The last time the Sixers played Atlanta, they absolutely demolished the Hawks ... in Atlanta. Last night, the Chicago Bulls gave ATL the Washington Generals treatment to the tune of a 33-point loss. You'd think that might motivate the Hawks. You'd think that might light a fire under them. Of course, being motivated by embarrassment means you're assuming a team actually has a spine. I'm not sure that's the case with the Hawks.
If it sounds a bit harsh that I'd accuse the Hawks of being spineless quitters, maybe you should consider the ample evidence. Since the Sixers thrashed Atlanta 117-83 (in Atlanta), the Hawks have compiled a 7-12 record. Of those 12 losses, 9 have been double-digit losses (including their last 6). They've lost by 20 or more three times, 15 or more 5 times. They've essentially rolled over and played dead, allowing the Sixers a chance to catch them for the number five seed in the East.
Of course, simply focusing on this season would mean overlooking what this team did in the playoffs last summer, and we shouldn't do that. This Hawks squad is essentially the same group that lost a four-game series to the Magic by a total of 101 points. This is the same team that was embarrassed by 43 points in the opener of that series, then embarrassed by 30 at home in game three. Rolling over seems to be in their DNA.
When a talented team - and they do have some talent - is struggling to this degree, the first thing you worry about is that they become like a cornered animal. They have all this stored up frustration, and eventually they're going to explode. Well, that doesn't seem to be how the Hawks handle things. The key tonight for the Sixers, is to extinguish Atlanta's hope early. Don't let them get off to a quick start, don't give them any indication this is going to be an easy game where they can assert themselves. They're backed into a corner, you have to make it perfectly clear to them that they're going to need to fight their way out. Once you make that clear to them, they'll probably just shrink back into their corner and hope someone else does the dirty work for them so they can backdoor their way into the playoffs.
As for the individual matchups, I'm interested to see how Collins handles the wings. Iguodala has embarrassed Joe Johnson in the past on the defensive end, but Collins hasn't automatically put AI9 on shooting guards this season. I have a feeling he may start out with either Jodie or Jrue on Johnson, and let Iguodala stick with Marvin Williams (who actually had a decent game against Iguodala earlier in the year), then if the need arises, he'll go with Iguodala later. I think I'd actually prefer to see Jrue on Johnson early. It's a tougher matchup, but it would also have the benefit of keeping Jrue's legs a little more fresh if he isn't on the ball early in the game. Meeks shouldn't have a problem cutting down Hinrich's penetration, seeing as how Hinrich rarely penetrates.
Brand should be able to work on Josh Smith, who doesn't have the bulk or size to deal with Brand man-to-man. Brand can also draw Smith away from the hoop, which will help negate his weak-side shotblocking abilities. There's a chance Horford could guard Brand with Smith taking the easier matchup of Hawes. Either way, Brand has a decided advantage on the offensive end.
If you're looking for an easy way to gauge the effectiveness of the Sixers defense, look at it this way. The fewer shots for Al Horford, the better. If you can entice the Hawks to settle for Marvin Williams jumpers, or better yet, Josh Smith long twos, then you probably aren't going to have a lot of trouble shutting Atlanta down.
Atlanta is below average offensively and pretty much right at average on the defensive end. They simply aren't as good as their record, and they're playing even worse than their stats at this point. Their confidence has to be shaken, if they even had any confidence coming into this season with the same roster that got embarrassed in the playoffs last season. The Sixers absolutely must jump on them early and then grind the game out, making them work for every hoop. Be merciless, run them ragged and when the night is over, figure out how you're going to make up the remaining 2.5 games that separates the teams in the standings.
Atlanta can clinch a playoff spot with a win tonight, how about they do it on someone else's home floor.
Prediction:PHI 100, ATL 85
The tip is at 7pm. Game thread will land 90 minutes prior.