2021 Playoffs: East First Round | 76ers vs. Wizards

Can Philadelphia 76ers possibly improve on Game 3 masterpiece?

Led by Joel Embiid's playoff career-high 36 points, the Sixers set an exceptionally high bar with their overpowering performance in Game 3.

Joel Embiid (36 points) Highlights vs. Washington Wizards

Kia MVP finalist Joel Embiid dominates Washington for a playoff career-high 36 points in 28 minutes

Doc Rivers had a message that technically was true but was more about caution and a stab at humility, an attempt to keep his Philadelphia 76ers  grounded after their 132-103 dismantling of the Washington Wizards Saturday night.

“I just say great job, and we’ve done nothing,” Rivers said, relaying that message. “I said that every game. ‘We’ve done nothing.’”

Down the hall at Capitol One Arena, though, Wizards coach Scott Brooks felt no obligation to keep the Sixers modest and focused. Quite the opposite, in fact, so Brooks let ‘er rip.

“They’re championship-ready,” Brooks said. “Right now.”

(Insert “angry Arthur’s fist” meme here to capture Rivers’ reaction.)

Three games into the first round isn’t when a team with title ambitions wants to peak. But after their complete performance in pushing Washington to the brink of elimination, it was hard to imagine Philadelphia playing any better than it did.

By the numbers or by the highlights on the floor, the Sixers had the sort of performance they – or any other team, for that matter – would kill to be able to bottle and tap into at will:

  • They got up 87 shots and missed just 36, hitting 58.6% overall. Philadelphia shooters were better from 3-point range (17 of 33, 51.5%) than Washington’s were from 2-point range (30 of 61, 49.1%). And they outscored the Wizards by 27 from the arc.
  • Most of the other categories went the Sixers’ way as well, from rebounding (51-41) and assists (31-18) to points in the paint (48-42), steals (7-5) and blocks (5-3). They led by 16 points in less than eight minutes. And after sticking the Wizards for 36 points in each of the first two quarters, they came out after halftime and put up 37. in the third Then Rivers went with an all-bench line for almost the entire fourth quarter and won that one too, 23-17. Even old man Rivers admitted it would be hard to imagine his guys playing better offensively.
  • Then there was Joel Embiid, a finalist for NBA Most Valuable Player who played arguably his best game yet. The center with the swagger tormented the Wizards regardless of their defensive tactics. If Brooks’ crew tried to stay home on all those shooters and trust single-coverage on Embiid, he punished those defenders. When Washington double-teamed him, he passed out to set up others – or occasionally found ways to beat two for the price of one.

Embiid scored a career playoff-high 36 points, making 14 of his 18 shots in the process. He did it from all over the offensive end, sinking three of his four 3-point attempts, yet punishing Washington in the paint with dunks, post ups and even a slick driving reverse layup.

“He’s really picking apart teams’ defenses,” said Tobias Harris, part of a starting lineup that combined for 100 of the 132 points while shooting 40-of-62. “He’s just a really tough cover. When teams double-team him, he’s able to make shots with two guys on him. When that happens, opposing teams, there’s only so much you can do.

“His playmaking ability out of the post is the reason why he’s so dominant. Teams have to choose what they want to do or what they want to give up. You just saw that on full display, from all the way to 3-point range to inside driving and dunking.”

At one point, after Embiid charged in and clanged a dunk off the rim, he got the ball back moments later and got the throwdown right. Then he cupped his ears to the crowd, seeking out boos from the home folks while getting cheers from a large contingent of Philly fans.

“I wanted to hear more boos,” he said. “That gets me going. I like it.”

Instead, he heard MVP chants by the end.

Embiid felt crushed in the 2019 postseason by Kawhi Leonard’s famous rim-bouncing, Game 7 winner that sent Toronto to The Finals. Last year, he felt singed when Boston swept the Sixers in the first round.

Now the 7-footer from Cameroon by way of Kansas is on a mission, and his game is keeping up with his passion. It wouldn’t be fair to say he’s been toying with the Wizards, but he does seem to enjoy the buffet of moves and decisions in front of him nightly.

“If we’re making shots and you double [me], man, that’s an easy way to find solutions,” Embiid said. “And also if we’re making shots and you’re scared to leave those shooters, that leaves me 1-on-1 and that’s also a hard decision to make.”

But either because Rivers’ job-undone exhortations have worked or simply out of respect for his coach’s message, Embiid said he was fully in agreement that what looked like perfection in so many ways Saturday can get, well, perfecter.

“If you ask me, yes, there is a higher level. Way higher,” Embiid said. “Where you could shoot 100% from the floor and 100% from 3 and make all your free throws. So we can always get better.

“No, this is not it. We had a few turnovers that we need to correct. We’ve got to make our free throws. We’ve got to rebound the ball better. There’s always a higher level we can get to. I’m excited to stay focused on keeping it going.”

So yeah, the Sixers have done nothing. Even as they’ve already done quite a lot.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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