Philadelphia, welcome to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. It’s been two years since you last had a rooting interest in the second round of the NBA playoffs. The 1-seed Philadelphia 76ers will host the 5-seed Atlanta Hawks. Philadelphia is looking to get back to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2001. The critical factor in whether Philly is going to set a new checkpoint in this era of the franchise will be Joel Embiid’s availability whilst managing a small tear of the meniscus in his right knee. The Sixers, however, are not the 1-seed solely because of Joel Embiid’s MVP candidacy this season. They’ve made it this far because of their defensive coverage–107 points allowed per 100 possessions was second best in the league this season. That, in conjunction with Embiid’s health, is going to be what carries them to the promised land.
So, here is a guide to Eastern Conference Semifinal series between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks
Projecting The Atlanta Hawks’ Rotation
1 – Trae Young (40 minutes)
2 – Bogdan Bogdanovic (38)
3 – De’Andre Hunter (33)
4 – John Collins (34)
5 – Clint Capela (36)
F Danilo Gallinari (24)
G/F Kevin Huerter (23)
G Lou Williams (13)
F Solomon Hill (5 — Tony Snell was averaging 13 minutes per game in this spot for the first two games of Atlanta’s first round series against the Knicks before being replaced by Hill in the rotation)
C Onyeka Okongwu (5)
Projecting The Philadelphia 76ers’ Rotation
1 – Ben Simmons (33 minutes)
2 – Seth Curry (29)
3 – Danny Green (28)
4 – Tobias Harris (33)
5 – Joel Embiid (28)
6 – Dwight Howard (20)
7 – George Hill (18)
8 – Matisse Thybulle (18)
9 – Tyrese Maxey (13)
10 – Furkan Korkmaz (10)
11 – Shake Milton (8)
Obviously, Embiid’s meniscus management is going to be a major player in these rotations. Embiid will be listed as ‘Questionable’ on the injury report leading up to game 1. I suspect that status will remain the same throughout the rest of the Sixers’ run through the Eastern Conference. In order to preserve his health, the Sixers will likely try to cut out his playing time in the middle of the game so that they can deploy him more in crunch time if needed. Given the day-to-day nature of this meniscus injury, I’m willing to bet that the Sixers do not want to play him more than 30 minutes per game. So, 28 minutes seems like a fair number.
Further, Dwight Howard left quite the impression in the Sixers’ last regular season meeting against the Hawks. Howard registered a season-high 19 points and 11 rebounds in that game, and he was able to completely out-muscle the Hawks around the rim. A singular regular season matchup isn’t necessarily a good barometer of what will fly in the playoffs. But, Howard’s size and skill set make for a fair matchup with Capela and give me some degree of confidence that he can hold down the fort if extended minutes are needed.
Simmons — De’Andre Hunter
Curry — Bogdan Bogdanovic
Green — Trae Young
Harris — John Collins
Embiid — Clint Capela
Atlanta’s starting unit poses some unique challenges to Philadelphia, as they essentially start two power forwards in Hunter and Collins. That makes the idea of assigning Danny Green small forward duties a bit concerning. He darn sure isn’t athletic enough or big enough to consistently bother John Collins. He’s not big enough to disrupt De’Andre Hunter, either.
Doc Rivers was comfortable with putting Danny Green on Trae Young in man coverage during the final regular season matchup between the two teams. That assignment turned out to be surprisingly effective, as Green was able to stay in front of Young and stay disciplined when the young guard grifted for foul calls. So, that matchup does inspire some confidence. However, none of Bogdanovic, Huerter, and Hunter played in that final game. So, without Atlanta’s threatening scorers on the wings, perhaps Philly was more willing to gamble on the replacements not making shots off of Young’s playmaking and, thus, were more aggressive in the helping lanes.
The Green assignment on Young may not fly with Bogdanovic, Hunter, and Huerter now available. If Philly’s helpers have to respect the wings on the court, that can put Young on an island against Green and empower the young guard to get more creative than he was perhaps willing to be in that final regular season meeting.
Mitigating Trae Young’s Damage In The Pick-And-Roll
Limiting Young’s damage with the ball in his hands is on the front page of the scouting report in this series. The issue, of course, is going to be suppressing the speed with which the star guard reads defenses. That means that the Sixers are going to have to be comfortable with adjusting to Young quickly instead of challenging him to get warmed up against the same reads over and over again.
Young’s (in)efficiencies with the floater game (34 percent) and three-point game (34.3 percent) this season do not accurately depict the threat he poses as a self-provisioned scorer. He plays without fear. He will not hesitate to execute defenses if the look is there regardless of whether shots were falling for him previously. Young’s gravity as a scorer is most felt in the pick-and-roll, where his probing around the paint pressures defenses to make uncomfortable decisions. That is where he carves up the opposition. If you resist the urge to stop the ball and leave the rim vulnerable, he’ll score it on his own. If you step out to cut off his lane, his 9.4 assists per game this season prove that he’ll just punish you with a lob for whomever drifts into the dunker’s spot.
Drop coverage feels like an inevitability from time to time, seeing as Rivers will try to slow Young’s processing speed down by showing different looks out of the pick-and-roll. However, Young will eventually warm up to that and the Sixers cannot be married to that scheme when he does.
So, it comes down to how Philly elects to defend the pick-and-roll. Hedging in the pick-and-roll with the ball defender going over the screen to stay attached to Young is a sensible strategy. Whether or not the screener’s action out of the pick is executed with purpose and aggression dictates the usage of hard hedges or soft hedges. If the screener is meandering or timid as he moves out of Young’s way, Philly’s featured pick-and-roll defenders can afford to be more assertive with a hard hedge so as to stunt the ball-handler. If the screener is purposeful and assertive out of the action, Philly should opt for a soft hedge so as to stunt Young just long enough for the ball defender to recover while also giving the screen defender enough time to recover to the screener.
Keeping Young away from the middle of the floor is going to be critical to hindering his playmaking for both himself and his fellow Hawks. I’ve detailed this elsewhere, but ice coverage essentially denies the ball-handler the middle of the floor by angling the ball defender so as to force the handler towards the sideline. Meanwhile, the screen defender is backing off enough to invite the handler to push the basket without giving up enough space to make the handler perfectly comfortable with pulling up. So, ice coverage essentially intends to deny the middle of the floor and funnel the ball-handler towards the rim protector. It looks like this:
If you pause the clip at 26 milliseconds, you’ll see Thybulle positioning himself so as to give Bradley Beal the option of either retreating backwards towards the half-court line or attacking baseline. That initial setup tips me that the Sixers are icing Beal. Young connected on 38.7 percent of his pull-up triples in Atlanta’s first round series against New York. But, he hit only 33.5 percent of his pull-up triples this season. So, the number of steps the screen defender is willing to give Young depends on which conversion rate the Sixers buy.
Ice coverage invites ball-handlers to take contested twos. Rivers has mentioned a desire to make opponents settle for contested twos as opposed to getting to the rim or squaring up for triples. Young connected on 37.1 percent of his pull-up twos in the first round. He converted 44.7 percent of such attempts in the regular season. I might add that Young attempted the sixth most pull-up field goals per game in the league this season. He converted a higher percentage of his looks than Damian Lillard, James Harden, and Jayson Tatum, to name a few, did of theirs. Make no mistake about it, Young is a dangerous pull-up scorer. So, a less spacious rendition of ice coverage could certainly be at play.
I can’t imagine the Sixers will lean heavily into blitzing or trapping in the pick-and-roll in this series. Rivers was willing to deploy a blitz against Beal because he felt he could afford the gamble of leaving Raul Neto, Ish Smith, and some of Washington’s other non-ball-handling perimeter players open. Rivers made it clear to reporters on Friday that he has a lot of respect for Atlanta’s wing players. He feels he cannot afford such gambling against the Hawks.
There Might Not Be A Straight-Forward Solution For Young’s Foul Grifting
Young can also inflict damage by grifting for fouls. He attempted the fourth most free throws per game this season. The whistle has been a bit less friendly in the playoffs, as Young is ninth in that category this postseason. Even if the whistle hasn’t been as gratuitous towards him, he can still bait your best defenders into picking up two quick fouls. Thus, the damage isn’t just the free points. It’s that you could be sending your best players to the bench before you even settle into the game.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like the Sixers have a straight-forward answer for Young’s antics. “I would just say, ‘Be smart’,” Dwight Howard said of his advice to the team’s guards after Friday’s practice. “Try to mix it up, play mind games with him. But, just enjoy the matchup. He’s a great shooter. He’s gonna light the ball up. So, want to make sure we get up and pressure him and I don’t think that our guards are going to shy away from that challenge of being able to try to force him to take tougher shots. So, we’re looking forward to seeing that. I know Mad Max, he’s a demon, so he’s ready.”
Doc Rivers didn’t have much of a solution, either. “It’s tough to prepare them. You talk about it. You show them film. He’s a really clever player. He bumps in draws fouls. He’s good at it,” Rivers told reporters after Saturday’s practice. “They have three guys. Lou Williams is another one, and Gal[linari]. They all do a great job of drawing fouls, selling fouls, whatever way you want to say it. They’re good at it and we have to be focused on that, not to be in penalty all game. That’s for sure.”
That could very well be the Sixers trying to privatize their strategy for Young’s antics. Or, the answer might just lie in the league’s officiating rules.
No one knows how Embiid’s ability to stay in front of smaller offensive players will hold up with the meniscus tear. But, the Hawks are undoubtedly going to leverage their shiftiness and speed to test Embiid’s knee and his ability to react to them within Philly’s defensive coverage. If Embiid is clearly unable to stay in front of offensive players and his defensive impact is limited, it will become a catch-22 in that he’s not effective on defense but he’s generally too skilled to be benched. There certainly exists the possibility that Embiid is constantly in foul trouble because he’s forced to make contact with Young in order to keep up with his shiftiness. In that case, he’ll be saddled to the bench. So, Embiid obviously won’t be of much help on either end Ultimately, time will tell how Embiid’s knee will impact the Sixers’ defensive coverage.
It’s Not If Atlanta Goes Small, It’s When They Go Small
The Sixers’ most difficult adjustment might come in the form of deploying small-ball lineups when Atlanta goes small. Rivers touched on that issue after Friday’s practice. “They’ll play that small lineup with Collins at the five where he’s popping instead of rolling with Trae Young coming off,” Rivers said. “I mean, that’s a very difficult coverage for everybody.”
With a glass presence like Capela, I’m not convinced the Hawks will sit in a small-ball unit for extended periods of time unless it’s really giving Philly fits. But, that counter might look like Maxey, Green, Thybulle, Harris, and Simmons. I suspect it would take a dire situation for Nate McMillan to remove Capela from the starting unit in favor of a small-ball lineup. If the situation is dire to begin with, the Sixers are likely up 2-0 or 3-1, anyway. In that case, there’s no reason for Rivers to alter what his team is doing anyway. So, my hunch is that small-ball units will be deployed in-game if the situation is especially opportunistic for Atlanta.
If Embiid has to miss games to manage the knee injury, the Sixers would be unwise to roll out the small unit they went with against Washington in game 5. It will almost definitely have to be the more traditional unit they’ve used featuring Howard at center. Simmons cannot play center in this series. Why? Well, that’s the perfect segue into my next point of discussion.
Securing The Glass
When Young inevitably penetrates the lane and Philly’s big–de facto or not–has to step up, it’s imperative that those weak side helpers rotate down as part of their defensive coverage to box Capela out at the rim. Otherwise, the offensive glass is going to be a major problem.
Daniel Gafford’s ability to sneak into spaces because of busted rotations and create extra shots for the Wizards was problematic for Philly in the first round. Capela has averaged the second most rebounds per game in these playoffs thus far. He led the league in rebounds and offensive rebounds in the regular season. With Embiid, the Sixers at least have a massive body to counter Capela’s presence. Without Embiid, the only feasible presence to block out Capela is Dwight Howard. So, circling back to the end of the previous point, Simmons cannot be logging minutes at center against traditional lineups in this series.
Are There Concerns On Offense?
Atlanta’s defense was nothing special this season. After dismissing Lloyd Pierce, the Hawks’ allowed just under 2 points fewer per 100 possessions on average through the rest of the season than they did prior to his dismissal. They managed to move up the ranks a bit on that end. But, their season-changing shift came on the offensive end. Rivers has been particularly adept at making sure the Sixers find and punish the mismatch this season, and Rivers has been a big advocate of doing what has been working. So, I certainly don’t expect any drastic differentiation from offensive philosophies. The head-to-head matchup data shows that Embiid has generally been able to do what he wants against Capela. So, my expectation is a steady diet of Embiid going to work, mismatch hunting, and pace pushing to get looks at open threes.
The Hawks finished 18th in defense. They were a smidge better on that end of the floor than Washington was, and Philly had little issue breaking 120 points on a game-to-game basis in that series. Nothing really concerns me about that end of the floor.
I am going to provide two sets of predictions. One will feture scenarios where Embiid is available for the whole series. The other will feature scenarios in which Embiid is available in a limited capacity or not available at all.
Hawks 104, Sixers 116
Hawks 108, Sixers 128
Sixers 106, Hawks 118
Sixers 113, Hawks 108
Hawks 97, Sixers 122
Hawks 112, Sixers 119
Hawks 116, Sixers 105
Sixers 101, Hawks 121
Sixers 110, Hawks 117
Hawks 102, Sixers 109
Sixers 106, Hawks 114