Oh, how we’ve missed them. This first week has encompassed everything that watching Sixers basketball has become — a bit of stress in each of the first two games, an Embiid DNP, and a Mike Scott eruption. But, through two games, #HereTheyCome is 2-0. They beat the Celtics by 14 despite not being able to hit the broad side of a barn and managed to overcome, well, themselves in a comeback win in Detroit on Saturday night. 

The early jitters are out of the way, and now it’s about settling in and trying to build chemistry while simultaneously picking up wins. That sounds hard, and it is harder. While the upcoming victims aren’t exactly the most critically-acclaimed names in the business, the Sixers will have to play guest in two of their three games this week.

Atlanta Hawks

October 28, 7:30 PM, State Farm Arena

The Hawks, led by sophomore point guard Trae Young, have had a very impressive start to their season. They beat the Pistons in Detroit on Thursday and the Magic in the ATL on Saturday. The Stephen Curry impersonator is averaging 38.5 points and 9 assists per game in the Hawks’ hot start, and I suspect he will not go down quietly against the Sixers.

The Pick-and-Roll

A critical element of this game is the availability of Joel Embiid, who is listed as “Questionable” with a sprained ankle and a lacerated lip. If Embiid is able to play, I would recommend hedging on ball screens for Young. It is not necessarily difficult to adjust your hedging strategy in-game, so Brett Brown can allow his game plan for Young to be dictated by how the game plays out. No matter what, Young cannot be given any space at all. A credible defender needs to meet him on the other side of the screen. If the Sixers give Young the space to get hot early on, it could make things very tough as the game progresses.

With the availability of Embiid, you can live with John Collins diving to the basket unfollowed off of the screen because one of the Sixers’ two bigs will be there to protect the rim. Since Collins is a much more imposing player around the rim than he is on the perimeter, the primary focus should be protecting the basket when he catches the ball deep, not necessarily trying to contain him on the perimeter.

If Embiid isn’t available, hedging might blow up the paint for the Sixers’ defense. I’d be tempted to have Josh Richardson play as a cornerback in man coverage on Young and have him follow Young over screens. Young will have milliseconds of space, and that’s enough time to get his shot off. But, you’re hoping that Collins departs from the screen too early to roll to the basket and Richardson can save time catching up to the younger baby-faced assassin.

Transition

The Sixers can really help themselves in this game by taking care of the basketball. They can put a ton of pressure on themselves by allowing the Hawks to move in the open court. With a pair of long, athletic, highly-skilled rookies in DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish, transition opportunities would help open up their games and spell disaster for the Sixers. I’m not nearly as worried about defending them in the half court — rookies who aren’t the focal point of the offense tend to struggle once the pace slows and the game shifts to a half court tempo. First-year players tend to salivate when they see the chance to run into a spot-up or an easy finish at the rim. Thus, allowing the Hawks to get down hill and dial up open looks in transition could put the Sixers against the wall. 

I don’t trust the Sixers to take care of the ball yet, but the Hawks are way too young to start out 3-0 and the Sixers have enough experience to put a young team like this away.

Prediction

With Embiid: Sixers win 112-98

Without Embiid: Sixers win 116-109

Minnesota Timberwolves

October 30, 7 PM, Wells Fargo Center

It’s mischief night, and Karl-Anthony Towns is averaging 36.5 points, 14.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists. What in tarnation? 

I would assume Embiid will be a lock to play this game. It’s a great one-on-one match-up between two monstrous centers in front of the Philly faithful. He rarely misses those games. The Timberwolves will likely run an insufferable number of pick-and-rolls in this affair, but Jeff Teague is as “meh” of a point guard as there is in this league. You’ll live with him scoring 14 points on 5 of 12 shooting with 8 assists. The Sixers will enter rougher waters if they allow Wiggins to find his touch. Luckily, you can solve the Canadian wing by throwing different looks at him. Make him go left twice, then make him go right three times. Switch on him, and then go under the screen a few times. Throw different defenders at him. Whatever, just keep him guessing. If he gets comfortable, he becomes a problem.

Help

The most important thing for the Sixers to do in this game will be to be aware of their positioning in help. Towns has blossomed into a superstar with his off-the-dribble game. He loves catching the ball on the perimeter, jabbing with his right foot, and attacking. There will be possessions when he beats you, but being in proper help position will force him to kick to his snipers—who don’t really exist.

Defensive Glass

The Sixers can dominate this game by controlling the defensive glass. If they limit the number of second chance points the Wolves get–and limit Towns’ impact on the offensive glass–there will be a ton of Furkan Korkmaz in the fourth quarter because the Sixers will be up by 24.

Oh, I almost forgot–this is the Robert Covington Bowl. I wonder what he’ll think of his clone, Matisse Thybulle.

Prediction: Sixers win 38-7 (sorry, I had to); but seriously, the Sixers win 114-101.

Portland Trail Blazers

November 2, 10 PM, Moda Center (NBATV)

This is the Sixers’ biggest test thus far. Yes, Boston was tough. But, the Blazers are very tough to beat on their own stage. Contract killers Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are two of the most lethal guards in the league as is, and they become kill-shot hungry when they’re playing in front of their fans. The Blazers added Hassan Whiteside to bolster their big man depth with Jusuf Nurkic out for most of the season with a fractured leg. Whiteside has had an impressive start to his Blazers’ tenure. But, as we all know, Embiid treats himself to the endless buffet when his opposition is Hassan Whiteside. 

This game is quite simple–you live with the hot-and-cold streaks of the pieces surrounding Lillard and McCollum. But, no matter what, the Sixers must reduce the time and space that the two guards have in the pick-and-roll. That will entail throwing different defensive strategies at them throughout the game. The complication is that both guards are too quick and talented as shooters, shot-creators, and attackers to maintain a high level of effectiveness of any one strategy for too long. Brett Brown is going to have to do some switching, hedging, going under, going over, and anything else that comes to mind to slow down Lillard and McCollum.

I’m not convinced of it by any means, but it would not shock me if this was the first loss of the season. I will say that our most recent memories of the Blazers involve the Sixers getting smoked in both matchups last season. However, if you recall, Embiid missed both contests. Breaking news–Embiid’s availability changes things.

Prediction: Blazers win 98-94