The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ)

Hawks have nobody who can handle Embiid

- Jack McCaffery Columnist For more Sixers playoff coverage, follow Jack on Twitter @JackMcCaff­ery

PHILADELPH­IA » The Sixers lost Game 1 of their series against the Atlanta Hawks, and Doc Rivers made some changes. The Hawks lost Game 2, and Nate McMillan was obligated to do the same. Game 3 is Friday night. The coaches will have the erasers ready.

“It’s crazy,” marveled Tyrese Maxey, a rookie who had played most of one season of college basketball. “Whatever the situation, they have changes.”

Coaching-move gymnastics can provide the essential appeal of a best-of-seven basketball series. Some of the moves are obvious, like assigning Ben Simmons to guard Trae Young. Others are unnecessar­y, like neither coach technicall­y revealing starting lineups until minutes before a game. Some are subtle, a decision to switch here, a sneaky attempt to run a zone there. Some are gambles.

They matter. Probably. Maybe. Sometimes. But not always. And as for the Sixers and the Hawks, they ultimately won’t matter at all. That’s because McMillan can brainstorm for hours, change his lineup (why isn’t Kevin Huerter starting?), try to wiggle Young free or decide that Bogdan Bogdanovic is more dangerous from the right corner than he is the left, and he will never come up with the solution to defeating the 76ers.

There is no way, not with his roster, that McMillan will be able to find an answer for a 7-foot stretch-five who scored 39 points in a close first game and 40 in

Game 2.

No matter what the Hawks try, they are not built to win a lengthy series of basketball games against a team with Joel Embiid. Other teams in the tournament might. Denver could. Phoenix, with more weapons than Atlanta, could. The Nets, an All-Star team, create their own matchup problems. But even with the blessing of Clint Capela’s defensive instincts, the Hawks are not strong enough inside or adept enough to jab out to the threepoint line to prevent Embiid from continuing to project a strong case for an MVP-vote recount.

“He is a problem down in the post,” McMillan said. “We are trying to mix up our defenses. At times he is getting too deep. And our double-teams are not getting there quickly enough.”

Since the Hawks are not able to solve Embiid at the defensive end either, one question: What time does Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals start for the Sixers?

“You just saw Joel’s dominance,” Tobias Harris said after the 118-102 Game 2 victory. “Defensivel­y, he was key for us, disrupting the pickand-roll. He has been amazing. When you get 40 and 13 the way he played, that’s a huge effort.”

It’s hardly breaking news that Embiid is pretty good. What is growing clear is that he may never be better than he has been on his current roll. Even with a slight meniscus tear that has left his right knee a little sore, Embiid has set his career playoff scoring high three times already in this postseason.

“He’s huge for us,” Seth Curry said. “He’s been our anchor all year.”

Embiid is 27 and prone to both injury and weight gain. He has been successful­ly load-managed to the point where he is close to unstoppabl­e seven years into his career. He is motivated to prove the MVP voters wrong. And he is in a matchup against a team that will have to rely on a 6-1 guard to outperform him over seven games.

Just the same, Nate McMillan will go to work, and so will Doc Rivers. And that chess match might dazzle the basketball illuminati for another game or two. But as busy as the coaches will be, Rivers will know that nine out of 10 nights, he has the best player on the floor.

Against Atlanta, make that seven out of seven nights.

“You want that,” Rivers said Thursday, after practice. “You want that trump card. That’s what we used to call it. You do know you have a guy you can always go to.”

So the Sixers will go to Embiid often Friday, both underneath and on the perimeter. And even if they lose, they should do that until Atlanta is out of fight.

“That could be fool’s gold,” Rivers said. “For the rest of the guys, you still have to make sure that everyone is determined. Because the better the other guys play, the easier it is for your trump card to be more dominant. Because if they’re not, then the other team can zag and help and take things off the table as well.”

So McMillan will zag and try to unclutter that table. He has a very good team. He is obligated to try.

Eventually, though, it can’t work. Because in this series, only one team has Joel Embiid.

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