed the close-range shot, he had no trouble gathering the miss against Sixers guard Seth Curry and converting the putback.

A few minutes later, after Matisse Thybulle entered the game to serve as the primary defender on Young, Huerter was the beneficiary of Young’s playmaking out of a trap, catching a kickout pass to the weak side before draining an open 3-pointer.

Traps might seem like kryptonite on dynamic playmaking guards, but Young loves to see them. During the regular season, Young tormented trapping defenses to the tune of 114.3 points per 100 chances in the half court (and an even more outlandish 118.5 points on possessions when either he or the recipient of the first pass attempted the shot).

Accordingly, the Sixers sent multiple defenders at Young 15 times in the second half on Sunday, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information research. While Young attempted only one field goal in those 15 instances, the Hawks went 7-for-11 overall from the field for 19 points.

The length of Simmons and Thybulle slowed Young a tad in the second half, as he spent more time moving east to west, in contrast to his north-to-south commutes before halftime. Young’s reading proficiency of the court rates off the chart, but it’s a tougher exercise against taller defenders. Both Rivers and Simmons were salty about how the Sixers’ defenders were officiated against Young, who loves using a defender’s physicality against him.

“I probably will [guard Young],” Simmons said. “I mean, I want to. So, if the refs aren’t going to call so many fouls and I can be physical and be 6-10, then I’ll be 6-10. We’ll see.”

There likely isn’t a singular solution to the problems Young presents. Harris suggested that the Sixers will “mix it up” in Game 2, throwing a variety of schemes and defenders at the Hawks’ catalyst.

Philadelphia might also want to explore not just getting the ball out of Young’s hands, but keeping it out with strong denial from a defender like Thybulle and giving him no other help assignments. A couple of opponents — including the Charlotte Hornets — even threw elements of Dean Smith’s “run-and-jump” pressure defense to successfully disrupt Young during the regular season.

But however the Sixers choose to proceed, they’re now deep into a game of Whac-a-Mole against a brilliant offensive player who seems to have a counter for just about everything.

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Atlanta Hawks’ Onyeka Okongwu out about 6 months after shoulder surgery, sources say

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Atlanta Hawks center Onyeka Okongwu — the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft — underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder on Wednesday, and he will miss approximately six months, sources told ESPN.

Okongwu’s role grew as the season wore on for the Hawks, but a lingering injury beginning in May resulted in the need for the procedure. Renowned surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache of Kerlan-Jobe performed the procedure on Okongwu in Los Angeles, sources said.

Okongwu, 20, is expected to make a full recovery, sources said.

Training camps start in late September, and the 82-game regular season for 2021-22 commences in mid-October.

Okongwu played 50 regular-season games for the Hawks and averaged 9.2 minutes in 18 playoff games in the Hawks’ run to the Eastern Conference finals. Okongwu showed significant promise in earning more minutes behind starter Clint Capela as the season wore on.

The Hawks drafted Okongwu out of the University of Southern California, where he was a first-team All-Pac 12 performer in his one season of college basketball.

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Gains sizable in NBA Finals ratings from last year, but fourth-lowest average since 1997

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NEW YORK — Television ratings for the NBA Finals and playoffs posted sizable increases over last year. But that was the only good news for the NBA as far as viewer numbers.

According to Nielsen, the NBA and ABC on Wednesday, the six-game series between the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns averaged 9.91 million viewers, a 32% increase over last year’s series between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, which also went six games. However, the average makes it the fourth-lowest since 1997.

The Lakers-Heat series — which was played in October in the Orlando bubble after the coronavirus pandemic pushed the season back five months — averaged only 7.45 million.

San Antonio‘s 2007 four-game sweep of Cleveland (9.29 million) and the Spurs’ six-game victory over New Jersey in 2003 (9.83 million) are the other series to average fewer than 10 million since 1997.

The numbers were also down 34.5% compared to two years ago, when the TorontoGolden State series averaged 15.14 million.

Milwaukee’s 105-98 victory over Phoenix on Tuesday night attracted the most viewers in the series, averaging 12.52 million. The audience peaked between 11:30 p.m. and 11:45 p.m. EDT at 16.54 million. Only two games in the series averaged 10 million or more.

This year’s playoffs averaged 4.25 million, up 35% over last year but down 18% compared to 2019.

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Two shootings leave 3 wounded in Milwaukee during celebration of Bucks’ NBA championship

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MILWAUKEE — Two shootings in downtown Milwaukee early Wednesday as crowds celebrated the Milwaukee Bucks‘ first NBA championship in 50 years left three people wounded, police said.

The shootings both happened about 12:42 a.m. at two locations near Water Street, police said in a statement. TV station WISN had a reporter broadcasting from the scene when multiple shots were heard, prompting people to flee.

The shootings were across the Milwaukee River from Fiserv Forum, where the game was played, and the Deer District plaza, where a crowd of roughly 65,000 had gathered for an outdoor watch party. The area where the shootings took place is on a street heavily populated with bars and restaurants.

During Tuesday night’s game, a police officer was trampled by people trying to get into the Deer District watch party after the area had reached capacity, Milwaukee police Capt. Jesús Ortiz said in an email. The officer didn’t sustain any major injuries but reported being in general pain, Ortiz said.

Following one of the shootings, a 22-year-old man had non-life-threatening injuries, police said, and a suspect was in custody.

In the other shooting, which police said happened simultaneously, a 19-year-old woman and a 32-year-old man had non-life-threatening injuries. One person was in custody and other suspects were being sought, police said.

The two shootings, which were in the immediate area of the celebrations, likely were what was heard during the TV coverage, Ortiz said.

The celebrations came after Giannis Antetokounmpo capped one of the greatest NBA Finals ever with 50 points as Milwaukee beat the Phoenix Suns 105-98 to win the series 4-2.

Fans who packed the streets surrounding the arena had cheered and danced all night as they watched the game on giant video screens, and the massive crowd erupted in jubilation as the game ended. A few fans climbed light poles in the plaza and others jumped off a bridge into the nearby river as fireworks exploded above the arena.

Joy Smith, 50, of Milwaukee, danced after the final buzzer. “Milwaukee is underrated, but we proved to the world we could do it,” she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Another fan, Sabrina Holland, 37, of Milwaukee, called it “epic.” She said: “Everyone who’s anyone is here.“

Before the game, and at the city’s request, Gov. Tony Evers mobilized 150 National Guard members to help in Milwaukee with traffic control and public safety.

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