NBA playoffs: Sixers vs. Hawks series storylines and thoughts

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15 thoughts and tidbits on Sixers' 2nd-round matchup with Hawks originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Sixers now have only one opponent blocking their path to an Eastern Conference Finals showdown against either the Nets or Bucks. 

With their second-round series tipping off Sunday afternoon, here are 15 initial thoughts and tidbits on the Sixers-Hawks matchup: 

1. There’s no point dancing around the importance of Joel Embiid’s health. Quite a bit hinges on his right knee, which has a small lateral meniscus tear. “Day to day” is a somewhat hazy classification, and it’s difficult to predict this series without knowing how well his knee will respond to rest and physical therapy and when he might be back. Seth Curry, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris were all great Wednesday night in the Sixers’ Game 5 win over the Wizards. Embiid’s health trumps everything else, but that’s a nice way to enter the series if he is ultimately unavailable for Game 1. 

2. All three regular-season games between the Sixers and Hawks were heavily impacted by absences. The Sixers had nine players on Jan. 11 following Curry’s positive COVID-19 test a few days earlier. They crushed a shorthanded Atlanta team by 44 points on April 28 at Wells Fargo Center. De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish missed the Hawks' loss to the Sixers on April 30. 

3. The Wizards had unavoidable matchup problems against the Sixers. Though it might be a tad harsh to say given their second-half surge into the playoffs and Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook’s star power, they were not superior to the typical eight-seed. The Hawks have won 31 of 43 total games since head coach Lloyd Pierce was fired and Nate McMillan took over in an interim role. The Sixers will be facing a good five-seed. And, when Embiid is out, the Sixers are likely worse than the average one-seed. 

4. If Embiid doesn't play, we’ll surely see ample doses of Simmons at center. The fundamental keys when he’s there are accentuating his strengths and minimizing his weaknesses. In a general sense, that looks like spreading the floor and giving him room to attack slower, bigger defenders while not saddling him with a massive rim-protection burden. Head coach Doc Rivers’ decision to start Wednesday’s game with Harris on Daniel Gafford was smart, in part because it allowed Simmons to guard a perimeter threat in Rui Hachimura. Rim protection and rebounding will need to be group efforts, especially against a decent offensive rebounding team in Atlanta. 

5. Trae Young possesses “logo” range. He made 28 of 77 regular-season shots from 30 feet and out (36.4 percent) and is very comfortable firing from anywhere. The opinion here is that the Sixers shouldn’t be too swayed by a few crowd-pleasing or boo-inducing deep jumpers. 

6. In our view, a solid approach against Young would involve high pick-up points, flexibility with switching and some level of aggressiveness in pick-and-roll coverage that doesn’t cross the line into non-stop, kamikaze blitzing. The Sixers will need to be sharp defending Spain pick-and-rolls, too. Staying attached to the Hawks’ shooters is not as easy as it sounds. 

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Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle are the Sixers’ best options to guard Young, although Danny Green was the main defender on him on April 30. Whether or not Embiid is available, the Sixers have the right personnel to hold Young below his normal output and efficiency for the series. 

7. The officiating will be impactful. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Sixers and Hawks were No. 1 and No. 2 during the regular season in free throw rate, respectively. If Embiid is out, the Sixers’ margin for error with fouls will decrease. Young has no qualms about seeking contact and concocting ways to draw free throws. Simmons, Harris and Dwight Howard might need to be a bit more cautious than usual at times defensively. 

8. Clint Capela is a heck of a rebounder and defender. Hawks opponents scored 8.5 fewer points per 100 possessions and shot 5.7 percent worse at the rim when he was on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. The more time he spends outside of the paint, the better for the Sixers. 

9. The Sixers will be wary of Capela and John Collins as lob threats. Young assisted on 150 of Collins’ made field goals and had 139 dishes to Capela. It’s also worth noting Collins is a 40 percent three-point shooter over the last two seasons. Harris decisively winning that individual matchup would be big for the Sixers. 

10. Team size shouldn’t be an issue for the Hawks like it was for Washington. The Sixers will of course try to target Young and Lou Williams on defense, but Atlanta won’t be playing whack-a-mole to hide rampant mismatches. 

11. On a related note, 6-foot-6 Bogdan Bogdanovic, 6-foot-7 Huerter and 6-foot-10 Danilo Gallinari might occasionally have size advantages when they’re opposed by Sixers bench players such as Tyrese Maxey, Thybulle and George Hill. Thybulle guarded Gallinari in late April. 

12. Bogdanovic, the Hawks’ starting two-guard, is a skilled, well-rounded player who headed to Atlanta after a botched sign-and-trade that was supposed to send him to the Bucks. He shot a career-best 43.8 percent from long range and turned the ball over a career-low 8.6 percent of the time, per Cleaning the Glass. How he, Hunter and Collins fare on open threes will be a key factor in the series. 

13. Shake Milton had a subpar series against the Wizards, shooting 4 for 19 from the floor. Every layup is rimming out and none of his reads are right at the moment, or so it seems. It’s a low bar to clear, but we expect him to improve in Round 2. Though confidence is a concern at the moment, we’re with Rivers in thinking Milton is not hopelessly beyond repair.

“Right now there’s guys in front of him, and so it’s tough to get on the floor,” Rivers said Wednesday. “And he’s pressing a little bit. But I still believe in him. Shake is going to help us win several games on this journey, I can guarantee you that.”

14. It should be fun to watch three-time Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams play against the 20-year-old Maxey. Can Maxey resist the temptation of Williams’ pump fake? The 34-year-old’s last game as a Sixer was the team’s Game 7 loss to the Celtics in the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals. 

15. Rivers knows Williams and Gallinari well from his time coaching them on the Clippers. Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey drafted Capela in 2014 and traded him away last February as his Rockets went all-in on small ball. After enjoying his roster’s success this season with a big man MVP finalist in Embiid, he now might end up watching Simmons at center against Capela in Round 2. Morey's had a whirlwind year, and he'll undoubtedly believe there's a lot of Sixers basketball left in it.