The Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers and eighth-seeded Washington Wizards meet in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs. The Wizards beat the Indiana Pacers in the play-in tournament.
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How they got here
The Sixers overhauled their entire organization during the offseason, bringing in former Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey to run the front office and replacing coach Brett Brown with a revered Doc Rivers. Morey pulled the trigger on a pair of deals that immediately solved the spacing issues around young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, swapping Al Horford for Danny Green and Josh Richardson for Seth Curry.
Following an embarrassing end to a disappointing last season, Embiid returned motivated and proceeded to put the league on notice. Only a midseason left knee injury prevented him from being the most dominant force in the NBA all season. Embiid averaged a 33-12-3 per 36 minutes on 51/38/86 shooting splits, and the Sixers operated on the levels of the league's top-rated offense and defense with him on the court.
Embiid and Simmons both belong among the handful of top candidates for Defensive Player of the Year, and second-year wing Matisse Thybulle should make an All-Defensive roster with them. Embiid's ascent also forced Simmons and Tobias Harris to fall in line as complementary stars on the offensive end. Green, Curry and the rest of Philadelphia's role players, including incoming veteran backups Dwight Howard and George Hill, fill out a rotation that makes far more inside-out sense offensively than last year's misfit roster.
Per ESPN's NBA Basketball Power Index, the Wizards had a 0.6% chance of making the playoffs in early April, when they were 17-32 and 13th in the Eastern Conference behind the Cleveland Cavaliers. Starting center Thomas Bryant suffered a season-ending knee injury 10 games into the season. COVID-19 ravaged the roster in January. Russell Westbrook, playing through nagging injury, looked like a shell of himself.
Bradley Beal was a constant, finishing second to Stephen Curry with 31.3 points per game, and once Westbrook found his stride — the one that resulted in a triple-double average (22, 12 and 12 a night) for the fourth time in five seasons — a pairing we imagined could carry a frisky playoff team did exactly that.
The trade deadline acquisition of under-appreciated center Daniel Gafford gave the Wizards a rim-running threat. Davis Bertans caught fire, shooting 41.4% from 3 since returning from a right calf injury seven weeks ago. And Raul Neto, Ish Smith and Robin Lopez provided enough veteran savvy to assist the push for a play-in berth. From April 7 to the end of the regular season, the Wizards submitted the East's second-best record (17-6) with a +5.7 net rating that would have ranked top five if they averaged it over the full season.
When all was said and done, Washington finished eighth in the East, securing two chances to make the playoffs. Beal limped into the play-in opener with a hamstring strain, and Westbrook no-showed in a loss to the Boston Celtics. Both stars bounced back to destroy the Indiana Pacers in Thursday's elimination game.
Head to head
The Sixers swept their season series with the Wizards, 3-0. The two teams have not faced each other since March 12, when Philadelphia dominated Washington at mostly full strength (pre-Gafford era), 127-101. (It was in the second half of that game that Embiid suffered a scary left knee injury that cost him three weeks.) The first two meetings in the season's opening month were far closer, both coming down to the last minute.
Beal's season-high 60-point game came against the Sixers on Jan. 6. He and Westbrook were solid against Philadelphia in the three meetings, averaging a combined 58.7 points, 14.7 assists and 11.7 rebounds on 51/50/67 shooting splits. Washington outscored Philadelphia's starting lineup of Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Green and Curry by 19 points in 41 minutes this season, giving the Wizards a glimmer of hope in this series.
For the most part, the 76ers have employed the same lineup down the stretch of close games. In a far broader sample size, Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Green and Curry have outscored opponents by 16 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage minutes this season, according to Cleaning the Glass. It will be hard for Rivers to trust either Shake Milton or Tyrese Maxey in the clutch, and employing Thybulle as a defensive alternative to Curry means pairing him with Simmons in lineups that do not have nearly enough shooting.
Beal, Westbrook and second-year forward Rui Hachimura have been mainstays in Wizards coach Scott Brooks' closing lineups. The choice at center comes down to Gafford's athleticism or Lopez's savviness, unless Brooks continues to put his faith in Alex Len. Neto or Bertans normally fill out the five-man unit in smaller and bigger lineups, respectively. You have to think the Wizards will go with Bertans against the massive Sixers. None of the Wizards' lineups have played too much together in their stop-and-go season.
Matchup to watch
You see the names Washington has at center: Len, Gafford and the lesser of the Lopez twins. They have a mountain to climb opposite Embiid, who has averaged 35.3 points (on 74.6% true shooting!), 11.4 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 3.6 combined blocks and steals per 36 minutes against the Wizards this season.
You have to believe Lopez will get the bulk of the work against Embiid, if only because Len and Gafford could be in foul trouble within minutes of stepping onto the court opposite Philadelphia's MVP candidate. All the veteran know-how in the world isn't going to help Lopez stop this version of Embiid. Considering the Sixers have greater depth and a trio of reliable defensive options — Thybulle, Simmons and Green — to neutralize Washington's star guards, this series could get ugly quick if Embiid is as dominant as expected.
Sixers in five.
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