The Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks are set to meet in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, starting Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center. Both teams won in five games in the first round, with the top-seeded Sixers taking care of business against the Washington Wizards and the fifth-seeded Hawks flying high against the New York Knicks.
While a healthy Philly team has a clear edge over Atlanta, Joel Embiid’s knee injury tosses a wrench into this series. It’s still uncertain when Embiid will return to the lineup and just how much he’ll play when he does. That evens things out a bit given Embiid is an MVP candidate.
With this in mind, let’s look at three major storylines for Sixers-Hawks.
1. Sixers must figure out a way to adjust defensively with Joel Embiid’s status unclear
Embiid is the Sixers’ defensive anchor down low, so him missing time or not being as mobile if he does play will impact the defense against Trae Young and a versatile Hawks offense. Philly still does have another All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Ben Simmons who can help anchor and direct their defense with the help of savvy veterans in Danny Green and Tobias Harris in the starting lineup.
The Sixers may be lacking in size with Embiid’s absence, but they still have length, grit, and toughness on the perimeter that has the potential to give the Hawks shooting woes throughout the series. Youngster Matisse Thybulle is another long, rangy defender who can give Young fits on the perimeter.
Not to mention, the Sixers also have a former DPOY on their roster at backup center in Dwight Howard who provides great rim protection and toughness. It will be interesting to see how they adjust without their MVP candidate in the mix consistently throughout this series, assuming that’s the case.
Sixers’ answer for Trae Young and Hawks’ high-octane scoring
It was clear from the get-go that the Hawks were overlooked in their first-round series against the Knicks, especially after they lit them up from 3 and absolutely killed them in the paint all series long. With Trae Young’s ball handling, clutch playmaking and scoring ability, the Sixers will have their hands full.
Now add to that Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, and John Collins, among others, and you’ve got great ball movement, athleticism, and limitless scoring. Clint Capela has also been a force to be reckoned with down in the paint. With Young having ice water in his veins during crunch time, plus a stellar and lethal supporting cast at his disposal, the Hawks can create problems for the Sixers all series long.
Granted, the Sixers still have stellar 3-point shooting and low-post scoring (when Embiid plays) to match the Hawks, with Danny Green, Seth Curry, George Hill, and Tobias Harris all able to provide them with a more multifaceted offensive style of play. However, the Hawks have the ability to go on scoring streaks that can pick apart elite defenses, and the jury is still out on whether or not the Sixers will be able to match those scoring outbursts.
After all, the last thing they would want to do is get into a shootout with one of the hottest scoring teams in the playoffs right now.
Hawks’ ability to match Sixers’ defensive intensity
Under head coach Nate McMillan, the Hawks have become a much more efficient and aggressive defensive team, and their grit and toughness has been on display in these playoffs. Capela’s ability to anchor the defense and be a dominant rim protector has helped massively in this regard.
On the other hand, the Sixers have been a hard-nosed and lockdown defensive unit all season long, even with all the injuries and lineup changes they’ve had to deal with. All in all, the team that gets the edge in this series will have a strong defensive showing while also creating a well-balanced offense, and both teams definitely have the ability to make that happen. It’s just a matter of which team will be quicker to the punch when it comes to setting the tone defensively, because that is ultimately what could determine the outcome of this series.
This matchup of rising superstars will definitely go down as one to be remembered in the history books. The electrifying offense of the Hawks led by Trae Young going toe-to-toe with the tenacious defense of the Sixers led by DPOY candidate Ben Simmons and, hopefully, Joel Embiid. Regardless of who comes out on top in this epic duel, it most certainly is a matchup not to be missed.