As it feels this entire season and playoffs have gone, this series swings on a health diagnosis.
What had seemed like a fairly easy path for Philadephia to the conference finals a couple of weeks ago now seems far more complicated, especially with Atlanta gaining confidence in its first-round series win over New York. Now this second-round series between the Hawks and 76ers has more questions than answers.
Here are three things to watch that will help decide the Atlanta vs. Philadelphia second-round series.
1) Can Joel Embiid play on his right knee? How well?
We’ve got two more things to watch for after this, but those two might be moot if the answer to the above questions are Embiid can’t go, or is such a shell of himself he can’t impact the game.
Embiid suffered a “small lateral meniscus tear” in the first round, with the team saying it does not require immediate surgery. He is officially questionable for Game 1. Embiid sat out Game 5 against Washington (the Sixers closed out the series anyway). The history of players pushing through a meniscus injury in the playoffs — think Andrew Bynum in 2010 — is not positive for 76ers fans. Guys were not the same.
Without Embiid against the Hawks, the 76ers could be in serious trouble.
When Embiid was on the court this season, the 76ers outscored their opponents by 12.4 points per 100 possessions. When he sat, the Sixers were basically even with the opposition. In the first round against Washington, Philly was +33.4 when Embiid was on the court and again within a point of the Wizards when Embiid was out. The problem for Philly: Atlanta is much better than Washington.
Philadelphia needs Embiid not just on the court but playing at the MVP-level he showed this season (when healthy). He is the fulcrum of their offense, his gravity drawing defenders and opening up space for shooters such as Seth Curry or driving lanes for Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons. On defense, while Doc Rivers tried to prop up Ben Simmons for Defensive Player of the Year — and he is a very good, versatile perimeter defender — it is Embiid as a rim-protecting anchor that makes it all work.
Without peak Embiid, Philly is a nice playoff team that doesn’t scare anyone, and this series is a toss-up (if not seeing Atlanta as a slight favorite).
With peak Embiid, the Sixers win this series comfortably.
The questions are: will we even see Embiid, and if so how well does he move laterally, and how is his endurance?
Embiid will be a game-time decision for Game 1 on Sunday (even if the 76ers know what they are going to do, they will not want to make it public to pretend that gives them an advantage, while the Hawks will prep for all eventualities). Doc Rivers and teammates pumped up how good Embiid looked in practice, but all of that should be taken with more than a few grains of salt (remember, the Lakers were saying good things about Anthony Davis).
2) Can Trae Young keep taking bows against better defenders?
While the Knicks had the third-best defense in the NBA this season, it was a defense built on scheme and hustle around some competent defenders playing smart. To be blunt, it was more Tom Thibodeau than roster construction.
Trae Young torched those defenders to the tune of 29.2 points per game, he was taking bows on the Knicks’ center-court logo, and took over Reggie Miller’s honorary title of “most hated man in the Garden.”
Philadelphia had the second-best defense in the NBA this season, but they came about it differently — they have elite defensive talent who can make life difficult for any single perimeter player one-on-one. Specifically, Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle are All-Defensive Team level players and each is going to get their turns on Young, making his task a lot more difficult this series.
How efficient can Young be in the face of superior defenders? If he takes a step back, can Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, and the rest of the Hawks use the space and matchups that create to make up the difference?
Life is about to get tougher for Young. How the Hawks respond will go a long way to decide this series.
3) Which team wins the free throw battle?
The team that wins the free throw battle — and by extension can get the other team in foul trouble — will have a big advantage in this series.
These teams were second and third overall in free throw attempts per game as a team. Trae Young led the NBA in free throw attempts — and garnered the wrath of opposing coaches and players for his run-up-the-back foul-drawing style. Joel Embiid and his bully ball play inside was second overall in free throws drawn.
Which team can carry that trend over to this series? Can Young get key Philly defenders in foul trouble? Can Embiid push Clint Capela and the other Hawks bigs to the bench due to early fouls? Those outcomes could swing individual games, and with it maybe the series.
Another thing to watch is the Sixers’ 3-point shooting percentage. Against the Knicks, the Hawks packed the paint and dared the Knicks to shoot over the top of them — which seemed dangerous against a team that shot 39.2% on the season from 3. It worked, the Knicks shot 34.2% on 3-pointers, while clogging the lane slowed Julius Randle, and the New York offense stumbled for five games.
Would that work against the Sixers? Philly has a roster that GM Daryl Morey tweaked when he came in, adding shooting with Seth Curry and Danny Green — both of whom shot better than 40% from 3 this season — plus Tobias Harris? If Embiid is healthy and if Tobias Harris is getting into the lane, will the Hawks try the same philosophy? Will it work against a Sixers team that was middle of the pack overall in shooting but had some knock-down guys?