Sixers-Wizards series preview

The NBA playoffs are set tip-off this weekend, and following Thursday’s drubbing of Indiana the Washington Wizards officially clinched the 8-seed and a first round date with the Sixers.

Game 1 is scheduled for tomorrow (Sunday) at 1 pm, with broadcasts available on both TNT and NBC Sports Philadelphia. Here’s the full series schedule:

Washington was widely viewed as the least desirable of the four potential opponents from the play-in tournament. Though it ought to be noted that any concern with this matchup was/is less out of fear of losing—I don’t see the Sixers dropping this series unless there’s major injury—and more so with wanting to avoid a drawn-out matchup that wears out the roster and has a residual impact on future series.

For comparison, Charlotte or Indiana would have offered little to no resistance had they been the first round opponent. We can’t confidently say that about the Wizards, who have the ability to drag this series out to six or even seven games (god forbid). One perceived advantage of the one-seed is that the Sixers would ideally be better rested than their opponent in the Conference Finals, and a taxing first round matchup would obviously nerf that advantage.

The Wizards 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 bigger threat than those numbers would suggest. Following a 6-17 start, they went 28-21 over the final 49 games, 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 for the 4-seed—that’s a better reflection of the sort of opponent they are.

Star power

It’s no secret that superstars rule the day in the NBA playoffs, and you could argue that the Wizards have two of the three best players in this series in Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook; one player who was the runner-up scoring champ this season, averaging 31.3 ppg, and another who just broke the all-time record for career triple doubles (184). With superstars of this stature anything can happen in a seven game series, and while they’re heavy underdogs in this matchup, I’ll bet they don’t feel that way.

Russ is currently playing some of the best basketball of his career (more on that later) and given his history with Embiid, I can imagine he’s looking forward to this showdown. As for Beal, while he’s often been a “Sixers killer,” one caveat to this discussion is the health of his hamstring. He’s been nursing an injury that’s pretty clearly robbed some of the life from his legs, and if he isn’t every bit the Beal that we’re used to seeing then the “star power” advantage that I’ve alluded to is moot.

Four numbers to know:

1. 17-6

This was the Wizards record across the final 23 games of the season (the best mark in basketball over that stretch). It’s fair to say they’re playing their best basketball of the year as of late, and while the playoffs are a clean slate, this roster is peaking at the right time.

2. 26-16-13

Those are Russell Westbrook’s averages for the month of May—26.3 points, 16.1 assists, and 13.8 rebounds per game. It’s fair to say the Wizards hot stretch to end the season had a lot to do with his dominance, posting 28 triple doubles across the final 36 games on his way to becoming the all-time record holder.

Westbrook doesn’t have the strongest playoff resumé, but he’s a handful compared to the “1b” option you would typically see on an 8-seed. While his best days are behind him, he’s in the midst of one of the strongest stretches of his career, and if he maintains that level of play for the next two weeks then Washington should have no problem extending this series beyond four or five games.

3. 25.2

The number of field goal attempts the Wizards allow at the rim per game—the lowest mark in the NBA. Washington has three centers with good size to throw at you, and that allows them to play a defensive scheme that emphasizes rim protection and lane deterrence, similar to the Sixers. This style of play obviously has drawbacks on the perimeter, but in terms of slowing down Embiid and Simmons it’s exactly how you want to defend.

The Wizards have had success with this style of play over the course their turnaround, and fortunately for them they won’t need to switch things up too much for this matchup. We’ve seen teams wall off Simmons in past playoff series, and this datapoint indicates Washington may be equipped to do the same this year. In terms of how this relates to Embiid, I’ll dive more into the impact of their three bigs below.

4. 0.6%

Those were the Wizards odds to make the playoffs back on April 6th when the team was a lowly 17-32. Obviously this number is another way of packaging information I already touched on, but it underscores the point that this team was dead in the water only six weeks ago. Not all 8-seeds are the same (some teams are just happy to be there) but don’t mistake this Wizards group for one that‘ll roll over or go down without a fight.

The trio of bigs:

Washington deploys three centers (Daniel Gafford, Alex Len, and Robin Lopez) and each should see time against Embiid in this series. The advantage of having three bodies is that it essentially gives them 18 fouls to use at the position before needing to reach deep into the bench, allowing them to play aggressive on Embiid for all 48 minutes. While none of the three are likely to slow him down, having that depth is a real plus from a schematic standpoint.

The name that has potential to slow Embiid down most (if anyone can at all) is Daniel Gafford, a second-year big who Washington acquired in a mid-season trade with Chicago. At 235 lbs he’s lighter than both Len and Lopez, but he’s the superior athlete in space by a decent margin. He’s strong on the glass, plays with a bouncy energy, and provides the most shot-blocking of the three. In terms of what he brings on offense, Gafford is a strong rim-runner who plays above the rim and punishes defenses that are late to rotate—nothing sexy, but it’s a high-efficiency skillset that pairs well with Westbrook and Ish Smith in the pick-and-roll.

If Scott Brooks wants to lean toward size in the post and eschew athleticism altogether, the 7’0” 280 lb Robin Lopez is one of the few players in the league who can actually match Embiid’s length and size. Lopez isn’t a strong defender by any means, but sometimes size is size when you’re dealing with Joel, and at the very least Washington won’t need to be aggressive with double teams when he’s on the floor.

The 7’0” 250 lb Alex Len is the likely starter of the three, but the way I see it the Wizards will find more success leaning into Gafford’s rim-running/shot-blocking skillset or Lopez’s size against Joel rather than whatever Len can provide. With that said, he’s another seven-footer with six fouls to burn—most defenses don’t have either of those luxuries (size and extra fouls).

Again, none of the three bigs should cause trouble for Embiid; but the 18 fouls between them, and diversity in their skillsets gives the coaching staff options/flexibility that most defenses simply don’t have against the Sixers.

The rest of the bunch:

We know what Beal and Westbrook bring to the backcourt, but beyond those two the Wizards have a pair of strong contributors in Raul Neto and Ish Smith—two former Sixers. Neto has spent the latter part of this season in the starting lineup, and has flourished in that role for Washington, averaging 11.3 ppg on 60.5% true shooting since joining the starting five. Smith, on the other hand, is a veteran facilitator off the bench whose pick-and-roll chops will come in handy in this series.

Looking at the wing, the Wizards rely heavily on Davis Bertans as a floor spacer and sharpshooter off the bench (39.5% on 7.5 3PA per game). Despite not starting, Bertans plays 26 minutes per night, and if he’s hitting he’ll likely average more in the playoffs. There isn’t a whole lot of volume shooting on this Wizards roster outside of Beal, but he and Bertans together provide enough to go around. If there’s a blueprint for them pulling off an upset in this series, Bertans would need to be heavily involved.

Last but not least, Rui Hachimura rounds out the Wizards staring five averaging 13.5 points on 55% true shooting. The 23 year old is the third best player on this roster, and while he doesn’t get the national attention he deserves, this is a chance to introduce himself on the national stage. Pairing an effective low-post and mid-range skillset with developing range and ball-handling, he can score in a variety of ways both on and off-ball. Any scenario where the Wizards push this series to six or seven games involves Hachimura rising to the occasion and causing problems for the Sixers on both ends of the floor.

Prediction: Sixers in 5

If the Wizards can catch the Sixers sleeping in Game 1—Sunday afternoon coming off a week of rest could spell a slow start for Philly—then I could see them taking this series to six games, but ultimately I see the Sixers closing this out in a hard fought five.

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