Style file: The smallish Hawks are tied with the old-school Sixers

Hawks forward John Collins battles for the ball with Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Hawks forward John Collins battles for the ball with Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

This series matches the brawny against the scrawny. Joel Embiid could bench-press the Hawks’ starting five. But the beauty of basketball — and these Hawks often are lovely to watch — is that a supposed big man’s game can be ruled by smaller fry. And this might sound odd, given that the mammoth Embiid has scored 79 points over two games, but there’s reason to believe the little guys can take Round 2.

The 76ers’ starters are an average 6-foot-8. The Hawks’ starters in games 1 and 2 — De’Andre Hunter hasn’t played in the series — average 6-6. Trae Young, the Hawks’ best player, is almost a foot shorter than Embiid, the best Sixer. If Mike Storen hadn’t conjured up the 3-point shot for his sassy new league with the red, white and blue ball, the Hawks would have little chance. Long after the ABA ceased to exist, its gimmick shot has come to rule the sport.

From 1959 to 1974, every NBA title – 16 in succession – was taken by a team with a center who tucked at least one MVP award into his trophy case: Russell, Chamberlain, Reed, Abdul-Jabbar, Cowens. On Tuesday, Denver’s Nikola Jokic became the first center to win MVP since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000. (Tim Duncan and Giannis Antetokounmpo were/are considered power forwards.)

Golden State won three NBA titles in four seasons with a cornerstone player who’s 6-3 and who weighs 185 pounds. In a rebuild coordinated by Travis Schlenk, who worked for the Warriors, the Hawks built around Young, 6-1 and (maybe) 180 pounds. Philadelphia point guard Ben Simmons is 6-11, two inches taller than Magic Johnson, the first plus-sized PG.

The nominal starting center for the title-winning Miami Heat over their regular season was Joel Anthony, who averaged 21.1 minutes and 3.4 points. He started one of 23 playoff games; he didn’t play in six. With a trophy on the line, the Heat demoted its place-holder big man and went with the 6-8 Udonis Haslem or Ronny Turiaf, who scored 10 baskets in seven games. (The Heat’s heavy lifters were LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.)

The Warriors of Splash Brothers fame won the 2015 NBA championship. Their center was a once big name: Andrew Bogut, drafted No. 1 overall by Milwaukee in 2005. He averaged 6.3 points over the 2014-15 regular season. Come the playoffs, he averaged 4.7. He rarely played in the fourth quarter, Golden State opting to go with its Death Lineup of Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green. Indeed, the sub Iguodala was the finals MVP.

The NBA didn’t adopt the 3-point shot until 1979, three years after four ABA teams joined the fold. The trey didn’t immediately change everything. Coaches remained wary. Why take such a low-percentage shot? Over time, folks with calculators discovered that making 33.3 percent of 3-point shots netted the same number of points as making 50 percent of 2-pointers. Those same folks also saw that the threat of the 3-pointer spread the floor in a way that made centers, who for decades were the key part of every team, less than essential, if not irrelevant.

These 76ers took 30.1 treys per game over the regular season, ranking 26th in the 30-team NBA. Their president for basketball operations is Daryl Morey, who just arrived in Philly after resigning as general manager in Houston, where his sworn mission was to eradicate all 2-point shots that weren’t layups. One of his final moves with the Rockets was to trade Clint Capela, a rather useful center, to the Hawks. Capela just led the league in rebounding.

Hawks center Clint Capela and Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid take the opening tip of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Hawks center Clint Capela and Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid take the opening tip of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Even under Schlenk, the Hawks haven’t gone as 3-point crazy as the Rockets or the Warriors. The smallish Young, for instance, loves his floaters. But Schlenk’s team finished last in the NBA in 3-point shooting in 2019-20, prompting the acquisitions of shooters Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari. The Hawks rose to 12th in 3-point percentage, which is one of the reasons they’re good again. (Another reason: They fired coach Lloyd Pierce.)

It’s said that styles make prizefights. Think of Muhammad Ali, the consummate boxer, against fearsome sluggers Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. This series is the NBA equivalent of boxer/slugger. Take the 3-point arc off the court, and the Hawks would have no chance. As is, they have a splendid shot of unhorsing the East’s top seed. No, they can’t stop Embiid, but we note that, with him averaging 39.5 points over two games, the series is tied.

The Sixers have averaged 29.8 trey tries per playoff game. Only Washington, which Philly eliminated in Round 1, has tried fewer. The Hawks have taken 36.4 per game; the playoff average is 34.8. If all you knew about this series was that Morey oversees one of these teams, you wouldn’t guess it’s the 76ers.

Two games in, we know what each side is trying to do. Playoff games tended to be slower because of the emphasis on defense. On Tuesday, TNT’s microphones caught Hawks coach Nate McMillan telling Young to “keep up the pace.” A faster pace suits the faster team, which is demonstrably the Hawks. A half-court slog benefits the team with Embiid, which isn’t the Hawks.

The Hawks scored 74 points in the first half of Game 1, in which they had 106 possessions over 48 minutes. They won. They scored 53 points in the first half of Game 2 and had 95 possessions all told. They lost. The Hawks won’t win a grind-it-out game. Philly won’t win if the Hawks score 128 points.

Having mixed sporting metaphors already, we now go the whole nine yards. The way an offense slows a pass rush is to wrong-foot the defenders with draws and screens. That’s what the Hawks will keep trying to do against Philly. They’ll spread the floor. They’ll draw and kick. They’ll make Embiid chase.

If they shoot well enough from deep, they’ll reach the Eastern Conference finals. They’ve already proved they don’t shrink under pressure. Over the regular season, the Knicks led the NBA in defensive field-goal percentage and defensive 3-point percentage. The Hawks bettered both those averages in Round 1. In Round 2, they’re a new-school bunch against an old-school opponent. They can take this series.

HAWKS-76ERS SERIES

Game 1 - Hawks 128, 76ers 124

Game 2 - 76ers 118, Hawks 102

Friday, June 11: Game 3 - 76ers at Hawks, 7:30 p.m., ESPN

Monday, June 14: Game 4 - 76ers at Hawks, 7:30 p.m., TNT

Wednesday, June 16: Game 5 - Hawks at 76ers, TBD, TNT

Friday, June 18: Game 6* - 76ers at Hawks, TBD, ESPN

Sunday, June 20: Game 7* - Hawks at 76ers, TBD, TBD

* — If necessary

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