June 09, 2021
The Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks are tied 1-1 following the first two games of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. That may not be ideal for a top-seeded team that has relinquished home-court advantage and now has to go on the road for a pair of contests, but at the same time, it could be worse.
After all, the 76ers lost Game 1 after getting off to a terrible start. When falling behind 2-0 would have been a disaster, the Sixers rebounded to mostly dominate Game 2 on Tuesday night and level up the proceedings.
Tying up the series is good news for head coach Doc Rivers’ squad. The performance of Joel Embiid through two games is great news. Listed as questionable for each game because of a partially torn meniscus, Embiid not only played but also dominated—all but putting health concerns to rest. Although losing a game to Atlanta does not help, a healthy Embiid obviously improves Philadelphia’s NBA Eastern Conference championship odds.
The NBA MVP runner-up (Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic won the award on Tuesday) scored 39 points in 38 minutes in last Sunday’s opening 128-124 loss, shooting 12-for-21 from the field and 14-for-15 from the free-throw line. In the 76ers’ 118-102 Game 2 victory, Embiid delivered a 40-point, 13-rebound double-double on a 13-for-25 effort from the floor. With the 27-year-old continuing to showcase his much-improved mid-range game, Atlanta’s Clint Capela and John Collins have been forced to respect the jump shot. That has allowed Embiid to dominate to an even greater extent in the paint.
Philly’s other constant through two contests has been Seth Curry. With Stephen Curry watching the playoffs from home for once (or more likely playing golf!), Seth is picking up the slack for the family. The younger Curry brother scored 21 points on 5-for-9 shooting from three-point range in the series opener. On Tuesday he added another 21 points while draining five of his six three-point attempts.
When it comes to an NBA best bet, it’s important to note that at the defensive end of the floor the Hawks are really missing De’Andre Hunter. The No. 4 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft was unable to play in either of the first two games because of recurring right-knee soreness that has troubled him throughout the season. And on Wednesday, Hunter, who is a defensive force who can guard four positions on the floor (no, he can’t guard Embiid), was ruled out for the remainder of the season after an MRI revealed a new small tear in his meniscus.
Of course, there is also good news for the Hawks—and not just that they earned a split of the first two games, which is always the goal of an underdog team on the road. There are two full days off prior to Game 3, which will allow head coach Nate McMillan to figure if he needs to make any further adjustments now that he knows Hunter won't be back. Most importantly for the Hawks, they now have two straight games at home. They compiled a 25-11 record at State Farm Arena during the regular season, compared to a 16-20 mark on the road. In round one against the New York Knicks, Atlanta easily won both of its home games.
Since McMillan took over from Lloyd Pierce as head coach, the Hawks are a ridiculous 19-2 at home.
Although the 76ers were a trendy NBA pick to win the series before it started and remain as such through two games, it is clear they have a battle on their hands. The Hawks have a star of their own in Trae Young, a ton of depth with Capela, Collins, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, and a red-hot Kevin Huerter. And—as mentioned above—they are scary good at home.
Each of the first two games provided wild entertainment, and more of the same should be in store for what could be a full five more games.