The Hawks woke up some people in the national media after walloping the Knick 4 games to 1 in the opening round, and honestly, it probably should have been a sweep. It was total domination outside of one half in Game 2 from the Knicks that led to a narrow victory at Madison Square Garden. Still, the Hawks will be advancing to the second round for the first time since 2016, when the Cleveland Cavaliers swept them. Let’s hope for a better result this time around, but it will be a grind against the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers.
Joel Embiid‘s health
You absolutely cannot talk about this series without bringing up Joel Embiid’s health, which is unfortunate, because while I want the Hawks to win, I don’t want it to come at the expense of one of the best players in the league not being able to suit up. Regardless, I have a difficult time believing Embiid will be anywhere near 100% in this series, and after what happened to Anthony Davis in Game 6 against the Suns, I imagine the 76ers will be even more cautious with their superstar player. A torn meniscus is no joke, and it’s certainly an injury that can get worse if they rush him back.
Simply put — and you can call me biased or whatever — but Philadelphia doesn’t have a shot of winning this series if Embiid can’t go at all. They won’t be able to keep up with the firepower of the Hawks, and their defense would also take a huge hit. On the other hand, if he can play all seven games and prove to be reasonably healthy, Philadelphia has every right to be the favorite in this series. You hate to say it, but this series very well may be determined by the knee of Joel Embiid.
Philadelphia’s supporting cast
Now, saying that the 76ers don’t have a chance of advancing wasn’t necessarily a dig at the 76ers’ supporting cast. It was more of an acknowledgment of the type of impact Embiid has on both ends of the floor and the faith I have in the Hawks. The 76ers undoubtedly have some talent around their MVP candidate.
Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris make up their Big 3. Simmons is among the most talented players in the league — a player with elite size, handles, and playmaking ability that is also lockdown defensively. However, for whatever reason, he has not been able to develop a jump shot. When Embiid is on the floor, that can be overlooked, but if Nate McMillan can focus purely on shutting him down, the Sixers are in trouble.
Harris is one of the game’s under-appreciated stars. He nearly shot 50/40/90 this season while averaging 19.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists. However, if Embiid is out, he’ll have to do a lot more for Philadelphia to pull out victories. Harris is certainly capable, but scoring only becomes more difficult when you don’t have a distraction like Embiid on the court.
Like the Hawks, the 76ers are also a very deep team. Seth Curry, Danny Green, and Furkan Korkmaz are pure snipers that never stop moving. Tyrese Maxey is electric off the bench; Dwight Howard continues to enjoy his resurgence in the latter part of his career, and Matisse Thybulle is one of the best defenders in the league.
How can Philadelphia stop Trae Young?
I’m sure the 76ers will throw a mix of Thybulle, Ben Simmons, and Danny Green on Young throughout the series, but I stand by the notion that nobody can guard Trae Young one-on-one. So how can the 76ers do what the Knicks could not figure out?
Well, we saw what doesn’t work. Talking trash or trying to play physical with Young isn’t going to slow him down. He feeds off competition, and if you want to start bumping him, he’s the king of drawing fouls. You’ll be on the bench halfway through the first quarter. I believe the best and only way to really slow Young down — because there’s nobody that will totally stop him — is by making him work defensively.
The Knicks gave Young a humongous break by letting him guard shooters who just stood around the three-point line like their feet were stuck in cement. I imagine the 76ers won’t abide by that same strategy. They have several shooters that love fighting through screens and running around the entire court to get open. If Philadelphia forces Young to match up with guys like Seth Curry and Danny Green, who are constantly moving, perhaps they can tire him out a bit and throw off his offensive game. But if Young is able to coast defensively and focus purely on offense, it doesn’t matter who Philadelphia throws at him defensively; he will average 30 points and 10 assists… or more.
The Clint Capela factor
Christian Salvador made some fantastic points on the latest episode of Squawk Talk — our Hawks podcast here at SportsTalkATL — on why Clint Capela will be the X-Factor in this series, no matter if Embiid plays or not. If Embiid does play, Capela will obviously have the task of guarding him one-on-one. Like Trae Young, I don’t think that’s possible; Embiid is that talented (when healthy). However, if a defender in the league could slow him down, Clint Capela is one of the best options. His defense on Embiid will be critical to the Hawks advancing.
But let’s say Embiid doesn’t play; Capela could be in for a monster series. The Sixers will either have to leave Dwight Howard on the floor for 25-30 minutes a game to handle Capela, which would negatively impact their offensive gameplan. Having Simmons on the floor with Howard just isn’t a perfect recipe for success. Or, Philadelphia will choose to go small, which could result in Capela having several 20+ rebound games like we saw many times during the regular season. Capela has been a breath of fresh air for the Hawks all season, and he’ll have to be at his best if Atlanta wants to advance.
Call me crazy, but I like the Hawks in this series whether Embiid plays or not, and that’s simply because I believe that — even if he does play — he won’t be anywhere close to 100%. A torn meniscus isn’t something you can just recover from in less than a week, and even if he only misses the first couple of games, the Hawks should be able to take home court, and they’ve been nearly unbeatable at State Farm Arena since Nate McMillan took over. Think about this — without a healthy Embiid; the Hawks will have the best player on the floor, the best defensive player on the floor, and more depth. I think Philly is a great basketball team, but sometimes health isn’t working in your favor, and this is one of those times. If Embiid is able to come out and play without any restrictions, that changes things, but I don’t see that happening.
Hawks in 6
(And that’s if Embiid can play in some capacity. If not, Hawks in 5)
If you haven’t, check out the latest episode of Squawk Talk on Youtube. We break down the whole series in-depth and give our predictions. The episode is also available wherever you get your favorite podcasts.
Photo: Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire
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