Round one is in the books and the Sixers are set to continue their business trip through the playoffs. After checking the Wizards of their list, the Sixers will now face the Atlanta Hawks. While the Wizards were extremely overmatched and the round served as nearly a warm-up for the team, the Sixers will have a tougher test in round two. This is still an extremely winnable matchup for the Sixers, but they must come in focused and be prepared for Trae Young and the youthful Hawks.
Hawks Regular Season and Players to Watch:
The Atlanta Hawks finished the season with a 41-31 record which was good enough to secure them the fifth seed in the East. It was an interesting season for the Hawks as they fired their Head Coach, Lloyd Pierce, after the team’s 14-20 start. The Hawks were able to rebound during the second half of the season and finished with a 27-11 record after Nate McMillan took control.
The focal point of the team is Trae Young, who averaged 25.3 points and a career-high 9.4 assists this regular season. Young is 22-years old and this is his third season in the NBA. The entire offense flows through Trae and he wants every bit of the spotlight. Young regularly pulls up from 40+ feet out and can be an absolute problem when he catches fire. His progression as a passer also forces defenses to think twice about doubling him and the Hawks also have several solid shooters to surround him with.
Outside of Trae Young, the Hawks’ offense features Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, and Cam Reddish. Let’s not forget Danillo Gallinari, who all average more than 11+ points per game and attempt at least 4 three-pointers per game. This abundance of shooting has been effective for the Hawks and Bogdanovic is a legitimate backcourt partner alongside the Hawks’ star.
While their style of play is still fairly guard-heavy, the Hawks have a very respectable interior attack. John Collins is an excellent player who averages 17.6 points and 7.5 assists while playing most of his minutes at the power forward. The 6’9 forward has the athleticism to make a highlight reel dunk and a smooth stroke from deep as he is a 39.9% three-point shooter on 3.3 attempts per game. Collins will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season and is in search of a major pay-day so the 23-year old has a lot to play for.
The Hawks also lean heavily on Clint Capela to anchor their team on the defensive end and use his size and athleticism to their advantage on offense. Capela averaged 15.2 points, 14.3 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game. The 6’10 center is one of the best rim-runners in the league and is a constant lob target for the Hawks.
Takeaways from Knicks Series
Despite them finishing with the exact same regular-season record, it was clear that the Hawks are a much better team than the New York Knicks were. The Hawks were able to win the series decisively and sent the Knicks packing in five games for the franchise’s first series win since 2016.
Trae Young averaged 29.2 points and 9.4 assists in this series and loved every bit of the hate that came from the New York crowd. Young will be an instant villain in the eyes of the Sixers fans and is one of the more hate-able players in the league. His slight frame, balding hair, and devilish smile are infuriating to opponents as he hits 35+ foot daggers like it is nothing. Meanwhile, he is constantly baiting opposing defenders into fouls.
To give Young some credit (which I likely won’t do for the entirety of the upcoming series), he has continually proved his doubters wrong in his short career. The 6’1 guard has progressed in a major way and proved that he is every bit ready for the spotlight of the playoffs. Trae Young joined Michael Jordan on the list of the only player to ever score 30+ points at Madison Square Garden in the playoffs in three straight games.
Ultimately it is tough to fully gauge the Hawks off the previous series as the Knicks did not show up to play. Julius Randle shot just 29.8% in the series and the Knicks series quickly came crumbling down. There was a great deal of scrappiness in the series which is something to note. With their emphasis on three-point shooting and with their roster lacking players known for their toughness, the Hawks have falsely been portrayed as a soft team. It is clear they will not roll over and the Sixers must be ready for a fight in this series.
Keys for the Sixers
Stopping Trae Young
While the Sixers are known for their defensive versatility, Trae Young does not have a clear matchup. Young is masterful at drawing fouls and ranks 4th in the league in free-throw attempts with 8.57 per game. Trae makes use of pump fakes and dares defenders to reach before quickly pulling the trigger and forcing the defender to pick up unnecessary fouls and creating free points for himself. It may be wise to keep Ben Simmons away from Young for the majority of the game in order to keep himself out of foul trouble.
This could result in increased minutes for Matisse Thybulle, with Danny Green likely to get a run as well. It also could prove to be an interesting move to give Tyrese Maxey a run at Young to counter his quickness and herky-jerky movements. While this is a tall ask of such a young player, Maxey has stepped up to every challenge that has been thrown his way and he deserves to be rewarded for this. They are certainly different styles of players, but Maxey did an excellent job when given the opportunity to defend Russell Westbrook in the first round.
If the Sixers are able to stop Trae Young, the Hawks have no chance in the series. The entire offense funnels through the Oklahoma product and if he does not get going the Hawks offense simply does not have the offensive firepower. It will not take long for the balding, undersized guard to ascend into the top tier of Sixers villains and expect the Wells Fargo Center to erupt in boos against him on many occasions.
Sixers’ Dwight Howard Needs to Step Up
The health of Joel Embiid is obviously a major storyline for the Sixers. The MVP candidate has been diagnosed with a meniscus tear and is listed as day-to-day. The Sixers are extremely optimistic about their ability to manage the injury and it is important to note that it is mainly pain management and not a structural concern. The Sixers will obviously be hoping to get Embiid back on the court and as close to 100% as possible, but his status will be one to watch up until game time.
Regardless of whether Embiid is able to play or not, Dwight Howard will be crucial in this series. Clint Capela plays a fairly similar style to Howard as both catch lobs and hunt for put-backs as their primary means of scoring. Both are very effective rebounders with Capela ranking first in the NBA in total rebounding percentage with 26.1%. If Howard is able to avoid foul trouble and fill some more minutes this would go a long way in the Sixers’ ability to limit Embiid’s minutes. The Sixers got away with a lack of production from the big man position in round one, but this will not fly against a more talented Hawks frontcourt.
Battle of the Benches
Both of these teams put a focus on getting deeper this offseason which has proved successful for each. The Hawks continued this trend by adding Lou Williams in a trade this season, which has added more offense off the bench. Kevin Huerter, Danillo Gallinari, and Cam Reddish all are key rotational players and provide extra offensive sparks off the bench for the Hawks.
The Sixers bench has been a major talking point for a large margin of the year. Tyrese Maxey has established himself as an impact player on a nightly basis and catapulted himself up the depth chart. Matisse Thybulle has also continued to be the defensive stopper that the Sixers need; he will likely play a major role in this series. George Hill has also been exactly as advertised since coming to the Sixers and provided a calming prescience amongst the second unit.
It will be interesting to watch how Doc Rivers decides to alter the rotations coming into this series. The Wizards series proved not to be a challenge so the substitutions were not as important, but Rivers needs to eliminate many bench minutes that are currently being played. Giving minutes to an all-bench unit in the playoffs is inexcusable and the Sixers will be punished for this if it continues throughout the playoffs. It is a good problem to have when there are too many good players and not enough minutes, but Rivers must begin to focus on stretching the starters’ minutes out in order to give the Sixers the best chance at success.
Sixers Can Pull This Off
The Sixers put a major focus on securing the first seed this season in order to have the best possible path through the playoffs. The first round is in the books with the Sixers having taken care of business with the Wizards. The Hawks will be the team’s first true task. This is still a very winnable series for the Sixers, but not one they can take for granted. Game one will tip off at 1 o’clock on Sunday and take place at the Wells Fargo Center. Sixers in 6.
Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire