In their first meeting since last spring’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Philadelphia 76ers (3-2) and Atlanta Hawks (3-2) will clash inside Wells Fargo Center Saturday evening. The Sixers enter this contest fresh off a closer-than-needed victory over the Detroit Pistons, while the Hawks’ comeback efforts fell short against the Washington Wizards on Thursday.
Saturday marks Philadelphia’s third opportunity to register its first win against a playoff-caliber opponent. They’ve defeated three lottery-bound squads, blew a big lead at home to the struggling Brooklyn Nets and were outclassed against the New York Knicks. The Sixers are 3-2, but it hasn’t been an entirely encouraging start, even independent of Ben Simmons’ absence. A win over the Hawks, who have also admittedly been a little slow out of the gates, could help kick-start this team into gear.
Doing so, of course, requires containing Trae Young in some capacity. Despite all his offensive warts in the playoffs, Simmons’ presence greatly helped limit the superstar guard. Maybe Matisse Thybulle gets the call to start this game. If he doesn’t, Tyrese Maxey probably assumes the task because Danny Green certainly shouldn’t handle the assignment. Among James Harden, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kemba Walker through five games, it’s been quite the gamut of offensive players for Maxey to defend already.
A pick-and-roll tandem like Young and Clint Capela will also thrust Joel Embiid into many challenging duties. He’s been excellent defending ball-screens this season, just like he was against Atlanta in the playoffs, but this is easily his stiffest test yet.
Effective point-of-attack defense will be critical to minimize how often Embiid must simultaneously defend the ball-handler and roller in space and sell out against preventing the lob or the floater instead of dancing between both. Effective point-of-attack defense has not been there for the Sixers this season, which a chief reason they sit 20th in defensive rating. As a result, more hedging and trapping of Young with Embiid instead of overwhelmingly drop coverage might be part of the game-plan — or, at least, it probably should.
How Philadelphia opts to defend John Collins, Bogdan Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter is another pressing subplot. Tobias Harris and Seth Curry will presumably take two of those guys, and all three are a disadvantage for Curry, given their size and/or scoring chops. Loading help via interior rotations, stunts and digs will be key in limiting the potential damage in such a matchup.
Offensively, it feels like a lot of the success hinges on Embiid’s jumper or foul-drawing. With the frequency at which Embiid is operating on the perimeter these days, weak-side actions that take advantage of Capela leaving the paint would be worthwhile. When Embiid is in the mid-post, I expect Atlanta to flood help in the paint and aim to bother his dribble on face-ups. Embiid will have to be crisp with his handle and perimeter shooters will have to be primed to fire or quickly swing the ball down the line for an open look.
A torrid game from Curry, which is entirely plausible these days, would help too. Atlanta’s size and length at positions 2-5 complicate matters, though. Let it fly against pressure, Seth! Hunter will probably take on Harris and that’s a lofty battle for Harris because Hunter is an excellent man defender who can emulate his strength and mobility. Scheming Harris into preferable spots is vital.
On both ends of the floor, with or without Simmons, the Hawks are such a fascinating opponent for the Sixers. How they handle this opportunity should reveal some interesting developments schematically.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Atlanta Hawks
When: 7:30 p.m. EST, Oct. 30
Where: Wells Fargo Center, South Philadelphia
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia, NBATV
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic