1) The health of Joel Embiid
Embiid is a huge force for the Sixers, an MVP finalist who averaged 28.5 points and 10.6 rebounds while helping the Sixers clinch the #1 seed in the East. More importantly, he is the player who does what Trae Young does for the Hawks: he forces opponents to bend and twist their defense in uncomfortable ways because it takes more than one player to properly defend him.
His health status is going to be momentous for the outcome of this series.
2) Pick-and-roll defense on Trae Young
What can the Sixers do to slow Trae? What can the Hawks expect when they try to score on Philadelphia?
“It’s very similar to the series we just came out of,” Nate McMillan said.
Trae may have a bit of an advantage here due to a sense of familiarity borne from seeing five games of the Knicks. Nate McMillan compared the Sixers’ defense to a hopped-up version of what the Hawks just went through with the Knicks, which sounds about right. Philadelphia will likely drop their big defenders back toward the rim in pick-and-roll defense in an attempt to limit what Clint Capela can do there. On the other hand, the Sixers have a lot of talented options for defending ballhanders at the point of attack, including Matisse Thybulle, Danny Green and Ben Simmons.
“They have a lot of length,” McMillan said. “Defensively, they are really good in the sense that they fight you, they battle you, they touch you. They’re very physical defenders. They’re first in forcing turnovers.”
Limiting turnovers will be a key because Simmons, in particular, is an outstanding playmaker in transition.
3) Throw out the regular-season results
The Hawks won a game in Atlanta in January. The Sixers won two games in Philadelphia in April. In all three games, the losing party was decimated by injury. Both teams are really good, but perhaps more than any other conference opponent, the Hawks really don’t have a good measuring stick this season for how they match up against Philly.
“It’s hard to take a lot from those games,” McMillan said.
4) Game 1 is massively important.
Over the course of NBA history, the team that wins Game 1 has gone on to win a best-of-seven series roughly three-quarters of the time. For all four first-round series in the East, the Game 1 winner advanced. Given the new opponent and a little bit of time off, Game 1s can tend to get a bit wonky, and that could be especially true in a game where the Sixers don’t quite know what they can expect to get from Embiid. If the Hawks want to make noise, Game 1 is their best bet.
5) These aren’t your slightly older brother’s Philadelphia 76ers
Perhaps the two biggest changes for the Sixers this season are the additions of guard Seth Curry and head coach Doc Rivers.
Seth Curry gives them an element of shooting that they didn’t have in previous iterations. He shot 45 percent from three in the regular season, and he did it in a way where his movement without the ball, especially with Embiid attracting double teams, posed problems for defenses. He can be just as pesky in pick-and-roll actions. In the series clincher against the Wizards, Curry scored a playoff career-high 30 points when Embiid was out.
The addition of Doc Rivers has refreshed and reinforced the fact that the Sixers want to run the ball through Embiid in the paint.
“They are focusing on getting him the ball in the paint and allowing him to establish the Sixers by going through the post,” McMillan said. “That’s old-school basketball where you’ve had centers like Shaquille (O’Neal), (Hakeem) Olajuwon, those guys who can really establish the post for you and force double teams to open up the perimeter. They’ve added shooters to their roster that can really try to keep the defense off him. I would say that you’re seeing more of his touches in the paint.”
Where Embiid used to get a lot of paint touches on the low block closer to the baseline, he will now additionally get a lot of touches up near the free-throw line, which also makes him an even more dangerous passer because he has better sightlines to his teammates.
6) The Hawks’ home-court advantage
Regardless of how the next two games in Philly fare, the Hawks should have an excellent chance to make some noise when the series comes to Atlanta. Between the playoff and regular-season games combined, the Hawks have won 13 straight games at home, and they are 21-2 at home in their last 23 outings. The return of fans has added an extra edge to the advantage.
Trae backed it up with a crowd-noise testimonial from Lou Williams, who made the playoffs twice in two seasons with the Hawks in 2013 and 2014.
“Even Lou kind of said it. He’s been in the playoffs here with this team. He looked at me and said, ‘It’s different.'”