As expected, the Philadelphia 76ers closed out the Washington Wizards in Game 5 on Wednesday night, setting up a date with the No. 5 seed Atlanta Hawks — who disposed of the No. 4 New York Knicks the very same night at Madison Square Garden.
The Eastern Conference’s top seed, however, is heading into its second-round series with a fair amount of uncertainty surrounding the status of star center Joel Embiid, who missed Game 5 due to a small tear in his right meniscus and could miss at least a few more games.
The good news, at least, is that the injury does not seem long-term; or that it least doesn’t immediately require surgery. So no reason to hit the panic button yet, at least.
When called upon, the Sixers’ supporting staff stepped up when it mattered most in Embiid’s absence — specifically Ben Simmons, who dropped a triple-double of 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists in the clinching win over Washington.
“We’ve got the pieces and tools to do it,” Simmons said. “We’ve been in this situation before during the season. We know what we have to do.”
In Game 5, the Sixers decided to feature in a smaller lineup that stressed speed and it worked in the 129-112 victory. However, the Hawks represent a completely different kind of animal in their blend of weapons.
Naturally, the onus will be on stopping star guard Trae Young, who lit up the Knicks with his versatile play and ability to get to the free-throw line. However, the Hawks possess a physical lineup headlined by Clint Capela and John Collins — both of whom overpowered the Knicks down low during the first round.
A smaller Sixers lineup would find a fair amount of difficulties trying to shut that down — especially when the likes of Bojan Bogdanovic is out there to further stretch the floor for Atlanta.
It creates the prospect of a much tougher series, but the 76ers aren’t hanging their hopes on Embiid’s availability.
“We know we’ve got enough without Joel out there to win a few games,” veteran guard Seth Curry said. “We don’t have a choice — we’ve got to have that confidence and believe. We’ve got a lot of confident guys. Joel has been huge for us all year. It’s only right for us to give him as much time as he needs to get back and help us win it all.”