Joel Embiid is the big unknown in Philadelphia 76ers' playoff series with Atlanta Hawks

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There is a huge unknown in the 76ers-Hawks playoff series that begins Sunday afternoon (1 p.m. ET) at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

When and how much will Sixers star Joel Embiid be able to play? Will he be able to play? And, if he does, how close to his customary MVP finalist level will he be?

The Sixers listed Embiid as day to day Wednesday, when Doc Rivers said “I can’t give you a timeline” for Embiid’s return and that he’s hopeful Embiid will be able to play at some point during the postseason.

Embiid, who suffered a slightly torn right meniscus from a fall in Monday’s Game 4 loss to the Washington Wizards, seemed to move well during a pregame workout before sitting out the clinching Game 5 victory, but the Sixers have a history of taking a cautious approach with Embiid’s injuries.

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, left, works past the Atlanta Hawks' Clint Capela during an April 28 game.
Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, left, works past the Atlanta Hawks' Clint Capela during an April 28 game.

Some folks think Embiid won’t play in the second-round series with Trae Young and Atlanta, while others believe there’s a chance he could be in the lineup as soon as Sunday’s opener.

A healthy Embiid changes the way the top-seeded Sixers play at both ends of the floor. The constant double-teams he faces create open shots for his teammates and he is virtually unstoppable when he faces single coverage.

On defense, Embiid provides an interior presence and is capable of erasing mistakes if opposing guards get into the lane, as well as switching onto smaller players and staying in front of them with his unusual quickness for a 7-footer. Embiid would allow Ben Simmons, who played a lot of center in the closeout win over Washington, to match up more with the dangerous Young.

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No Embiid means the Sixers must rely on a more collaborative approach all over the floor. It worked in the Embiid-less 129-112 victory Wednesday.

“That was a whole, collective, group effort,” Tobias Harris said following Game 5. “We’ve had to play without Joel for a whole lot of games (21 in the regular season).”

It’d be interesting to see if the Sixers could take four of seven from Atlanta if Embiid is unavailable, though they’d rather not have to find out.

The teams’ offensive numbers are quite similar, though the Hawks are better at free throw shooting (.812 to .767 during the regular season). The Sixers have better defensive numbers, having allowed 3.3 fewer points per game and forced 3.3 more turnovers

The Hawks went 27-11 after Nate McMillan replaced former Sixers assistant Lloyd Pierce as head coach on March 1 and secured the East’s fifth seed.

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young, left, drives past Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons durng a Jan. 30, 2020 game.
Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young, left, drives past Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons durng a Jan. 30, 2020 game.

Young is Atlanta’s unquestioned star. He’s not afraid to shoot out to 30 feet at any time and is making better decisions with the ball, as evidenced by his assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.3. Young flourished in the New York, where he was unfazed by the Madison Square Garden crowd's taunts and having a water bottle thrown at him. He averaged 32.7 points in the three games in Manhattan to lead the Hawks to their first playoff series win in five years.

“I feel like I’ve worked my whole life for this moment – in the playoffs on the biggest stage,” Young said. “I have confidence in myself. I know I’m built for this.”

Young has benefited from a better supporting cast this year than in 2019-20. Bogdan Bogdanovic, who signed a 4-year, $72 million free agent contract with the Hawks in November, was the most significant addition. Bogdanovic hit .438 of his 3-pointers in the regular season.

“We have a team that can surprise a lot of people, but we can’t surprise ourselves,” Young said.

The next goal for Atlanta is to surprise the Sixers with a trip to the conference finals on the line. The more Embiid plays, assuming he’s close to 100%, the less likely it is that will happen, but there’s no way to tell at this point.

Prediction: Sixers in 7

Tom Moore: tmoore@couriertimes.com; @TomMoorePhilly

This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Joel Embiid is big unknown in Sixers' series vs. Hawks in NBA playoffs