After completing a Gentleman’s Sweep in their respective opening round match-ups, the top seeded Philadelphia 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks are set to face each other in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Philadelphia picked up a 129-112 Game 5 win at home against the Washington Wizards after pulling away late in the third quarter. Head coach Doc Rivers inserted swingman Matisse Thybulle into the starting line-up in place of the injured four-time All Star Joel Embiid, who exited the previous game with a small meniscus tear in his right knee. Rivers then moved 6’9 starting point guard Ben Simmons to Embiid’s center spot and he responded with his third career playoff triple double.
The three-time All-Star Simmons finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists to close out the series after his poor free throw shooting late in Game 4 contributed to the Sixers’ loss. Simmons, a leading candidate for this season’s Defensive Player of the Year award, also anchored Philadelphia’s defense and quickly turned their stops into transition offense.
Despite the absence of Embiid, who averaged 29.3 points per game over the first three games against Washington, Philadelphia’s depth still proved to be superior and was on display in the series-closing win.
Starting guard Seth Curry scored a career playoff-high 30 points on 58% shooting from the field, highlighted by a stretch where he scored the team’s first 12 points of the third quarter. Now in his seventh campaign in the league, Curry has thrived in his first opportunity as a full-time starter in the NBA.
The Sixers remain undefeated in the 17 games where Curry has scored 16 or more points this season. He flashed a deadly two-man game in the Game 5 win with Tobias Harris who continued his strong play in the postseason with 28 points, nine rebounds, and six assists. Harris, who scored 37 points in Philadelphia’s Game 1 victory, was consistent for Philadelphia throughout the series and ended with averages of 25 points and 10 rebounds over five games.
Philadelphia’s second unit was also key in the win as they outscored Washington’s reserves, 40-19. Rookie guard Tyrese Maxey sparked the second unit with his fearless drives to the basket and had his second consecutive double-digit scoring game, finishing with 13 points and six rebounds.
Rivers, who has a reputation around the league for using rookies sparingly, kept Maxey on the floor in the fourth quarter. The 20-year-old Maxey closed the game with the starters in place of Thybulle as the Sixers fended off the Wizards to clinch the series. He handled the ball on several occasions late in the game, including multiple pick-and-roll actions with Simmons, and has made a case for more minutes over what is expected to be a long playoff run for this team.
The Sixers will be playing in the second round for the third time in four seasons and this year’s opponent will be the vastly improved Atlanta Hawks, who are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2017. Led by Trae Young, the Hawks closed out the New York Knicks on their home floor with a 103-89 win in Game 5.
Young scored a career playoff-best 36 points while also handing out nine assists in the closer to cap off a stellar debut postseason series. Atlanta led by just five points after a physical first half, but quickly built a double digit lead early in the third period that provided enough momentum for them to take their third consecutive victory and eliminate the Knicks.
Still in just his third year, Young averaged 29.2 points and 9.8 assists over five games, highlighted by a game-winning lay-up at the end of Game 1, but the Hawks clinching their first second round showing since 2015 was not a solo effort.
The rest of the Hawks stepped up over the course of the series led by center Clint Capela who was a stable presence on defense with per-game averages of 10 points, 13.4 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks. With the series tied at 1-1, Capela came out with three consecutive triple doubles which resulted in three straight Atlanta wins.
Off-season acquisition Bogdan Bogdanovic started off the series with back-to-back 18-point showings before his scoring tailed off over the next few games. However, Bogdanovic remained a valuable contributor for the Hawks through his secondary playmaking alongside Young which is exactly what the team had in mind when they added him to the team. Over five games against the Knicks, Bogdanovic averaged 14.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 3.8 assists in 35 minutes per game which ranked second on the team behind just Young.
The Hawks’ other two starters, John Collins and De’Andre Hunter, also had their share of big games in their first playoffs. Collins responded to a zero-point showing in their Game 2 loss by averaging 16.3 points over the next three games, topped off with a 22-point outing in Game 4. Meanwhile Hunter has returned to his early season form after missing a sizable chunk of the regular season due to injury.
These two forwards will play a crucial role in the Hawks’ upcoming match-up with the Sixers who boast one of the league’s most imposing frontlines. After helping contain New York’s Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, Collins and Hunter will now be matching up against the more experienced Harris and Simmons.
Embiid has been tagged as day-to-day and Capela will have his hands full covering the MVP candidate if he manages to suit up. If Embiid is unable to play and Rivers continues using Simmons as a center, Capela might be played off the floor by the Sixers’ quicker line-up.
The spotlight of the series will be on the showdown between the two star point guards, Young and Simmons, but it is unlikely that they will be defending one another on the court. The numbers from these two players are almost guaranteed, so the contributions of their respective backcourt partners will be more important in tilting the outcome of this series.
Curry has proven to be the barometer of the Sixers’ success this season and when he is aggressive and hitting his shots, the floor opens up for the rest of the team. If he can use his breakout Game 5 performance against the Wizards as a springboard going into their match-up with the Hawks, Philadelphia might not need to rely so heavily on Embiid to get through this series.
Bogdanovic’s production will be critical in relieving pressure off Young and giving the Atlanta offense another wrinkle. He has already played in several big games in international play with the Serbian National Team and the Hawks will need the best version of Bogdanovic if they want to pull off an upset against the Sixers. Philadelphia has several long perimeter defenders to throw at Bogdanovic, so the task will not be an easy one for the fourth-year shooting guard.
This promises to be an exciting up-and-down match-up between two teams packed with offensive firepower, despite the Sixers entering the series as the favorite to advance, with or without Embiid, to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Philadelphia has its best chance in years to win its first NBA title since 1983, but first they will have to clear the upstart Atlanta Hawks who have already shown their grit and mettle in this year’s playoffs.