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Will Embiid play Game 1? Rivers gives idea of Sixers’ game plan if he’s out originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

All attempts to prognosticate on the Sixers-Hawks second-round series are muddied at the moment by Joel Embiid’s status.

There is not yet a definitive answer to the question of when he’ll next play. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said Friday it’s too early to make a call on whether Embiid will be available for Game 1 Sunday afternoon against Atlanta, though he sounded pleased with what he saw from the 27-year-old at practice. 

“He went through a lot of the stuff today,” Rivers said. “He didn’t do a lot of live stuff, obviously. We’re not going to allow that yet. Nothing’s changed. He’s got to go through his treatment. As far as when we were doing shooting and stuff like that, he looked great.”

The Sixers on Wednesday announced Embiid was “day to day” with a small tear of the lateral meniscus in his right knee. The MVP finalist went through his pregame routine before the Sixers’ Game 5 victory over the Wizards to advance to Round 2. 

Dwight Howard was especially smiley ahead of a matchup with his hometown team, and optimistic about Embiid. 

“He looked good,” Howard said. “His movement looked good laterally. He was able to move around. So he looked good. I think he should be ready to go. If not, he can make sure he gets his body right. I don’t want him to rush back or anything like that, because we need him.

“We want to make sure we hold down the fort until he’s back. But he looked great today. He moved great, he was jumping, he was moving around. He looked like his old self. I’m happy to see that.”

The comment about Embiid being “ready to go” was not intended to reveal any breaking news, Howard clarified.

“Oh, no,” Howard said. “You didn’t hear me say that one! I expect him to be great when he plays. That’s all.”

If Embiid is out, how will the Sixers’ game plan change? The most obvious difference will likely be small lineups with Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris in the frontcourt, with five-out spacing in transition.

“If we were going to go small, we had a no-paint rule,” Rivers said after Wednesday’s win. “In transition, we said the paint — as far as running without the ball — was an electric fence. You had to run behind the three. We had to keep the floor open. I thought our guys did that all night.”

Harris defended Washington center Daniel Gafford in Game 5. Simmons began the game on Rui Hachimura. He later checked Bradley Beal, though Matisse Thybulle started and initially received that star assignment. 

Rivers thinks Harris is capable of guarding opposing centers as he did Wednesday.

“We do,” he said. “We could’ve obviously put Ben on (Gafford), but we wanted Ben to be a roamer more defensively. The reason we started Matisse is so Ben didn’t have to guard Bradley Beal to start the game. We wanted Ben to be fresh and strong throughout the game. That’s why we didn’t put him on a five. So it was almost more about Ben than it was about Tobias. But yeah, depending on the five, obviously, we don’t have any fear about putting Tobias or Ben on the five.”

While the Hawks are not a replica of the Wizards, perhaps Rivers will be similarly inclined to start Thybulle on the opponent’s top perimeter scorer. He could put Thybulle on Trae Young early and ensure Simmons isn’t sapped of energy at the end of what may very well be a 40-minute night. Avoiding foul trouble will also be important for Simmons (and the Sixers as a whole) should Embiid be unavailable. Young is clever about drawing and embellishing contact. 

Clint Capela would be a challenging matchup for either Harris or Simmons. The Hawks big man isn’t much of a post-up scorer, but he’s a dangerous screener and roller who led the NBA with 4.7 offensive rebounds per game. 

Rivers is aware of the danger John Collins poses at center, too. Collins starts for Atlanta at power forward but played 918 regular-season possessions at center alongside Young, per Cleaning the Glass. The Hawks had an outstanding 120.5 offensive rating and plus-4.8 net rating with those lineups. 

“Neither team is going to recreate the wheel,” Rivers said. “You’ve seen what they’re going to do, for the most part. They’ve seen what we’re going to do. I’m sure both of us will make small adjustments, but you don’t want to ever get caught in trying to recreate the wheel in the playoffs. It usually doesn’t go well. 

“But they’ll play that small lineup with Collins at the five where he’s popping instead of rolling with Trae Young coming off. That’s a very difficult coverage for everybody, and then Capela with his rolls getting behind the bigs … they just have a lot of players — (Danilo Gallinari), Lou (Williams), (Kevin) Huerter, (De’Andre) Hunter, who I think is a terrific young player — and (Bogdan) Bogdanovic. They are a deep, talented basketball team, and they have so many different guys that can have big games. So it’s going to be a team effort defensively against them. You have to have that.”

Howard will of course play a role for the Sixers regardless of Embiid’s status. He projects to have some minutes against Onyeka Okongwu, a player 15 years his junior. 

He’s apparently unconcerned with the uncertainty about Embiid. 

“I’m going to enjoy my moment,” Howard said. “I’m going to enjoy every moment that I have, because nothing in life is promised but death. I know that one day we’re going to have to cross that but until then, I’m going to enjoy every minute of my life.

“And I am enjoying it here in Philly. I get to get Ishkabibble’s cheesteaks, I get to get Wendy’s Frostys for (missed) free throws. And I get to play here in Philly. … I’m glad that I’m here and I’m just going to keep providing this team with energy and positivity every single day.”