Given the star power and firepower of the East’s other semifinal matchup — Brooklyn vs. Milwaukee — this clash of No. 1 vs. No. 5 was going to need something unexpected to generate some intrigue and suspense. And it got that, in the worst way: Philadelphia’s Kia MVP-worthy center, Joel Embiid, will be a question mark until he’s not thanks to a meniscus tear in his right knee that is hampering him.
That’s the equivalent of tying one arm behind the Sixers’ collective back, as far as evening the odds. It’s the East version of what the Lakers have faced with Anthony Davis’ day-to-day injury uncertainty. It could mean the difference between Atlanta being sent off to summer with a pat on the head or actually pushing the favored Philadelphia to the brink.
The Sixers won two of the three meetings between the teams, taking the pair near the end of April after losing in January without Ben Simmons (hurt) and a handful of players in virus safety protocols.
Three things to watch
1. Joel Embiid’s status. If the big fella is healthy or nearly so, the Sixers are better and more polished at both ends of the floor. With Embiid limited or sidelined, the Hawks’ 3-point shooting could benefit from a heavy complement of rim attacks. Their own frontcourt players, Clint Capela and John Collins, might avoid the foul trouble that Embiid brings with him. The series can’t start too soon or move too swiftly for Atlanta’s liking, staying a step ahead of Embiid’s treatment regimen.
2. Can Trae Young keep it going? The Knicks and their fans got a taste of the havoc Young can wreak on a game with his scoring, his passing, his energy and his elusiveness. The Sixers are better equipped to slow him with backcourt defenders such as Simmons, Danny Green, George Hill and Matisse Thybulle. But the irrepressible Young, in the two games he played against Philadelphia this season, averaged 38.9 points and 8.0 assists per 36 minutes. If the lane is more open now, look out. And Young has X-factor Bogdan Bogdanovic to draw defenders now — he averaged 16.4 points and made 43.8% of his 3-pointers this season but missed all three Philadelphia games.
3. Who wins the free throw contest? Philadelphia outscored its opponents by 156 points from the foul line during the season. The Hawks were even better, going plus-198 from the line over their 72 games. Head-to-head, Atlanta had a 66-49 edge, so the 48 total points that separated them in the three games came from elsewhere. We’d rather not watch a lot of points scored by standing around, but it is a category worth watching.
The number to know
-6.2 — The Sixers are 30-6 with their full starting lineup, and one of those losses was Game 4 against Washington, when Joel Embiid didn’t play after the first quarter. In the regular season, the lineup outscored opponents by 215 points, the best cumulative plus-minus (by a wide margin) among all lineups and by 14.0 points per 100 possessions, the sixth best mark among 30 lineups that played at least 200 minutes. Through the first 3 1/4 games of the first round, it outscored the Wizards by 61 points (45.6 per 100 possessions) in 60 minutes.
The Sixers did win Game 5 without Embiid, and they played well with him off the floor in their two April wins over the Hawks. But in 322 total minutes (275 in the regular season, 47 in the playoffs) with their other four starters on the floor without their MVP candidate, the Sixers have been outscored by 6.2 points per 100 possessions. The difference between those minutes and the minutes with all five starters on the floor has been significant on both offense (10.8 fewer points scored per 100 possessions) and defense (12.2 more points allowed per 100).
— John Schuhmann
That No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, up for grabs right into the final couple weeks, looms large now for Philadelphia. No offense to the Hawks, but having to play and win against Brooklyn or Milwaukee while Embiid possibly limps through or sits completely would have been a problem. The Hawks are unburdened at this point by expectations, which might make them more dangerous — or more beatable. Worst-case scenario for the Sixers with their center doesn’t have to be fatal — they had some success in midseason through an extended Embiid absence and, with Simmons manning the middle, eliminated Washington Wednesday night in coach Doc Rivers’ small-ball alignment. Having an extra home game in their back pocket won’t hurt either, though they might not need it. Sixers in 6.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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