There has been great excitement brought on from the play-in tournament this year as it has added increased competition and shaken up the bottom half of the playoff bracket. The one downside to the tournament is that the top teams were forced to wait until the play-in games finish to know their first-round opponent. Some may argue that this is a disadvantage for the top teams and Doc Rivers agreed with this when asked his thoughts regarding the new format. Regardless, the Washington Wizards were able to cruise past the Pacers in a blowout victory to officially punch their ticket into the playoffs as the eight seed and secure a matchup with the Sixers.
After trading John Wall for Russell Westbrook prior to the season, hopes were high for the Wizards heading into this year. These hopes began to sour as the Wizards lost the first 5 games this season and went 5-15 through their first 20 games. Even with the poor start, the Wiz rebounded and finished the season with a record of 34-38.
The team is led by Bradley Beal who was second in the NBA in scoring this season only behind Steph Curry. Beal averaged 31.3 points per game this season and also added 4.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists. He is a three time all-star and, now in his ninth season, has developed into a legitimate NBA star. Beal has an impressive array of finishes around the rim, a reliable jumper, and is effective at creating his own shot. The Florida product is one of the best one-on-one scorers in the league, and will be a test for the Sixers’ lengthy defense.
It is also important to note that Beal is still working his way back from a strained hamstring. The 27-year-old missed three of the Wizards’ final four games before returning for the regular-season finale. It is clear that his hamstring is not at 100% as Beal has been seen grabbing at it, especially during the first play-in game against the Charlotte Hornets. There is little doubt that he will suit up for the Sixers series and he will only be getting healthier, but Beal himself has admitted that he is not at 100%.
Russell Westbrook found his stride toward the end of the season and once again turned into a triple-double machine. While he has gained criticism for “stat-padding” in years past, it was clear that Westbrook had his fingerprints all over the turnaround of the Wizards this season.
Outside of their two stars, Rui Hachimura and Davis Bertans are the next two scoring options for the Wizards. Hachimura has an interesting skillset as he stands 6’8 but plays a big-man type role. Hachimura is the second Japanese player in NBA history and adds a solid element to the Wizards offense with his versatility that allows him to match up with wings or big men.
Davis Bertans is one of the best pure shooters across the NBA and is a career 40.7% shooter from beyond the arc. Bertans tosses up 7.5 three-point attempts per game and given the Sixers track record, it seems certain that he will be unable to miss during the Sixers series. Bertans typically comes off the bench, with Alex Len and Raul Neto set as the other two starts for the Wiz.
The Wizards are an impressive offensive team as they rank first in the league in pace and third in scoring with 118.5 points per game. Coming off a 142-point performance against the Pacers, the Wizards have made it clear that they will look to push the fast break early and often. This is a potential cause for concern as transition defense has been the one outlier in the Sixer otherwise stifling defense. As a whole, the Sixers ranked 29th in NBA in transition defense this season and this has been something Doc Rivers has constantly preached the need to improve on.
Outside of their tendencies to rely on the fast-break, the Wizards’ offense is primarily the Bradley Beal show. The Sixers should be very familiar with this as Beal scored 60 points against them in a matchup in January. During this 60-point performance, Danny Green served as the primary defender with Doc Rivers elected to use Ben Simmons in a “roamer” role on defense.
Rivers voiced his concerns about Simmons getting in foul trouble if he had matched up with Beal with the start, but given the 36.7 points per game he averaged against the Sixers- it is clear an adjustment must be made. It will be interesting to see how Rivers elects to match up with Beal and the growth of Matisse Thybulle also provides the Sixers with more options.
The Wizards also run several off-ball plays in order to free up Bertans for open jumpers. The Latvian shot 0-7 from beyond the arc in the first play-in game against the Celtics and 2-6 from deep in the victory over the Pacers. While it reassuring that he clearly can go cold, it is concerning that Bertans can catch fire. Standing 6’10 with above-average off-ball movement, Bertans will be a factor that requires some defensive magnitude on an every possession basis.
Matchups with Sixers this Season:
The Sixers and Wizards matched up three times this season with the Sixers securing the victory in all three of these games. The first two matchups were close with the Sixers winning by a margin of 6 points and 5 points, but the Sixers secured a victory by 26 points in the final regular-season contest. This 26 point victory was when Embiid injured his knee which sidelined him for three weeks and gave the entire fanbase a great scare.
The Sixers have shot the ball fairly well against the Wizards this season and also found an advantage on the boards and in the paint. In the final matchup this season, the Sixers won the rebounding battle by snatching 17 more rebounds and in the first matchup the Sixers had 26 more points in the paint than Washington.
The Sixers have struggled to control the pace in the matchups, with the second game ending with a score of 141-136, but have found a way to come out on top regardless. While it is never a bad thing to have prior success against a team, it is important to note that this is a very different Wizards team than the Sixers faced off with earlier in the year. The last matchup between the two sides was on March 12th with the Wizards going 20-16 in the games following this matchup.
Keys for Sixers:
There should be no re-inventing the wheel here. There is no one in the league who can guard Joel Embiid in a one-on-one fashion and certainly no one on the Wizards roster. Alex Len is the traditional starter for the Wizards but does not typically shoulder most of the minutes. Len stands 7 feet tall weighing 250 pounds but is significantly less athletic than Embiid. When this matchup occurs, Embiid should be given the ball in isolation and the Sixers should punish the Wizards until this changes.
The surprise name that has established himself in the Wizards rotation is Daniel Gafford. The 22-year old was attained in a deadline day trade and has proven to make an impact on the defensive end. Gafford racked up an impressive five blocks in the play-in victory over the Pacers and plays with some toughness and attitude to his game. While he is probably the best defensive big on the Wizards roster, he stands just 6’10 and weighs 234 pounds which would give Embiid a solid size advantage. Robin Lopez will also likely play some rotational minutes and Rui Hachimura could also get some time against the potential MVP.
In all likelihood, the Wizards will send multiple defenders at the Sixers franchise centerpiece. This will force the focus to be on Embiid’s passing ability and perimeter shooting from guys like Seth Curry and Danny Green. While Embiid is a matchup nightmare on a nightly basis, the Wizards stand out as a winnable matchup for Embiid as Washington is in the bottom tier of the league for points allowed in the paint.
Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons
These playoffs will serve as a statement for both Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris. With both players fighting narratives of coming up small in big moments, this is a great opportunity to begin to bury that reputation. Tobias Harris is coming off the most efficient season of his career and has spoken glowingly about the team all season. Harris has grown into the closer role on the Sixers alongside Embiid and if he can continue to get tough buckets down the stretch it would help the team a great deal.
With the Wizards looking to push the pace and focus on the fast-break, Ben Simmons is the obvious counterpunch to this. The Sixers averaged 11 steals per game against the Wizards this season, which is an extremely promising statistic. If Simmons is able to secure some easy transition buckets, it could help open up the rest of his game and help the Sixers keep pace with Washington.
Danny Green and Seth Curry
With spacing being the ultimate downfall to the Sixers playoff run last season, Danny Green and Seth Curry have served as the simple solution. Both have knocked down threes at over 40% rates this season and helped the team a great deal. The Sixers will need at least one of their perimeter player to get hot on a nightly basis and these will be the first two guys given opportunities. The magnitude that Joel Embiid demands only helps free these two up for looks and it is up to them to knock them down. Danny Green will also be extremely valuable in providing leadership and helping guide the otherwise young Sixers roster through the playoffs.
The Wizards certainly have the potential to steal a game or two, but the Sixers should be able to take care of business in this series. The duo of Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook is solid, but the Sixers should not fear a team that has Raul Neto and Ish Smith in their rotation for regular minutes. The potential for this team ultimately lies on the shoulders of Joel Embiid and this will be seen in this series and throughout the playoffs. The Sixers are more well-rested and healthier than they have been all season and look for them to come out ready to prove that they are the legitimate title contenders they have shown to be all season.
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