If they’d held leads of 18 and 26 points in their past two games, the Philadelphia 76ers would not have to deal with this, and they’d already mark their space in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Sixers couldn’t seal the deal in either game four or game five of their second round series against the Atlanta Hawks, though, and will try to avoid elimination in game six at State Farm Arena. 

Joel Embiid (small right lateral meniscus tear) is listed as questionable for the sixth time this series. Trae Young (right shoulder soreness) is probable. 

Here’s what to watch:

What kind of Simmons and Harris will we see?

Tobias Harris missed all four of his field goal attempts and was scoreless in the second half of game five. Ben Simmons shot 0-for-1 from the field and 2-for-6 from the foul line after halftime. 

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers thinks Harris will be better in game six.

“Listen, the game the other night … Seth (Curry) had it going, so you play the two-man game with Seth and Joel and you spend time there,” Rivers said Thursday. “I think (Bogdan) Bogdanovic has done a pretty good job. That was one of the switches they did two games ago, and it’s taken away some of his speed plays that he has an advantage on bigs when they guard him.

“Bogdanovic is a pretty good post player. They’re doubling him on the post, so they’re taking that away. We believe we can get him going. I believe Tobias will have a pretty good game tomorrow.”

Following Simmons’ comment that his abysmal free throw shooting (32.8% in the playoffs) is more of a mental issue than a form issue, Rivers was asked whether he could do anything to help Simmons with that side of the game. 

“I don’t know,” he said. “But it is a mental game. We all know that. It’s always been that with all these guys in the league that struggle. I had DeAndre Jordan going through the same stuff during the playoffs and through his career. The one thing you’ve got to do is keep working on them. You’ve got to keep trying to get a routine that maybe you can lose the mental part, because you have checked into your routine. 

“But it’s hard to do right now, and so we’ve just got to keep him working on them, and that’s what he’s doing. He’s putting in the work. That’s all you can ask him to do right now. The mental stuff, it’s hard to get rid of … so he’s just got to step up there and keep shooting them, and we’ve got to keep supporting him.”

A different second unit

With the Hawks cutting into the Sixers’ lead, Rivers brought his starters back earlier than he wanted Wednesday, turning to his first unit with 10:03 to play. 

As a whole, the Sixers’ bench scored 13 points, 26 fewer than the Hawks’ bench. Shake Milton and George Hill combined to shoot 2-for-10. The Sixers were outscored by 14 points in Dwight Howard’s eight minutes and 34 seconds on the floor. 

Despite his off night, Harris was the player Rivers preferred using with his bench. Not surprisingly, shortening his rotation is one of the many options he said he’s considered. 

“Yeah, there’s a lot of thoughts,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have a really big coaching staff. We have gone over probably every thought you can think of. And we do that. And that’s what we do, actually, after every game, whether we win or lose. So that’s no different. We had Tobias on the floor with the rest of the bench guys and they didn’t perform well, so we clearly want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

The potential downside of fewer bench minutes could be late-game exhaustion for the Sixers’ stars, which appeared to be a factor in game five. Rivers needs to find a more effective way to rotate, though. One idea that might make sense, given Simmons’ recently diminished impact in half-court offense: Playing him for some or all of Howard’s backup center minutes. 

Howard defends Simmons against criticism

Ahead of game six, Dwight Howard defended Ben Simmons against criticism the 24-year-old has received following a 4-for-14 performance at the foul line in game five.

“Everybody’s talking about Ben,” Howard said on Instagram Live. “Leave him alone. Send him some positivity instead of talking about how bad you think he is. Ain’t none of y’all played in the NBA … and y’all have so much to say to somebody who’s been playing their whole life.

“Sit y’all butts down. … Leave people alone. We do this for a living, man. I believe in you, Ben. I don’t care how many free throws you miss, I still believe in you. You’re my doggone brother.” 

Howard has shared his high opinion of Simmons many times since joining the Sixers. In November, he called him a “young LeBron.”

“He has an opportunity to be one of the greatest to ever play the game,” Howard said at the time, “and I’m glad to have an opportunity to give him some things that can help him along the way.”

A three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Howard in February labeled Simmons “the best defensive player in the league right now.” Simmons ultimately finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting to Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. 

The 35-year-old Howard is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the Sixers’ season ends, which he hopes won’t be Friday.

Essentials

When: 7:30 P.M. E.S.T.

Where: State Farm Arena

Broadcast: ESPN

Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic

Social media coverage: None on Philly Sports Reports’ Twitter & Instagram. I’ll be on a plane.