The regular season has finally drawn to a close, and with the Sixers having earned the top-seed in the East for the first time in twenty years, they await the result of this week’s play-in tournament to find out their first round opponent.
The Celtics and Wizards play tonight for the 7-seed, with the winner earning a first round date with Brooklyn. The loser then has to face the winner of Pacers/Hornets, with that winner earning the 8-seed and a date with the first-place Sixers. Simple enough.
Who do we want to face?
This can best be answered instead with ‘who do we want to avoid,’ and that would be the Washington Wizards. There was a time when Boston was considered the bigger threat, or at least on par with the threat of Washington, but Jaylen Brown’s season-ending injury knocks them down into a class with Indiana and Charlotte.
I want to preface this by saying I don’t think the Wizards can beat this Sixers roster in seven games without injury to one Embiid or Simmons. The larger point, however, is that they’re the opponent who’s most capable of dragging the series out to a full six or seven-games and making them work through all four quarters. The major (potential) advantage gained with the one-seed is that the Sixers should be better rested than their opponent in the Conference Finals, but a tough first round matchup would obviously knee-cap that advantage.
Washington may have finished the season four games under .500 (34-38) with an offensive and defensive rating ranked 17th and 20th in the NBA respectively, but they’re a much bigger threat than that. Following a 6-17 start, the Wiz went 28-21 over the final 49 games of the season with a defensive rating ranked 9th in the NBA. That record extrapolated over the full 72 games would put them at 41-31 (tied with the Knicks and Hawks)—that’s a better reflection of the sort of opponent they would be.
Numbers aside, this argument boils down to Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook. You typically want to avoid superstars in the NBA playoffs, and most 8-seeds don’t have that sort of star-power. We can knit-pick the roster around those two as much as we want—it’s not as bad as most think—but the runner-up scoring champ and the league’s all-time career-leader in triple doubles will be a handful on their own.
Westbrook is currently playing some of the best basketball of his career. He’s still prone to trademark late-game mistakes, but as long as Beal’s hamstring is healthy I expect him to be the closer for Washington in any tight games. For his part, Beal has often been a Sixers-killer, and while he’s currently banged up with injury, his 60-point performance against the team back in January is evidence of what he’s already done and can do to the Sixers sometimes-leaky perimeter defense.
Russ and Beal are both (likely) future HOFers, and with both being playoff under-achievers, they’ll each have a chip on their shoulder as underdogs playing with house money. Anything can happen in a seven game series when you have superstars of their stature, and a matchup with the Sixers would be a legitimate concern for a team whose path to the Conference Finals is otherwise very easy.
In regard to Boston, Charlotte, and Indiana, it’s impossible to see their lane for an upset without major injury to Embiid or Simmons. Even then, I’m pretty sure the Sixers would handle any of these matchups with ease.
The difference between having to play a four or five-game series in the first round as opposed to a tough six or seven-game series can’t be overstated. Being fully rested and healthy for an ECF matchup with Brooklyn (or possibly Milwaukee) gives the Sixers an edge on top of their existing home-court advantage, and they’ll need every break they can get to handle the Nets in the seven-games.
Again. Sixers fans shouldn’t be worried about losing to any of our potential opponents in the first (or second) round of the playoffs. But avoiding the Wizards is absolutely something we should be rooting for in the name of an easy path to the Conference Finals.
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