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

Series preview: Sixers looking to make quick work of Wizards

Top-seeded Philadelphia may have too much defensive might and depth for Washington in the first round.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Washington must find someone up to the tall task of keeping Philadelphia star Joel Embiid in check.

If you’re the Washington Wizards, you can take satisfaction in not just salvaging but re-imagining a season that tried to get away from you more than once. A major COVID-19 interruption that sidelined multiple players and disrupted the schedule, as well as a host of injuries, had them at 17-32 with six weeks to go. From there, the Wizards went 17-6, then scrambled back in the State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament to secure the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot.

If you’re the Philadelphia 76ers, you’re inclined to pat them on the heads and say, “Good job. Now go home.”

Which is what they did to the Wizards during the regular season — and what Boston did in the Sixers’ last toe-dip in the playoffs, that first-round sweep out of the bubble last August. Simmons missed it, and the Celtics outscored them by more than 11 points per game. It was the wrong trajectory given the Kawhi Leonard rim-bouncing heartbreaker in 2019, and Joel Embiid, Simmons and the rest presumably are determined to correct that.

The Wizards' late-season surge runs right into Kia MVP finalist Joel Embiid and top-seeded Philadelphia.

There’s no shortage of star power on either side, with Washington’s Bradley Beal (depending on his achy hamstring) and Russell Westbrook as that club’s engine. But Philadelphia has size over the Wizards, from Embiid up front to Simmons all over the court. Washington led the league in two-point field goals and finished a solid No. 1 in pace (104.67), yet scored only 9.6% of its points on fast breaks. Can they score enough against the Sixers?

Three things to watch

1. Embiid will be good. Unless he’s great. It’s going to be one or the other, given how amped the Philly big man is to put his stamp on this season and postseason. He won’t win the Kia Defensive Player of the Year award he sought and all indications are he won’t be named Kia MVP either. That leaves these playoffs. His production in the Sixers’ 3-0 season series vs. Washington — 30 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 3.3 apg, 60.4% shooting — were better than his overall numbers. No wonder Wizards coach Scott Brooks has cautioned his guys not to be intimidated by Embiid. “He is one of best bigs and one of the best bigs in a long time,” Brooks said. “Like I tell our guys. there is no reason to fear anybody you play against. … They put their socks on one at a time like us, unless they do something different and put them on both at the same time.” Embiid might just do that in this series.

2. Played in or played-out? Like everything else with the Play-In Tournament, its impact on what follows remains TBD. Did two additional games wedged into the gap between regular season and first round drain Washington while its opponent was resting and prepping? Or might it (at least the Thursday victory) have sharpened the Wizards and given them just a teensy bit of momentum and feel-goodness to take on the big, bad No. 1 seed?

3. Possible X factors: Harris and Bertans. No one is going to be surprised if Embiid, Simmons, Beal or Westbrook have a huge game. Or miss pointing out if one or more do not. But after that, Tobias Harris and Davis Bertans could be difference-makers, with both seeking redemption. In Harris’ two most recent playoff series — 2019 vs. Toronto and 2020 vs. Boston — he shot 38.1%, including 24.1% on 3-pointers (14-of-58). Bertáns misfired in the Play-In games, going 2-of-13 from the arc, after a regular season in which he hit 39.5% and the Wizards were 12-7 when he sank four or more 3-pointers.

The number to know

27-5 — Like most teams this season, the Sixers dealt with injuries and absences in their rotation. But when they were whole, they were good. The Sixers’ starting lineup — Simmons, Embiid, Harris, Seth Curry and Danny Green — played 32 games together, and Philly was 27-5 (16-0 at home) in those games. In its 656 minutes, the group outscored its opponents by 14.0 points per 100 possessions, the sixth-best mark among 30 lineups that played at least 200 minutes together. And unlike each of the last three years, the Sixers are going into the playoffs with Embiid and Simmons both healthy.

One question going forward is how much coach Doc Rivers staggers the minutes of his starters. The more a five-man group plays together, the less it plays apart and the Sixers’ starting lineup averaged 20.5 minutes per game, most among all lineups that played in at least 10 games together. The Sixers were notoriously outscored by 109 points in 99 minutes with Embiid off the floor a conference semifinals series that came down to the final shot of Game 7 two years ago, when his regular-season on-off differential (11.1 points per 100 possessions) wasn’t as big as it was this season (11.9). The best way to avoid disaster when your best player is off the floor is to have your other best players on the floor when he sits. But staggering the minutes of the starters limits the time that they’re on the floor together.

— John Schuhmann

The pick

When you’re dealing with a No. 1 vs. a No. 8, the gap between them is generally obvious and the need for real roll-up-the-sleeves analysis is small. Philadelphia has more accomplished defenders than Washington has accomplished scorers. And the Sixers have more reliable scorers than the Wizards have reliable defenders. If both teams just play average, the series will be short, maybe even shorter than this pick. Sixers in five.

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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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