In Game 1 the Sixers proved that they’re simply a better team than the Wizards, and while that’s not exactly news, I didn’t expect the gap between these two rosters to be so clear from the jump. While the game was admittedly tight throughout, the outcome never felt in doubt—much like the eventual outcome of this series doesn’t.
With that said, the Wizards won’t just roll over, and while this matchup feels destined for a 4-0 sweep, it’s normally the second game of the series that sets the real tone for how things will play out. Washington will be ready with a counterpunch, and they truly believe they can stretch this series out further than four or five games.
Here’s three adjustments the Wizards should/could make in Game 2 that the Sixers need to be prepared for.
1. More Daniel Gafford
Before the series I wrote that Gafford would likely be the most effective of the three centers that Washington likes to rotate, and that proved to be the case in Game 1, as he shot a perfect 6/6 from the field. His ability to play above the rim and cut with athleticism creates more roll gravity than either of Alex Len or Robin Lopez, and we saw that open up the Wizards offense in ways the other two couldn’t.
While it’s not always useful to read into single game plus/minus numbers, in this instance Gafford’s +14 mark tracks with what we saw on the floor. The only issue for him was foul trouble—even if the Wizards wanted to lean on him more, they may not have that option considering he racked up five fouls in only 20 minutes in Game 1. For a player so young, you can expect that to be the norm against Embiid and a veteran like Dwight Howard.
While more Gafford minutes would clearly give the Wiz a better chance in this series, they’ll need to find ways to keep him out of foul trouble first.
2. Faster pace
Scott Brooks mentioned before Game 1 that he wanted his team to play “faster than fast,” and while they did so for much of the late first and through the end of the half (on their way to taking a one-point lead) that pace faded in the second half as the game tightened up.
The Sixers have one of the worst transition defenses in the NBA, ranking second to last in opponent fast break efficiency and points per game. Washington isn’t necessarily a juggernaut in transition, but given the Sixers clear edge in the half-court on both ends, Scott Brooks would be wise to have his troops play even faster and for all four quarters in Game 2.
The other benefit here is it’s the only real way to get Westbrook going against a defense like this. We saw him struggle mightily for much of the first game, and the Sixers deserve credit for scheming him into low-percentage looks. Getting him a couple easy bunnies on the fast break will go a long way in generating confidence for him in the half-court.
3. More aggressive/varied defense on Tobias
You can take this to mean a number of things: more aggressive showing from bigs on ball-screens, occasionally switching, mixing-up primary defensive assignments beyond Hachimura, and so on.
Scott Brooks mentioned post-game that they need to do a better job of taking away Tobi’s space and not letting him get downhill so freely, and they did a solid job of that in the second half. The Wizards like to drop their bigs on most of their ball screens, which often leaves their perimeter defenders on an island to fight over screeners, and Hachimura (Tobi’s primary defender) did a poor job of that in Game 1.
The reality is, Tobias isn’t nearly as strong in isolation as he is when he’s able to use a screen to get an angle on the defense, and a simple switch or aggressive show will get the ball out of his hands more frequently than you might assume—though the Wizards may not prefer where that ball is going (swinging to an Embiid mismatch in the post) which likely plays into their calculation to drop their big men.
Nonetheless, more aggressively defending ball-screens for Tobias will almost certainly take him out of rhythm, and the argument in favor of this coverage is supported by the notion that you can’t ever “slow down” Embiid—which is the logic for dropping—so why not lean into scheming Tobias out of the offense of putting the half-court burden all on Embiid and Ben (a worthwhile gamble if you ask me).