Get out your popcorn (but don’t be a dick about it) because this Sunday, June 6th, at 1:00 pm EST the Philadelphia 76ers will host the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Sixers are hot off a 17-point victory against the Washington Wizards and despite the unknown status of Joel Embiid, come in as the betting favorite to win the series at -215 (Draftkings). The Hawks are also riding high though, coming off a double-digit road win against the higher-seeded New York Knicks. Although the Sixers enter as the heavy favorite, the Hawks have played much better than their seeding suggests and hope to be a good challenge for Philly. So without further adieu, here’s my analysis and prediction for this 2021 NBA Playoff Semifinals matchup.
As I mentioned, Philly is coming into this series off a dominant performance over the Washington Wizards. Unfortunately, the series with Washington didn’t come without a toll, as the Sixex’s big man and league MVP hopeful, Joel Embiid, was injured in Game 4. His status as of now is considered day-to-day with a partially torn meniscus. But, after missing Game 5 against the Wizards, Doc Rivers and the squad will need to prepare for each game as if they will be without the all-world center. While this may be a concern for some, I have reason to believe that Philly will be able to handle Atlanta even without Embiid.
For starters, if you look at the make-up of the Atlanta Hawks roster it is very similar to that of the Washington Wizards. Trae Young’s fast-paced style and quickness can very easily be compared to Russel Westbrook and if you look at the rest of the team it’s a relatively small roster with a lot of perimeter shooters. Clint Capela is certainly an upgrade over Robin Lopez, Alex Len, or Daniel Gafford in the paint, but I wouldn’t consider him a “threat” when looking at this Hawks team.
The main focus for the Philadelphia defense will obviously be on Trae Young and trying to disrupt his drive and kick abilities. Young is known around the league as a shooter, primarily because of his fearlessness to pull up from deep and put together spectacular highlights full of 3-point shots. But, if you look at the numbers, Young’s 34.2% 3-point percentage this season is actually below average compared to the rest of the league (36.7%). Last season, Trae Young attempted 9.5 three-pointers per game, but since Nate McMillan took over as interim head coach for the Hawks halfway through this season, Young has only been shooting 6.1 three-pointers per game. In that span, the Hawks have a 27-11 record which is tied with Philly for the best record in the East. There’s obviously a lot that has factored into their success but one takeaway for me is the Hawks are better when Trae Young shoots fewer threes.
As we saw in the series with the Knicks, one of the major keys for Atlanta is Trae young’s ability to drive and get to the line, where he’s almost a 90% shooter, or draw a double team and kick it to an open man.
Trae Young to Capela for the slam 🔥
At the half, Trae already has 10 assists to cover the over on his prop of 9.5
More to come in the 2nd half!pic.twitter.com/6ue8J3bqKv
— The Game Day NBA (@TheGameDayNBA) May 29, 2021
Trae Young became just the 6th player in NBA History to record more than 30 assists in his first three career playoff games 🥶 pic.twitter.com/D83AeHlubF
— Def Pen Sports (@DefPenSports) May 29, 2021
The Hawks have a plethora of shooters, with Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danillo Gallinari, Tony Snell, and Lou Williams all averaging more than five threes attempted per game and all shooting over 40% from deep. As I said, the Hawks are better when Trae Young doesn’t shoot, and it’s because when he’s feeding the rest of the team they score at very high efficiency.
This is where the Sixers’ defense gives them a huge advantage. If Joel Embiid plays it will most likely be Ben Simmons covering Trae. Simmons has already proven he can cover small guards, having blanketed Russell Westbrook for most of the last series. Similar to Young, Westbrook is not the best outside shooter and looks to drive and create double-teams. So Simmons’ game plan and approach should not change much for this series.
If Embiid does end up missing some time because of his knee injury I am still very confident in the defensive abilities of Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle to slow Young down as well. The ability to cover Trae one on one will make it more difficult for him to find wide-open shooters on the wings. So if Philly is able to clog up passing lanes and force Young to settle for jump shots they should be able to limit the Hawks offensively, just as they did the Wizards.
During the regular season, Philly was 2-1 over the Hawks, with the Hawks only win coming in a game that Simmons didn’t play. Granted, one of the wins for Philly came when Trae Young was out, a 44-point blowout on April 28th, but the one game they both played Philly still won pretty decisively by 22 points. Simply put, Simmons and the Philly defense have the formula to stop Atlanta.
Now let’s go back to Joel Embiid. It’s no secret that Joel Embiid is the most important player for the Sixers, so if he’s not available for this series it definitely makes things more interesting. That being said, I am not all that concerned. As I mentioned earlier, the Atlanta Hawks are a relatively small roster, with their tallest player, Clint Capela only being 6’10. Ben Simmons, who would most likely cover Capela if Embiid does sit, is 6’11. So even without Joel the Sixers still have the height and athleticism advantage down low. Looking at the rest of the matchup, Atlanta has slight height advantages at the other positions but I’m not that concerned because I give the athleticism and skill advantages to Philly.
According to Hollinger’s Team Statistics on ESPN, Atlanta ranked tied for 19th this season in defensive efficiency. Along with Brooklyn, they have the worst defense of all Eastern Conference playoff teams. The only team in the entire playoff field with a worse defensive efficiency is Portland. So the question becomes how can Atlanta possibly stop Philadelphia’s offense, even if they don’t have Embiid? The answer is they can’t.
The Hawks were TERRIFIED of Ben Simmons last night
🔒Only 2 FGAs from the field vs Ben Simmons
🔒Solomon Hill had 2 points on 33 possessions vs Ben
🔒Ben's 18.4 NET was highest among starters
Since returning from injury (3 games), he's holding opponents to 25% from the floor 🤯 pic.twitter.com/7vzWWetCfM
— MRCROCKPOT (@mrcrockpot) May 1, 2021
I don’t see a single answer on the Atlanta side for what Philly wants to do offensively. They have no way of stopping Ben Simmons without doubling him and Philly moves the ball too well for the Hawks to be able to recover when they do. Ben will need to be aggressive if Embiid is out but as long as he attacks he’s going to be able to get to the rim with relative ease. When he does kick it outside I don’t see enough athleticism out of Bogdanovic, Hunter, or Collins to be able to keep up with Curry, Harris, or Green so as long they are hitting shots Atlanta will be scrambling.
I’ve given a lot of praise to Nate McMillan the last few weeks on what he’s been able to accomplish with the Hawks and his transformation of Trae Young’s game. Taking a 14-20 team and going 27-11 the rest of the way is pretty remarkable and I personally think he should be in the running for Coach of the Year. That being said, this Hawks roster is simply not good enough to hang with the Sixers. Philadelphia’s defense is too tough and if Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, and Danny Green continue to shoot the ball well there’s not much Atlanta can do. With or without Embiid, I see the Sixers as the better team and should be able to make quick work of Atlanta. As Devonte Smith predicted back in 2017…Sixers in five.