NBA Playoffs dispatches: Nic Batum stars for Sixers, Bulls end Hawks’ miserable season

The other half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture is starting to take shape. After beating the Miami Heat at home on Wednesday and clinching the No. 7 seed, the Philadelphia 76ers will play the No. 2 seed New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

Then, the No. 9 seed Chicago Bulls knocked the No. 10 seed Atlanta Hawks out of the Play-In Tournament. The Bulls will play the Sixers for the No. 8 seed on Friday.

Here are the big takeaways from the games:

76ers 105, Heat 104

When the Sixers finally completed the James Harden trade with the Los Angeles Clippers earlier this season, most of the focus was on the package of picks Daryl Morey had received in return. And for good reason — the goal of that deal was to get assets that could be used in a future trade for a star.

But internally, the Sixers were also excited about getting Nicolas Batum in the deal. They loved his game and believed he was a perfect role player to slot alongside Joel Embiid. He may have been up there in age (he turned 35 in December). But he was a strong and smart defender, a good shooter and an incredible passer. He’s the kind of player who’s always made his teams better. 

“He’s special,” Embiid told reporters recently early in the season. “With the way we play, he just fits everything we need. Great shooter, great defender, great passer, great basketball IQ. He just fits everything we need.”

Yet even Batum’s most ardent boosters couldn’t have envisioned what he did Wednesday night in the play-in tournament. One way to put it is that he drilled six 3-pointers and scored 20 points (!4.5 more than his season average) in Philly’s 105-104 nail-biter of a win over the Heat. The other way to put it is that he saved the Sixers’ season.

He put in work on the defensive end, too:

The Sixers needed every one of those points Wednesday night. Embiid racked up 23 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, but was just 6-for-17 from the field and seemed to spend half the game catching his breath while grabbing his shorts. The Heat went to a zone defense early in the game and it flummoxed the Sixers all night. Tyrese Maxey finished with just 19 points and just 1-for-6 from deep while the Sixers turned the ball over 15 times. 

If not for Batum’s heroics, they’d likely be headed for a wim-or-go-home play-in game Friday night against either the Chicago Bulls or Atlanta Hawks.  

Instead, they’ll take on the No. 2 seed New York Knicks in a best-of-seven series. They won’t advance if Embiid continues to look as sluggish as he did Wednesday night. But thanks to Batum, Embiid now has an extra few days to get his legs under him. If he does, the Sixers have a shot.

Bulls 131, Hawks 116

The Hawks’ pitiful season has come to an end. We could talk about this play-in game but, really, do you actually care? The Bulls now face the Heat Friday night for the privilege of taking on the Boston Celtics in the first round. Congratulations to them.

So let’s talk about the Hawks instead. This was an embarrassing performance in a season full of them. They surrendered 40 first quarter points. Trae Young was just 4-for-12 from the floor and a minus-27 on the night. They allowed the Bulls to shoot 56.8% from the field. Which, in the end, might actually be a good thing for Hawks fans, and people who enjoy watching fun basketball teams. Maybe the Hawks’ brain trust will now realize that this Trae Young-Dejounte Murray pairing is no good.

Here are the numbers: When Young played this season without Murray, the Hawks outscored opponents by 3.1 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. When Murray played without Young, that number was 0.8. Not spectacular, but still a positive mark.

But when Young and Murray shared the floor? In those minutes, the Hawks were outscored by 6.4 points per 100 possessions. 

This would be a problem if these players weren’t both on mega contracts. The fact that they are only makes this all worse. If they don’t make any changes, the Hawks next season will be devoting nearly half the salary cap to two players who don’t fit with each other. Keeping them together would be malpractice. 

It doesn’t matter who they trade. But the Hawks need to choose one. Maybe they can re-engage the Lakers. Maybe the Spurs or Magic are interested in adding a guard. But there will be interest in both of these players. It’s time for the Hawks to make a move and reset. 

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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