What to know about Hawks vs. 76ers
The 76ers were dominant throughout the regular season, finishing with the best overall record in the East (49-23) and third-best record in the league behind only the Jazz (52-20) and Suns (51-21). Philadelphia looked like a much different team with a revamped roster built around All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and coach Doc Rivers seemed to push all of the right buttons in his first year with the Sixers.
The Hawks, on the other hand, struggled to find their footing early in the season. Amid reports of friction between Lloyd Pierce and Hawks players, including Trae Young, Atlanta decided to make a coaching change on March 1 with the team sitting on the outside of not just the playoff picture, but also the play-in tournament. After assistant Nate McMillan took over, the Hawks went 27-11 to secure a postseason berth. (It’s worth noting McMillan’s promotion coincided with the return of Bogdan Bogdanovic. That probably helped.)
Atlanta and Philadelphia handled their first-round series with relative ease, dispatching New York and Washington in five games (also known as the Gentleman’s Sweep). Now comes a true test in the Eastern Conference semifinals with a matchup that could be more competitive than a typical No. 1 vs. No. 5 battle.
The key matchup
Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle vs. Trae Young
Young torched the Knicks in Round 1, averaging 29.2 points and 9.8 assists in his playoff debut. He wasn’t incredibly efficient from the field (44.1 percent) or 3-point territory (34.1 percent), but he did take more than seven free throws per game, hitting on nearly 92 percent of those attempts.
Beyond the numbers, though, Young controlled the flow of the series. He used the threat of his outside shooting and pinpoint passing to keep New York’s defense off balance. Plus, the guy just enjoyed accepting the role of the newest Madison Square Garden villain.
But the Knicks didn’t have a defender like Simmons or Thybulle on their roster.
Simmons could start on Young and give him some problems. At 6-11, the 24-year-old is big enough to bother Young’s jumper, yet quick enough to stay in front of him along the perimeter. That rare combination will make Simmons a Defensive Player of the Year candidate for years to come. As Wizards coach Scott Brooks said, “Not many guys can guard one through five.”
And if Rivers wants to switch things up, he can sub in Thybulle. The former Washington standout is a menace on the defensive end, as he is never truly out of a play, even if he gets screened or beat off the dribble. Thybulle totaled four steals and five blocks in Philadelphia’s Game 2 win over Washington, becoming the first guard in NBA playoff history to hit those thresholds. Oh, and he played less than 20 minutes,
Put Simmons and Thybulle on the floor together, and the results are terrifying. No wonder the Sixers had the second-best defensive rating in the league during the regular season.
Whether Young can break free from the Simmons and Thybulle shackles could go a long way in determining which team emerges victorious.
How much will Joel Embiid play?
So yeah, this is a big one. The 76ers announced Wednesday that Embiid had suffered a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee and is considered day-to-day. It appears surgery is not on the table at the moment, but it’s unclear exactly when Embiid could return.
Obvious statement alert: Philadelphia was significantly better when Embiid was available during the regular season. The 76ers went 39-12 when he played, the best record for any player that logged at least 1,000 minutes, per ESPN Stats and Info.
“We know we’ve got enough without Joel out there to win a few games,” Sixers guard Seth Curry said. “We don’t have a choice — we’ve got to have that confidence and believe. We’ve got a lot of confident guys. Joel has been huge for us all year. It’s only right for us to give him as much time as he needs to get back and help us win it all.”
But how much time does Embiid need? And how many games can Philly survive without him?
The big number
While the 76ers are more well-known for their defensive prowess than the Hawks, let’s give Atlanta some credit. McMillan’s squad held the Knicks to a 102.1 offensive rating in the first round, more than eight points lower than New York’s regular season mark (110.2).
Everyone knows the Hawks possess offensive firepower at multiple positions, but their commitment to defense will be key if they want to pull off the upset and reach the Eastern Conference finals.
Hawks vs. 76ers schedule
(All times Eastern)
* If necessary
Hawks vs. 76ers prediction
76ers in six
The Embiid question looms large in this series and makes it a tough one to predict. Philadelphia was able to put away Washington without Embiid, but Atlanta is an entirely different challenge. The Hawks certainly do not lack confidence.
With such limited information regarding Embiid’s status, the guess here is that the Sixers can contain Young and keep the ship afloat until he rejoins the starting lineup.
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