By Connor Thomas
Last night, the Sixers rounded out their gentleman’s sweep of the Washington Wizards, officially sending Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal, and company to the golf course for the next couple months. Now, for Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and hopefully Joel Embiid, it is on to the 2nd round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs and the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks finished handling the New York Knicks last night in their own 5 game series victory, and will present challenges for Philly for sure. But all things considered, the Sixers should match up very favorably with the young Hawks, even if they are missing Joel Embiid for some games.
The Hawks’ strength is easily their perimeter shooting, led by All-Star Point Guard Trae Young. The 3rd year sharpshooter out of Oklahoma is in his first playoff run, but did not look remotely nervous against the Knicks, averaging 29.2 PPG over the series. He also averaged 9.8 assists to give him the series lead in both scoring and dimes. The great news for the Sixers is that they just came off a series where they got very used to defending dynamic back court players. Trae Young is a much better shooter than Russell Westbrook, that’s for sure. He’s also a better offensive facilitator than Bradley Beal. But the Sixers just rather effectively neutralized Westbrook and Beal at the same time for 5 straight games. They should be able to use that combined effort to handle Trae Young well. Matisse Thybulle and Tyrese Maxey will have their hands full, absolutely, but with a bevy of other strong perimeter defenders, the Sixers are warmed up and ready to take Young out of the game.
This is where the Hawks become the 5 seed that they are. Outside of Young, there is not much to lose sleep over when looking at the Atlanta roster. Clint Capela had a great series against the Knicks, and with Joel Embiid being hampered to some extent by a minor meniscus tear, the Hawks starting Center could have another strong series against Philly. The shame for Atlanta is that Capela, while an elite rebounder, is not much of a scorer. His impact on the series shouldn’t be more than 10 PPG and a couple offensive rebounds. The only other real scoring threat for Nate McMillan’s Hawks is Bogdan Bogdanovic, who is an outside scorer but not much of a lane penetrator. He can have stretches of impact, but with Tobias Harris or another sizeable wing defender on him, Bogdanovic shouldn’t cost you any games if you’re Philly. Oh, and for anyone worried about Lou Williams coming off the bench, don’t be. He averaged 6 points and change in the 1st round, and is not the 6th man of the year he used to be.
On the other hand, the Sixers have multiple matchups that should keep the Hawks busy all series long. The most obvious is Ben Simmons, who dwarfs Trae Young (and really every other guard on Atlanta’s roster). Capela can protect the rim occasionally, but Simmons is too strong and fast for the Hawks’ outside defenders. As long as he is aggressive, he should be able to get his in every single game. Tobias Harris will most likely get matched up with John Collins, which is another favorable matchup for the Sixers. Collins is an average to below average defender, and should not be a match for Harris’ ability to score from all 3 levels. There are other bench matchups that Doc Rivers can exploit, but really the big 2 that should give the Sixers the advantage are Simmons and Harris’. Of course, if Embiid can play he’s a nightmare for every big man in the NBA, but since we are still not sure of his health, I don’t feel comfortable with listing him here yet.
The Hawks are not a walkover team, but you’d be hard pressed to find a way for Atlanta to win the series. The Sixers will not sweep them, Trae Young is too good to give up back to back games at home in the playoffs, but this should be another 5 game series for the Sixers all things considered. Philadelphia, with or without Embiid, is just too good at home to fall to inferior teams. My official prediction? Sixers in 5, and Ben Simmons is the clear MVP of the series. Hopefully in about a week and a half’s time, I’ll be typing away at an Eastern Conference Finals preview, one that includes a healthy Joel Embiid.