The Philadelphia 76ers dispatched the Washington Wizards in 5 games in the first round. But, it was not without casualty as MVP candidate, Joel Embiid suffered a “small lateral meniscus tear.” Embiid was tagged as day-to-day as he deals with the injury, which the severity of, is still to be determined. FWIW, he did warm up on the court before game 5.
Tale of the Tape
The 76ers lead the all time series 196-191. The two teams have met 7 times in the playoffs with the Sixers having a 6-1 all time postseason advantage.
In 3 games this season, the Sixers won the season series 2-1.
The Hawks were 27-11 down the stretch of the year after firing Lloyd Pierce. They possessed the eighth best offense in the league and the 12th best defense in the league during that period. After dispatching the Knicks in 5 games in round 1, they head into the second round looking to upset the first seeded 76ers.
Objectively looking at this matchup, it leans heavily on the 76ers side of things. They won the season series, are the one seed in the conference, had the better defensive rating numbers, and have the components to impact the Hawks top offensive player, Trae Young.
3 Factors to Watch for the Sixers
1) Joel Embiid’s Health
As stated, Embiid is listed as day-to-day. Most reports indicate that it’ll ultimately come down to the pain tolerance as to whether Embiid can suit up and play consistently. The Sixers were 10-11 in games where Embiid didn’t play.
One of the more interesting things to watch will be the rotation at the center position without Embiid, if he isn’t able to play for the initial portion of the series. Could they deploy Ben Simmons as the starting 5 and slot Tyrese Maxey into the starting lineup? Utilizing Simmons as a sort of ‘small ball’ 5 gives the Sixers a leg up on most because Simmons possesses the size of a power forward at 6’10 – 245 pounds. A lineup of Maxey-Curry-Green-Harris-Simmons could yield very effective results. Using Simmons and Maxey in pick and roll sets with Simmons as the screener and Maxey as a ball handler is a recipe for offensive success due to 1) the gravity both attract as offensive drivers (Simmons with his size and Maxey with his finishing ability) and 2) the spacing on the court with Curry, Green, and Harris all being threats to score from deep.
The other route is opting to start Dwight Howard at center due to the size of Clint Capela. Or they could go the dreaded route of starting Mike Scott. If he is without Embiid for any amount of time, it’ll be interesting to see the strategy that Doc Rivers elects to implore.
With Embiid in the lineup, I think he’ll be the MVP we’ve seen for the majority of this season and in the first round of the playoffs. Sure, the injury is there and it shouldn’t be ignored, but this is the same center who had a torn meniscus in the 2016-17 season and was tabbed as day-to-day and scored 32 points in 28 minutes against the Houston Rockets. As stated, it’ll ultimately come down to how much pain Embiid can tolerate.
2) Defense of Trae Young
The Sixers were tasked with slowing down Bradley Beal last series. Beal put up his usual scoring numbers of 30 points per game. This time around, they’ll be charged with hampering Trae Young.
On paper the Sixers length seems like it’d at least be able to contain Young. Specifically in pick and roll sets. This is where the abbreviated loss of Embiid will be felt the most in my opinion. Young operates out of pick and roll sets as the maestro of the offense. He can hit Capela on lobs out of the set or he can pull a 3 if he gets any amount space.
I think this is where having high IQ defenders such as Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle matter the most. The Sixers have the length to bother Trae Young. On countless occasions so far in his NBA career, we’ve seen Matisse Thybulle fight through screens, recover, and get a hand up and affect the shooter.
A scorer like Trae Young is bound to get his points at times, but having defenders like Simmons, Thybulle, and Green to throw at him, can certainly make his life a bit more difficult.
3) Impact of Experience and Coaching
I think one of the biggest things Daryl Morey did for the Sixers this offseason, was bringing in players who’ve been around the block, so to speak.
Dwight Howard, Danny Green, and George Hill are players that have played in the finals at least once in their career. Howard and Green have championship rings. As the playoffs rage on and adversity is encountered, it’s a huge benefit to have guys who’ve been there before.
In this series against a young Hawks team who’ve advanced past the first round for the first time in 5 years, having veteran players and coaches like Doc Rivers, Dave Joeger, Sam Cassell, Dan Burke, and Popeye Jones, will be a tremendous advantage in the 76ers favor.
I think one of the lesser talked about things is the experience that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have gained from the previous years. This isn’t their first rodeo. They’ve experienced playoff heartbreak before. Those types of things harden players and make them better for the future and that future has arrived. I think these components will be one of the main deciding factors in coming out of this series with a win and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The X-Factor in this series will be Dwight Howard. If Joel Embiid is in-and-out of the lineup in this series, the onus will be on Howard to combat Clint Capela’s size and length. While Ben Simmons can hold his own against Capela, his focus will likely be slowing down Trae Young.
Howard was signed by Daryl Morey for a reason. Howard won’t be expected to turn the clock back to his Orlando days, but making his mark on the offensive and defensive glass will be key against Capela, who averaged 13.4 rebounds in round one.
At the end of the day, it comes down to who the better basketball team is. I believe the 76ers are better equipped to defend and attack the Hawks in multiple ways, that the Knicks may have not been able to. Also, the coaching experience of a Doc Rivers vs. that of Nate McMillan will have a huge impact on this series. Taking all of that into account, I lean 76ers in 6.