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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Hawks preview with Sarah Spencer

Getting a little insight about Friday’s opponent.

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Moving forward, Liberty Ballers will conduct a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Sarah Spencer, who covers the Atlanta Hawks for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It’s been a tale of two seasons for Atlanta, starting 4-9 and now sitting at 12-10 after winning 8 of 9. What were the issues initially and what’s been clicking as of late?

From chemistry issues and poor shot selection on offense to lack of execution on defense, the Hawks had a handful of issues to start the season. They’re a deep team, and it seemed like several players were initially rushing shots to try and find a rhythm in a smaller amount of playing time. But, because he was so dominant for the Hawks last year, Clint Capela not looking like himself for the first few weeks of the season really, really stood out. Capela transformed the Hawks’ defense and was a huge reason why they made it as far as they did. But he had a PRP injection in his left Achilles in August and wasn’t anchoring them in the paint, and was missing some easy layups on the other end to start the year. Capela getting his wind back, Kevin Huerter finding a nice groove as a starter, John Collins doing the little things and Trae Young shooting the lights out have helped the Hawks find a solid rhythm as of late.

It seems like Bogdan Bogdanovic and Cam Reddish will both miss Friday’s game with an injury. How do their absences hurt Atlanta and how will it look to replace them/how did it do so against the Indiana Pacers?

Injuries are catching up to the Hawks again, as they’re now down two starters in Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter, who will be out until mid-January coming off wrist surgery, and their leading bench scorer in Reddish (he’s currently listed as questionable with a left wrist sprain). Missing Bogdanovic hurts the Hawks as it takes away another shooter and ball-handler, but Huerter can provide some of that as well and is thriving with the starters (he was coming off the bench to start the season).

Without Hunter and Reddish, two of the team’s better defenders, the Hawks take a major hit on that end, particularly on the perimeter. For the most part, the offense has been humming along (112.4 offensive rating, No. 2 in the league), but the defense (109.7 defensive rating, No. 22) is still struggling. Personnel-wise, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot started vs. the Pacers and played well on both ends, and they’ve given Solomon Hill more minutes. The Hawks need as much defense as possible from their backcourt guys to help make up for the loss of Reddish and Hunter.

Trae Young’s shooting notably fewer free throws this season, but his scoring efficiency has never been better. What’s working so well for him?

When Young got off to a rough shooting start, both he and head coach Nate McMillan mentioned he needed to be more aggressive and pick up the pace, making a conscious effort to get out in transition. I think doing more of that has helped Young find a rhythm, and I think he’s also simply starting to hit his stride this season. He’s shooting career-bests in most categories right now (including 38.8 percent from three-point range), and when I asked him about this the other day, he said he’s getting to the same spots as normal, but is really focused and his mindset is making the difference.

Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?

Probably the degree to which John Collins is rounding out his game. He entered the season wanting to become more of a playmaker, and his passing, ball-handling and growth on defense have all impressed so far. Collins’ numbers may not jump way off the stat sheet (16.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.4 blocks per game), but every player on the roster would tell you he does so many of the little things they need to win.

Biggest disappointment of the season?

The way the Hawks got demolished on their West Coast road trip. Granted, they played tough opponents, but given the opportunity to see where they stacked up early against some of the best teams in the West, an 0-4 result was pretty disappointing. They blew a 12-point lead in Phoenix, had a four-point lead at halftime but lost in Golden State, letting Steph Curry get 50, then couldn’t put complete games together in Utah and Denver. Led by Young, the Hawks’ offense is running much more smoothly now, but that trip was an early buzzkill.

What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this game?

Young has been on a tear recently and has the opportunity to nab his sixth straight 30-plus point game, as well as his NBA-leading sixth game with at least 30 points and 10 assists, so that’s the main thing to look out for. His shooting has been much sharper and in-rhythm than the last time the Sixers faced him in October.

What’s one key matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?

I’m inclined to say Capela (and Collins, to an extent) vs. Joel Embiid, because he’s always a tough matchup for the Hawks. But with them missing Hunter and Reddish, this feels like the kind of game where the Seth Curry or Tyrese Maxey could excel, if the Hawks aren’t careful. I think Huerter’s defense will be key in this game for the Hawks.