Here’s how Hawks and 76ers match up, with my series prediction

Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter looks to shoot while Sixers center Joel Embiid defends. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter looks to shoot while Sixers center Joel Embiid defends. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Hawks and the Philadelphia 76ers each advanced to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs with a “Gentlemen’s Sweep” of five games. They were polite enough to let the Knicks and Wizards, respectively, win a game while otherwise dominating them. Now the Hawks and Sixers are ready for a tougher series to determine who goes to the East finals to face the winner of Nets-Bucks.

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The fifth-seeded Hawks open the best-of-seven East semifinal Sunday at No. 1 Philadelphia. Here’s a look at the key matchups and my prediction for the series winner:

Point guards

Hawks: Trae Young

Young had his way with the Knicks. That’s mostly because it’s difficult to contain his combination of scoring, passing and decision-making. It also was because the Knicks, concerned with Young’s lob passes, offered little resistance against his floater. They also didn’t make Young work very hard on defense.

Both things will change against the Sixers. Ben Simmons is an excellent defender, and he’s about 10 inches taller and 60 pounds heavier than Young. That’s why Young’s defensive assignment likely will be Seth Curry.

Sixers: Ben Simmons

Simmons has been maligned for his inability to develop a reliable jump shot over four NBA seasons. That criticism tends to overshadow all the things Simmons can do with the ball. He’s an excellent passer who gets to the basket at will, scores over length and is hard to contain in the open court.

According to Cleaning the Glass, Simmons attempted 65 percent of his shots this season within four feet of the basket and converted 66 percent of them. Those are outstanding numbers for a point guard. Hawks center Clint Capela stymied the Knicks by challenging shots around the basket from the weakside. But the Knicks had no guards who finish drives as well as Simmons.

Wings

Hawks: Bogdan Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter

The Hawks started winning when Nate McMillan replaced Lloyd Pierce as coach. Their success also coincided with Bogdanovic’s return from injury. He gives the Hawks scoring punch as a shooter and with patient shot-hunting in the paint. Bogdanovic’s playmaking also takes pressure off Young when they share the floor and keeps the offense flowing when Young is out.

Hunter was having an outstanding second pro season when he went to the injured list in January. He worked his way back into the rotation in May and was key to the Hawks’ defensive effort against the Knicks. Hunter has learned how to use his size and strength to create space on offense. He should be better in this series after he was rusty against the Knicks.

Sixers: Seth Curry and Danny Green

Curry’s older brother, Warriors guard Steph, is the greatest shooter in NBA history. Seth is no slouch. His 44.4% career 3-point shooting is better than Steph’s 43.3% (Steph has 5,353 more attempts). The Sixers closed out the Wizards with Curry scoring a career-high 30 points on 10 of 17 shooting.

Green is the kind of old pro I’ve always admired. He’s played for a long time (11 seasons) because he knows his role and does it consistently well. Green has won three NBA championships with three franchises (Spurs, Raptors and Lakers). He’s a classic “3-and-D” wing who will make it tough for Hunter to score.

Bigs

Hawks: John Collins and Clint Capela

The Hawks lost Game 2 to the Knicks with Collins playing only 15 minutes because of foul trouble and going scoreless. He recovered to average 16.3 points on 56.7% shooting over the final three games of the series. The Knicks kept Collins away from pick-and-roll chances, but he hurt them with 3-point shooting from the corners.

It makes no sense that Capela never got much consideration for the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award. The Hawks wouldn’t be able to stop anybody without Capela on the back line. Against the Knicks, Capela continued the good work he’s done all season by relentlessly challenging shots at the rim and collecting misses. It will be tougher to do that with Joel Embiid pulling him outside of the paint.

Sixers: Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid

Harris is a tough cover for Collins because of his versatility. He’s an efficient score from all areas of the court, including the free-throw line, and a good passer. Harris can score in the areas of the paint where Capela can’t challenge his shots. Collins will have to contain Harris on drives without fouling.

Embiid always has been a good shot blocker and inside scorer. He got better this season by improving his conditioning and his shooting accuracy on 3-pointers and free throws. The Hawks likely will give Embiid a dose of what they gave Knicks big man Julius Randle: crowd him on the perimeter, have help at the ready on his moves to the basket and cut off his passing lanes.

Key bench players

Hawks: Kevin Huerter, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Oneka Okongwu

Huerter was the best Hawks reserve against the Knicks. Gallinari didn’t shoot well in the series, and his track record says he’s due. Rookie center Okongwu was good in Games 4 and 5 vs. the Knicks and will be needed against the Sixers. Williams gave inconsistent performances against New York.

Sixers: George Hill, Matisse Thybulle, Dwight Howard, Tyrese Maxey

The Sixers acquired point guard Hill at the trade deadline, and he’s provided his usual shooting, defense and steadiness. Thybulle, a very good wing defender, likely will spend time guarding Young. When Embiid missed Game 5 against the Wizards, Thybulle started in a “small ball” lineup instead of Howard. Rookie guard Maxey gave the Sixers a jolt of energy in that game.

Coaches

Hawks: Nate McMillan

McMillan has raised the price it will cost the Hawks to keep him as coach, especially if the Celtics come calling. He helped turn around the Hawks after taking over from Lloyd Pierce in March. McMillan made nearly all the right moves against the Knicks and had his squad playing excellent help, rotate and recover defense.

Sixers: Doc Rivers

Rivers, a former Hawks point guard, has carved out a long and successful career as a coach. He won an NBA title and East championship with the Celtics and has reached the playoffs in 17 of 22 seasons as a coach. But Rivers also is the only coach to blow 3-1 series leads three times. It happened last summer with the Clippers against the Nuggets.

Intangibles

Hawks: “House Money”

Back in February it wasn’t clear that the Hawks would even make the playoffs. Once they got there, the question was how they would fare while relying on so many postseason newbies. The Hawks responded with a dominating series victory. Whatever they do from here is gravy. The Hawks obviously want to advance, but it wouldn’t be a major letdown if they don’t.

Sixers: “The Process”

Starting in 2013, former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie purposely made them a terrible team so they could accumulate draft picks. So far all that losing has amounted to a 2-2 record in playoff series over the past four years, with the second round as the ceiling. The Sixers are under pressure to go on a deep playoff run while Embiid and Simmons, two products of The Process, are still around.

Prediction

Sixers in 7

Forecasting this series means guessing how many games Embiid will play. The Sixers said he suffered a “small” tear to the lateral meniscus in his left knee during Monday’s game at Washington. Rivers told reporters Friday that he’s not sure if Embiid will play in Game 1 on Sunday in Philadelphia. If he doesn’t, the Hawks should be favored to win.

If Embiid misses more than one game, then everything changes. The betting markets are giving the Sixers a 67% chance of winning the series. If he sits out, say, two games then I’d put those odds at more like 50%. The odds shift in favor of the Hawks if Embiid misses more games than that.

I’m guessing that Embiid will miss Game 1 and be back for Game 2 on Tuesday, though not at full strength. The Sixers will be down a game when Embiid returns. The Sixers will win Game 2, but the Hawks will win games 3 and 4 at State Farm Arena. Philly stays alive with a road win in Game 6 before returning home to close the series.

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