2021 Playoffs: East First Round | 76ers vs. Wizards
Wizards' youth gets more time to grow after coming up big in Game 4
Instead of wilting in the face of elimination, Washington's young players matured when the Wizards needed them most.
We hear about it all the time: efficiency, which is an analytically correct way of saying someone made a lot of their shots and took a bunch of them from the 3-point line.
Based on that, the Washington Wizards’ All-Star caliber backcourt was about as efficient in Game 4 against Philadelphia on Monday as the guy next door pulling his tractor mower onto the track alongside Helio Castroneves for the weekend’s Indy 500.
Beal and Westbrook combined to make 12 of 42 shots (28.6%), including 2-for-9 from the arc, while committing 11 turnovers in the roughly 85 minutes that they played.
Fortunately for the Wizards, their other nine players who manned the remaining 155 minutes shot better (28-for-46, 60.9%), hit their 3 at a better rate (7-for-15, 46.7%) and took better care of the ball (three turnovers) in the 122-114 win. It was the way several of those other guys stepped up — and the degree to which Beal and Westbrook adjusted and made use of them — that enabled Washington to stave off elimination by sweep and beat the top-seeded Sixers at Capitol One Arena and force Game 5 (7 ET on Wednesday, NBA TV).
“I like that we’re all going through these experiences first hand,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “Every young team, every young player has to go through a playoff first time. These guys now are done with that. Now it’s keep improving.”
Let’s get the asterisks out of the way here: Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, a load at both ends in spotting the Sixers to their 3-0 series lead, hit the floor hard on a layup with contact, jarring his tailbone and apparently jamming his right knee. He was done after just 11:24 of playing time, chipping in only eight points and six rebounds and taking his 2021 Kia MVP finalist specialness back to the visitor’ locker room.
Then Embiid’s sidekick, Ben Simmons, got bogged down in foul trouble with two in the first quarter, another in the second and his fourth just 12 seconds after halftime. That kept him off the floor for almost 19 of the game’s first 36 minutes.
The Wizards at least put Simmons to the test late, intentionally fouling the notoriously shaky shooter three times deep into the final quarter. Simmons hit three of the six free throws, which somehow satisfied both Brooks and Sixers coach Doc Rivers. Rivers said he was OK getting one point per possession on those, while Brooks felt his team grabbed control, turning a 108-108 tie into a 115-111 lead.
While Philadelphia’s two best players were hampered by injuries and whistles, Washington’s top two were just misfiring on their own. What saved them and the Wizards’ pride for a few more days was the manner in which Rui Hachimura, Robin Lopez, and Daniel Gafford picked up the slack and did a little leading of their own.
Hachimura, the second-year forward from Gonzaga, had been a non-factor through the first three games. But the native of Toyama, Japan, had a breakout performance with 20 points and 13 rebounds in 41 minutes. The inconsistency and dialed-back intensity Hachimura sometimes shows were no problem this time.
With more room to roam and less to fret about with Embiid and Simmons so limited, Hachimura played with poise. He was the one Westbrook found streaking downcourt for the breakout dunk that made it 115-111. And he was the shooter in the right corner whom Beal trusted after penetrating and kicking to the open man.
“He’s growing up in front of our eyes,” Brooks said.
Gafford got his first playoff start and lasted all of 3:38 before being pulled with his second foul. Backup big Alex Len fared no better with Embiid ruling the paint, picking up two fouls in the next 1:23.
That left it to Lopez, who responded with a flurry of his slo-mo, old-school sweeping hook shots that were as entertaining as they were effective. This newfound wrinkle of Lopez’s, as far as deep-career transformations go, is up there with Leslie (Naked Gun) Nielsen adding comedy to his melodramatic acting chops.
Lopez scored 16 points in 18 minutes and bought the Wizards precious time until Embiid was done and Gafford could calm down.
“Things happen sometimes,” Lopez said, shrugging off his display.
Said Brooks: “Rolo gives us a steady hand. His hook shot is almost, I say it’s hook-o-matic. It’s always right there and he’s making it. … I’m faster than him. But he knows how to use his body and positioning. His speed is a good speed for us. He gave us the chance to win this game.”
Gafford came through after halftime with 10 points, three rebounds, three blocks, logging a team-best plus-16 as Washington outscored the Sixers 62-53 over the final two quarters.
Beal kept shooting to get his 27 points and Westbrook has that whole triple-double thing to fall back on when he shoots 3-of-19 – he had 21 rebounds, 14 assists and got 13 of his 19 points from the foul line. Those two and Lopez are old salts, familiar with staying resilient in the face of instant offseason. But Washington needed this series to last long enough for an otherwise young team to grow. And because they did, it did.
“Sometimes I want these guys to be 27 right now and four seasons of playoff experience,” Brooks said. “But you get it by going through it.”
Now they get one more lesson at least.
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