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June 05, 2021

Sixers vs. Hawks playoff preview: Matchups, weaknesses, and predictions Round 2

The Sixers disposed of their first-round opponent in five games, have homecourt advantage throughout the East playoffs, and are getting contributions from starters and bench players alike. But it's hard to shake the anxiety heading into round two, where Philly will meet a good Hawks team while dealing with an injury to their franchise player, Joel Embiid.

This isn't the first (or second, or third) time the Sixers have had to adapt on the fly due to injuries or illness this season. Philadelphia survived a teamwide COVID scare, an extended absence for Embiid, bumps and bruises for just about every starter, and they have come out on the other side better as a result. They have not used adversity as an excuse, and they certainly don't have the luxury to start now.

Into town come the boys from Atlanta, riding high after upstaging the Knicks as MSG. Let's get into it.

Styles and stats

A quick disclaimer before we flash the chart — effective field-goal percentage (or EFG) adjusts the normal field-goal percentage stat to account for three-point makes being worth more than two-point makes. Pretty simple. 

Category Philadelphia
 W/L Record49-23  41-31
 OFF RTG (pts. per 100 possessions) 112.5 (13th)114.3 (9th) 
 DEF RTG (pts. allowed per 100) 107.0 (2nd) 112.1 (18th)
 Effective field goal percentage 54.1 (14th)53.9 (16th) 
 Opponent EFG% 52.1 (3rd) 53.0 (6th)
 Pace (possessions used per game) 100.12 (12th) 98.68 (22nd)
 Opponent 3P% 36.0 (9th)34.9 (3rd) 

On paper, the Sixers would appear to be the clear favorites coming into this series. They were considerably better on defense from wire to wire this season, they won the season series 2-1, and they have options to throw at top Hawks weapon Trae Young. They're not going to stop him altogether, but they can certainly slow him down.

If you examine the Hawks since they changed coaches and got everyone healthy, though, it starts looking a little dicier for Philadelphia. After firing Lloyd Pierce on March 1st, the Hawks rolled to a 27-11 finish to the season, boasting the eighth best offense in the league and the 12th best defense in the league during that time period. Their pace, which wasn't particularly high for a young team in the first place, slowed even further. With Nate McMillan running the show, the Hawks have had great success playing a fairly deliberate style of basketball, using a simple directive on the offensive side of the floor.

“If we rebound the basketball and we push and advance, I tell our guys: Play early or play late," McMillan told The Ringer in mid-April. "What I mean by that: If we can advance the ball and you can get an uncontested shot with 20 on the clock, I’m OK with that. If you can get a rim attempt, we want that. But we don’t want to come down and just jack contested shots early in the clock.”

But the bread and butter of their offense remain the same: Atlanta wants to send screeners at Trae Young's man and create chaos, through a combination of Young's deep-shooting ability, playmaking, and the foul baiting that will drive Sixers fans nuts during the series. He will team up with big man Clint Capela for a ton of traditional pick-and-rolls, certainly, but the Hawks will also send screeners from the free-throw line extended and utilize drag screens in transition if it helps Young get a bit of separation from his man.

Coming into their series against the Knicks, there were questions about how the young Hawks would fare in their first playoff battle, especially against a defensively sound opponent with a raucous arena. Ever the showman, Young not only played well at Madison Square Garden, he made it his own personal stage, and Capela called his own shot before sending the Knicks off on summer vacation. They are not short on confidence, and they have a number of dangerous offensive players who will feel giddy if they don't have to deal with Embiid lurking in the paint once they get past the second level.

Matchups to watch

Atlanta's pick-and-roll attack vs. the Sixers, with and without Joel Embiid

With a healthy Embiid in this series, Philadelphia in six games or less would be a no-brainer pick. That's not the series we're likely to get, obviously, and even if Embiid can get back on the floor and impact the series, there's room to question if Atlanta can target him while he's operating at less than 100 percent.

Bigs like Clint Capela aren't thought of as Embiid kryptonite in the way guys like Marc Gasol are, predominantly because Embiid is a savant at forcing svelter bigs into cheap fouls. But Capela has the potential to bother Embiid in a couple of important ways, namely as an offensive rebounder and threat rolling toward the basket.

Capela was the league's leading offensive rebounder during the 2020-21 regular season, pulling down 4.7 offensive boards per game through a combination of pogo stick athleticism and activity/energy around the basket. Coming downhill after screening for Young's defender, Capela slices through traffic with precision, often tipping up misses two or three times before getting wrapping his mitts around the ball. Embiid, who can be lax in the boxing out department, has been burned at times by Capela sliding around him and negating the size/strength advantage.

Broadly speaking, the biggest concern for Embiid in this series (other than whether he plays at all) is how the injury impacts his ability to chase Capela around. That's applicable to the offensive rebounding battle, but it's primarily a concern defending the 1-5 pick-and-rolls Capela and Young will run. 

The Sixers will almost certainly be sending Young's cover over the screen to avoid him stepping into open threes. From there, though, he has a lot of options to hurt Philly. His midrange and floater package is dangerous, and he can punish Embiid that way if he drops too far toward the rim to prevent Capela lobs. If Embiid steps up to bother Young, Capela is a lob threat over the top. Finding the sweet spot is tough, and Embiid has been burned at times in the past as he searches for it.

What you don't want to do is overcompensate if these plays become a problem, or if Embiid isn't moving as well as you'd like. If Young is hitting a bunch of reasonably tough looks from midrange, it's better to try to let him beat you that way if the alternative is to stretch your defense and let other guys get going.

In Round 1 against the Knicks, the Hawks used a steady diet of "Spain" pick-and-rolls, where a third player screens for the screener (in this case Capela) to open up a bigger window in the paint. Knicks perimeter defenders were forced to help on Capela rolling down the lane (or on stretch bigs who popped out to the three-point line, creating wide-open looks in the corner for guys like Bogdan Bogdanovic. 

At his best, Embiid and the Sixers have proven capable of sniffing out those plays in real-time. If Embiid can move and make reads like this, the Sixers will be in good shape:

Frankly, the biggest question of the series is how they handle the non-Embiid minutes, whether he's out altogether or resting during a game where he's active. Rivers opted to play small with Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris toggling between "center" duties for a lot of Wednesday's Game 5 win over Washington, and Harris has some experience guarding bigs in his playoff past, having taken the Marc Gasol assignment in their 2019 series vs. Toronto. But defending a lob threat is a much different assignment.

Hunting Trae Young on offense

There are a number of reasons the Knicks struggled with Atlanta in the first round, but chief among them was their inability to punish Young for being a bad and/or small defender. With New York's Reggie Bullock often stationed in the corner, Atlanta was content to hide Young there and live with the results, knowing Bullock was no threat to dribble penetrate and punish Young.

Are the Sixers susceptible to the same problem? In theory, Danny Green is the closest comp to Bullock on the Sixers, a shooter who makes his money from the corner and isn't a real threat as a ballhandler. The Sixers will use him in on-ball screens from time to time, but his time in the corner is so frequent that Alaa Abdelnaby has taken to calling it "The Greenhouse" this season. Young spent more time guarding Green than anyone else on the Sixers in their last matchup of the year, so expect that to be where he starts.

There's one silver lining to the Embiid injury in this sense — a Simmons-led team can push the pace without worrying about feeding the big dog in the post, and playing up-tempo can create cross-matches that force Young to guard the closest man, rather than the guy Atlanta wants him to pick up. Cross-matches for Simmons or Harris are obviously ideal, as they can punish Young physically, but even Seth Curry is a dangerous pickup for Young if he gets stuck on him. Curry is heavily involved in Philly's dribble handoff game, with Young a threat to get brushed off by screeners, and Curry can beat him off-the-dribble even without the benefit of an on-ball screen.

Atlanta is aware Young needs help when he has to actively defend, a fact the Sixers can use to their advantage. Cheating to help Young when he's fighting through screens has to be punished swiftly and mercilessly:

The Sixers could also choose to simply use Green more as an on-ball screener, forcing the issue with Young. There are any number of players who can punish Young with the ball in their hands — Harris, Curry, Tyrese Maxey, George Hill, and so forth — and the Sixers just have to be diligent about keeping Young busy on defense. The harder he has to work there, the less dangerous he'll end up being on the other end.

Atlanta's small ball vs. Philadelphia's small ball

If you're wondering why I left Simmons out of that last crop of ballhandlers, it's not because I think Young stands a chance guarding him on an island. But in Round 1, Atlanta did an excellent job defending Knicks forward Julius Randle by walling off the paint. Can they duplicate that success against Simmons? And can they do it using lineups that can punish Philadelphia's new-ish looks they'll roll out without Embiid?

Honestly, it's hard to make much out of Atlanta's coverage of Simmons in the regular season. In the two games he played vs. the Hawks, Simmons shot a blistering 80 percent from the field but only managed 15 total shot attempts, thanks to foul trouble in one meeting and a blowout in the second. They're a little healthier and a little better equipped to guard him now, with DeAndre Hunter providing length and athleticism on the wing, but they have barely even tried to stop him at the rim. Simmons didn't shoot a single free throw against the Hawks in the regular season, mostly because he had a clear runway to the basket whenever he turned the corner.

Atlanta can be a very dangerous team when they're able to play small ball, leaning into the floor-spacing abilities of Danilo Gallinari and/or John Collins to put an abundance of weapons on the floor at once. Even without Young in the game, Bogdanovic or Lou Williams can pick-and-pop you to death with free real estate in the paint and shooters to hit all over the floor. But it was hard to play that style against the fully-healthy Sixers because Embiid can bury Collins or Gallinari through the basket, and has delighted in telling reporters that his eyes light up when teams go small against Philly.

The Sixers probably won't have that option to start the series, positive messaging about Embiid notwithstanding. That puts pressure on the Sixers to get it right defensively. If the Sixers insist on going with Matisse Thybulle in the starting lineup as they did in Game 5 vs. Washington, there's a case to be made for going more switch-heavy on defense, cutting off would-be drivers by passing drivers between capable defenders. This could be a series (and a style) where George Hill eats into Seth Curry's minutes, though that seems unlikely at the moment given the groove Curry is in.

Based on how Atlanta will sub it, there's a decent case for Dwight Howard starting vs. Capela and making way for small-ball Simmons lineups when Atlanta downsizes. Feeling out the rotation will be tougher this time around than it was against Washington, if only because all their big men were basically anchored to the paint.

X-factor: Health

Maxey made me look smart in round one, but I think it's much easier to pick the X-factor this time around. Embiid's meniscus injury hangs over this series and playoff run, and we still have very little idea how it will ultimately impact Embiid's season.

Following practice on Friday, Doc Rivers, Howard, and Green all shared what seemed to be encouraging news on Embiid, noting that he looked good participating in practice in the limited ways they used him. Embiid was not running through scrimmages or live action, mind you, but Rivers still would not rule him out for Sunday's opener. Is that cause for optimism or simply keeping their cards close to the vest? Probably a bit of both, but we're all still making educated guesses at this point.

If Embiid were fully healthy coming into this series, few serious analysts would be giving the Hawks a real shot in this series. But his ability to demolish mismatches and put subpar defenders into help situations will be sorely missed, and the Hawks should be able to get away with more creative lineups with Embiid out or limited.


That brings us to prediction time, which is borderline impossible based on what we know about Embiid. He could be back for Game 1, sit out until it seems like they need him, or see his knee deteriorate to the point that they shut him down before he can play another game. I don't think the last option is especially likely based on what I've heard, but you have to prepare for every possibility.

At the end of the day, I simply can't bring myself to pick against the Sixers in this series, Embiid or no Embiid. They have overcome adversity throughout the year, they have multiple credible options to throw at Young, and I think people are overrating them based on what they did to a Knicks team that was more bark than bite. That's not to say they didn't earn a bit of respect, just reservation to crown anybody based on what they did against yet another Tom Thibodeau team that couldn't find an extra gear in the playoffs.

If I were more confident in Embiid's return and overall health, I would probably only give Atlanta one game. The situation being what it is, I'm preparing for a drawn-out affair, where the older team with homecourt triumphs in the end. This feels like a series with a wide spectrum of potential outcomes, so don't say I didn't warn you in advance.

Sixers in seven games.

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