Hawks guards could be in trouble against lengthy Sixers wings, but if Joel Embiid sits out, does it matter?

As the Atlanta Hawks look ahead to their eastern conference semifinals matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers in Sunday’s game one of the NBA playoffs, it’s essential to understand what’s at stake for both teams.

Atlanta and Philly each needed just five games and had no problem dominating their opponents in the first round. 

Atlanta was in a rut before replacing head coach Lloyd Pierce with Nate McMillan in March. When McMillan took over, Atlanta sat in 11th place in the eastern conference at a pedestrian 14-20. However, McMillan, a well-respected head coach in the NBA, led the Hawks to a 27-11 record, good enough for the fifth seed at 41-31 overall. 

On the other side,  the 76ers cruised to an early 23-12 record, finishing the season at 49-23 and boasting MVP candidate Joel Embiid in the process.  

While the teams finished eight games apart in the regular season, there are several things to look out for in this series, from each team’s health to their top players in round one. 


The Health of Joel Embiid 

Embiid battled health problems for much of the regular season, and the last few weeks have been no exception. The seven-footer has a small meniscus tear in his right knee, putting Philadelphia’s title hopes in the air without their all-star big who averaged 29 points and 11 rebounds during the regular season.

Embiid is the best player on the 76ers and creates defensive nightmares for opposing teams. He was garnering attention as a strong MVP candidate at one point before getting hurt. Embiid is the glue for the 76ers and also helps open up shots for shooters and driving lines for those cutting to the basket. Without their four-time all-star, Philadelphia not only loses a 20 point-10 rebound guy, but they also lose a versatile threat who can score from anywhere on the floor and create his shot. 

Embiid has also tremendously improved his effort on the defensive end as he averaged 1.4 blocks this past season. If he cannot go, the 76ers, who entered the playoffs with the fifth-best odds to win the NBA championship, could find themselves knocked out in the 2nd round. 


The Hawks shooting vs. a 76ers strong perimeter defense

Trae Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic are coming off great series where they were great at scoring the basketball and shooting from deep. 

Young averaged 29.2 points and 9.8 assists and gave Hawks’ and Knicks’ fans moments that fans of both teams will surely remember for a while. The third-year guard dominated the pick and roll and was able to make the defense pay. Add Bogi to the mix in the backcourt, and you have a dangerous combination that can shoot and be playmakers for others. In this series, the Hawks starting backcourt will face two of the NBA’s best defenders in Matisse Thybulle and Ben Simmons

Simmons, a finalist for the  Defensive Player of the Year, averaged 1.6 steals this past regular season. 

Thybulle, who’s only six-foot-five, has a six-foot-eleven wingspan and is continuously making an impact for his team in only his second season. This year, Thybulle recorded 70 and 70 blocks, a feat only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Robert Covington accomplished. 

Young will surely be the focus for the 76ers, with the young star relishing the villain role. Thybulle and the Sixers are well-aware of that.

“He’s a dynamic scorer and passer. I think he draws a lot of attention off the pick-and-roll. We’re one of those rare teams who have a lot of options on defense,” Thybulle told The Sixers Wire. 


Which Role Players will step up in this series? 

The Hawks have a deep roster, but so does Philly. However, depth doesn’t always matter in the playoffs. There is a crucial difference in the series: experience.

Danny Green has won three championships with the San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers. Seth Curry played in the 2019 western conference finals with the Portland Trail Blazers, Dwight Howard won a championship last season with Green and the Lakers and, Tobias Harris, George Hill, and Thybulle all bring playoff experience. 

These players know how to come through when the team needs them the most. Curry erupted for 30 points in Game five of their first-round series with the Washington Wizards to advance to the second round. Green is known for going off and scoring in bunches at any set time. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers can throw various combinations and rotations in this series to disrupt the Hawks. 

For Atlanta, the majority of the roster brings little experience. Yet, they don’t shy away from the moment. The Hawks’ first-round series with the Knicks presented evidence for that. They beat the Knicks in two of the three games at Madison Square Garden, including the series-clinching game five. Atlanta will need role players to step up big, especially if Philly blitzes and doubles Trae Young on the pick and roll. It could lead to open shots for their shooters and slashing lanes for their bigs. 

John Collins and Clint Capela have to be their usual selves on the offensive and defensive end. Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter will have to make the defense pay for careless 76ers coverage by hitting shots and creating offense. Lou Williams and Kevin Huerter also loom large in this series, especially with Huerter’s improved defensive play and shooting, and Williams’s ability to get hot and score in bunches. Whichever team gets the most out of their role players will move on to conference finals. 

My Prediction: If Joel Embiid doesn’t play or sees limited action, the Hawks win this series in six games behind their depth across the board. If Embiid plays, the Hawks lose in seven games to a more experienced and vetted 76ers team.