Heading into the Sixers' second-round matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, there seems to be a lot more questions than answers. What was once regarded as a cakewalk (those don't exist in the playoffs, but y'know what I mean) to the Eastern Conference Finals, now Philly is looking forward to a hard-fought series in which they might be without their best player for an unknown amount of time. The Sixers are a step above the Knicks, but Atlanta isn’t a pushover and there’s a reason they’re here after once having a 14% chance to make the playoffs. Philly needs to play their best basketball to advance, but they might be missing a big piece:
Joel Embiid, and his timetable
In Game 4 of their first round series against the Washington Wizards, the big man took an awkward fall, and tried to fight through it but eventually missed the last 3 quarters of that game 4 loss (and the Sixers subsequent game 5 win) with a “small meniscus tear in his right knee” according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. He also reported that managing swelling would be an important part of his recovery.
There's been a lot of noise since then, coming after Embiid was seen warming up before Game 5. Yesterday, Dwight Howard said (per Austin Krell) Joel was able to move well laterally, stating he “should be ready to go”. Doc Rivers took a more conservative approach saying that he didn’t know if Embiid would play in Game 1, but looked great in shooting drills. There have also been several reports from less credible sources stating that Embiid was playing, but since none of them look to be trustworthy I’m choosing to ignore them here. Embiid was also officially ruled questionable before Game 1, and will go through pregame treatment to determine his status (per Shams).
If it was up to me I'd say that it seems like Embiid could play game 1, but not be as effective. Or, you could save him and get him back to his better self later in the series. If it was up to me, the big guy would sit game 1. The Hawks aren’t a team that the Sixers should be losing to fully healthy (or without Embiid) and even in the worst-case scenario (you’re down 0-1 going into Game 2) that isn’t a hole large enough that Embiid can’t dig you out of. His presence on the court, at even 70% or 80%, gives Philly direction on offense and an anchor on defense. With him, the Sixers win this series, without him for an extended time, and it’s a true tossup. Embiid is just really good at basketball, I don’t know how else to spell it out.
Rotations Without Embiid
In Game 5 to close out Washington, Ben Simmons slid to center (thank you, Doc) while Matisse Thybulle was the 5th starter, presumably in order to provide more perimeter defense against the combo of Bradley Beal and Russel Westbrook. Against the Hawks, the sixers face another dilemma, this time in guarding Trae Young. In his first career playoff series, he had a phenomenal, star making performance while becoming the villain of New York in the process. 29 points and nearly 10 assists per game speak for themselves, but what really stood out was his clutch scoring, including the winning shot in game 1 and the dagger to close out the series.
He’s dangerous. So how can your rotation fix that?
If Embiid can come back and is healthy, the answer is obvious. Put Embiid at center and your DPOY finalist on Young. But if Embiid misses time, do you still put Ben at center to protect the paint and leave Thybulle on Trae, sacrificing spacing and offense in a game you’ll need to score points? Or do you put Simmons back at PG, and start a traditional center like Dwight Howard to protect the paint and stop lobs in the pick and roll, which Young loves to throw?
It’s a problem, but here’s my answer: it probably won’t matter as much as we think. Let me explain. In the one Sixers-Hawks matchup this year that Trae and Ben both played, Simmons was only guarding Trae for 35 seconds. Why? Because the Hawks love to screen and get Young better matchups, especially in the pick and roll which they’ve run at the third highest rate in these playoffs. So as long as Simmons is in the lineup with Embiid out, the starting lineup probably doesn’t matter that much as long as one of Thybulle/Hill/Maxey is the 5th starter.
To hold up against the Hawks offensive attack, the entire roster has to be sound defensively, holding their own in one-on-one matchups and playing strong team defense. Every sixer has to be able to at minimum limit Trae guarding one on one because otherwise it’ll be exploited relentlessly. The Sixers also need a boost offensively without their starters in the game, and for that Rivers will likely look to Tyrese Maxey and Dwight Howard as a bench pick and roll combo.
Maxey minutes are probably the right move. The entire Wells Fargo Center loves him, and he’s also surprisingly good for a 20-year-old rookie as a bench ball handler. He played with great energy throughout the last series, with him and Furkan Korkmaz (that’d be nice, to have Furk hitting threes) providing great minutes without Embiid and a true spark in Games 4 and 5 of the first round. Speaking of bench guards, Shake Milton just isn’t it. He lost his scoring touch and isn’t a good enough playmaker or defender to continue to get meaningful minutes right now. Paul George once needed help guarding him, and now Shake is playing like Raul Neto. It’s disappointing because Shake’s potential fits so well with what the sixers could use but he continues to play mistake-filled basketball.
Sixers Scoring Attack
A lot of this series revolves around Embiid and his availability, but their offense needs to step up without the big man giving them 30 every night. And hey, they did that without him to close out the Wizards! The better Curry brother registered a playoff career high and look confident taking and making any shot he could find. His brother (a future Sixer) is rumored to be in attendance during the series, which is cool. Tobias Harris throughout the series has been an efficient 20+ point per game scorer, which is great because Harris will constantly have opportunities to attack during this series.
And for everything that Ben Simmons doesn’t do, he was great as a point center, registering a 19-point triple double and generating the offense good looks all day. The Hawks don’t have an elite defense (but it is an underrated one), and if the Sixers are smart, they’ll look to isolate and target Trae Young on defense for as long as he’s on the floor. He’s one of the worst defenders the sixers will see throughout the entire playoffs, so having Tobias Harris or Ben Simmons working him in the post sounds like a good plan. The Hawks have a strong defensive frontcourt, so in the event that Tobi or Ben are in the post they need to be consistent in finding the open man and getting the open shot, or otherwise the offense will fall stale.
The Hawks Depth
Atlanta has a surprisingly deep team that Philly has to be on guard for because they can present a lot of threats. Beyond Trae Young, Clint Capela is an elite pick and roll big, and shot 66% in their series against the Knicks, John Collins is another lob threat that offers extra offensive versatility, making 8 of 17 three points in these playoffs. Atlanta has also gotten strong shooting, with Kevin Huerter making over 45% of his deep shots, with 8 total players shooting 33% from beyond. Even when Trae isn’t in the game, Lou Williams had a solid series providing a bench spark. They've also staggered Young and Bogdanovic's minutes, so one playmaker is always on the court. But as always, everything comes back to Young and it’s important to not only limit his scoring but also to limit passing lanes and close out strong. Atlanta's supporting cast is more than capable of taking advantage of mistakes.
How the Sixers Win
For Philadelphia to move on to face the winner of Bucks-Nets without Philadelphia collectively suffering a heart attack, a couple of things need to happen:
Joel Embiid needs to return at some point during this series. This is an obvious statement, but life becomes easier with a 7-foot offensive force that can anchor an elite defense on the other end.
Win games without Joel. If Embiid misses more than one game, it’s important to at minimum keep the series tied before he comes back, because he can’t solve all your problems. If Embiid comes back and Philly is tied 1-1 or better, it gives you a margin for error as the he gets healthy and works back to MVP form.
Attack the weakest defensive links. If Ben Simmons or Tobias Harris have Trae Young guarding him with no double team coming, they should take the shot every time because they’ll probably make it a majority of the time.
Maintain strong bench play. No, I’m not talking about the all-bench lineup from hell. (Please don't burn my eyes out with that) But when George Hill, Tyrese Maxey, Dwight Howard and Furkan Korkmaz see playing time it’s important they fill their roles on offense and contribute to strong team defense, because that's the core to a series win.
Aggressive Ben Simmons. It isn’t necessarily needed, but the entire series becomes so much easier with a point center that's a great passer, an elite perimeter defender that also gives you an efficient 20 points.
Everything seems to be pointing to an Embiid return within the first three games of this series. Assuming that's true, I'm betting on the sixers being able to keep it competitive through the first four games. With Joel hopefully back in form, a Tobias that's coming into his own, and Ben Simmons doing all the little things, I think Philly wins Games 5 and 6 to take the series and advance to the conference finals, 4-2.
With all that out of the way, the Sixers Hawks Series starts this Sunday at 1:00 PM ET, with the schedule looking like this:
Game 1: Sunday June 6th, 1:00 PM (ABC)
Game 2: Tuesday June 8th, 7:30 PM (TNT)
Game 3: Friday June 11th, 7:30 PM (ESPN)
Game 4: Monday June 14th, TBD (TNT)
Game 5 – If Necessary: Wednesday June 16th, TBD (TNT)
Game 6 – If Necessary: Friday June 18th, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7 – If Necessary: Sunday, TBD (TBD)