2021 NBA conference semifinals previews: (1) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks

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The top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers and fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Sixers and Hawks, respectively, beat the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks in the opening round of the 2021 NBA playoffs. The two franchises last met in the playoffs in 2015.

How they got here

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers had to finish off their series with the Washington Wizards without MVP candidate Joel Embiid, and his health moving forward could mean the difference between coasting to the Eastern Conference finals and losing in the second round. Embiid suffered a small tear in his right meniscus 11 minutes into a narrow Game 4 loss to the Wizards and missed Philadelphia's series-clinching Game 5 blowout victory.

Embiid is listed as day-to-day with an injury the Sixers hope to treat non-surgically during the playoffs. Regardless of whether he plays or not, the meniscus tear will almost surely hinder him from being 100%.

"I have no expectation other than I hope for him to be back," Sixers coach Doc Rivers told reporters on Wednesday. "I can't give you a timeline. I can just tell you he's willing to go through whatever it takes to get back on the floor. He's a warrior. And if there's a way for him to get back on the floor, he will find his way."

With Embiid in the lineup for 51 of their 72 games, the Sixers were the East's top team in the regular season, beating opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Philadelphia outscored the Wizards by 70 points in his 95 playoff minutes and only played Washington even with him sidelined.

Ben Simmons was what Ben Simmons is — an All-NBA and All-Defensive talent whose inability to shoot is a liability at times — and Tobias Harris enjoyed the best playoff series of his career opposite an awful Washington defense. Against those Wizards, the retooled roster around the star Sixers, namely Seth Curry and Danny Green, played the roles they were brought into perform perfectly to start their title chase.

Atlanta Hawks

Trae Young proved his offense translates to the playoffs, finishing off his 29-3-10 on 44/34/92 shooting splits in a five-game first-round victory against the New York Knicks with a bow at Madison Square Garden.

The depth Atlanta has built around Young over the past two seasons showed its value, as the Hawks nearly put seven players in double figures against the Knicks. Clint Capela continues to be a rim-running and — protecting monster. De'Andre Hunter is regaining his footing after a brilliant start to his second season was interrupted by a knee injury. Bogdan Bogdanovic is a skilled secondary playmaker, and both John Collins and Danilo Gallinari offer differing looks as tertiary options. There may be no deeper rotation in the playoffs.

Since Nate McMillan assumed the coaching reins from Lloyd Pierce in early March, the Hawks finished the regular season with the East's best record (27-11), owners of a top-10 offense and defense, and waxed the Knicks on both ends of the floor. Granted, their schedule wasn't exactly ominous in that span, and New York was a featherweight No. 4 seed, but Atlanta took care of business and hit its playoff ground running.

If Sixers star Joel Embiid is limited by his knee injury, Hawks point guard Trae Young becomes the most important player in the series. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
If Sixers star Joel Embiid is limited by his knee injury, Hawks point guard Trae Young becomes the most important player in the series. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Head to head

The 76ers won their season series with the Hawks, 2-1.

Atlanta's sole win came in mid-January against a Philadelphia team starting Tyrese Maxey, Mike Scott and the immortal Dakota Mathias. Simmons was injured, and four more rotational players were in COVID-19 health and safety protocols for the Sixers, including Harris and Curry. It's safe to throw those results out.

Philadelphia won consecutive games against Atlanta on April 28 and 30 at full strength, but the Hawks were missing key players in both matchups. Atlanta was missing Young, Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter in a 44-point loss in the first meeting. Young returned to cut that deficit in half in another blowout loss two nights later, but the Hawks were still without Bogdanovic and Huerter. Toss those, too, maybe to a lesser degree. 

Closing lineups

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers largely played their starting lineup of Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Green and Curry in crunch time. They bested opponents by 16 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage minutes, per Cleaning the Glass.

Without Embiid down the stretch of their lone loss to the Wizards, Rivers alternated Furkan Korkmaz on offense and Matisse Thybulle on defense, employing Simmons at center. That may prove more difficult against Capela than it was opposite Washington's less talented bigs, but it's also hard to imagine Rivers trusting backup center Dwight Howard at the end of close games. There really is no good solution when a team loses its MVP candidate, and Embiid at 60% is still a better option than any other.

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks started Young, Bogdanovic, Hunter, Collins and Capela against the Knicks, a lineup that started all of one game together during the regular season. Outside a smattering of Huerter, that group also closed Atlanta's two close games against New York. That group finished +29 in 98 minutes during the first round.

Matchup to watch

Embiid facing his health is the matchup to watch. If he is anything close to himself, the Sixers should roll to the conference finals. Missed games or any significant limitation makes this a far more competitive series.

Regardless, it will be fascinating to see how the Sixers defend Young. Green played the most minutes against him during the regular season, but Philadelphia has plenty more long-armed quality options to frustrate the undersized point guard, including Simmons and Thybulle. Young will hunt Curry and Korkmaz whenever possible, but Philadelphia's length will surely make life more difficult for him than New York did.

The Knicks also did not target Young defensively nearly as much as they could have. The Sixers have to make him work on that end, either chasing Curry and Green around screens or orchestrating switches onto bigger playmaking options. This is supposed to be Atlanta's weakest link, and if Philadelphia also cannot take advantage of Young's defense, it will speak volumes about Atlanta's potential this year and beyond. 

BetMGM series odds

76ers (-200)

Hawks (+160)

Prediction

Sixers in six (assuming Embiid can contribute).

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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