Round I - 76ers vs Wizards
The time of year is (finally) upon us. After the regular season saw the 76ers win over two-thirds of their games, they look to make a run at the Larry O'Brien trophy. 16 more wins. Sounds so simple. But they'll have to start their journey against the 8 seed, Washington Wizards. Philadelphia took all three of these matchups in the regular season, by an average margin of 12.3 points.
In their first matchup on opening night, the Sixers overcame a 10-point 4th quarter deficit and defeated the Wizards in Wells Fargo Center, 113-107. At the time, we were wowed by Joel Embiid's 29-point, 14-rebound performance, but we have now grown to that being considered normal. Ben Simmons racked up 16 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, and 3 blocks. Bradley Beal poured in an efficient 31 points in the losing effort, and Russell Westbrook got himself the first of many triple-doubles on the season, registering 21 points, 11 rebounds, and 15 assists.
In their next matchup in January, the Sixers scraped out a 141-136 home win to put them at 7-1 to start the new season. Bradley Beal tied the Wizards franchise record, scoring 60 points, but only 3 came in the fourth quarter. 60 points and they still lost. The Sixers were able to pull it off thanks to a Herculean effort by Embiid, finishing with 38 points. Seth Curry had 28 points on 11/14 shooting, including six made threes. Shake Milton also chipped in 19 points off the bench.
In their third and final matchup in March in the nation's capital, the Sixers won 127-101, but that was the last thing anyone cared about on this night. Everyone's heart dropped when they saw Joel Embiid clutching his knee after coming down wrong on a dunk in the third quarter. The result of the game didn't matter at all at that moment. Thankfully, the injury news could not have been better, as he only missed about three weeks.
As the top seed in the eastern conference, the Sixers will have home-court advantage throughout the first half of their bracket, including their opening series against Beal, Westbrook, and company.
Philadelphia's primary advantage in a series against Washington is the fact that their defense is horrific. Of all 30 teams, they rank dead last in points allowed, at over 118 per game. On the other hand, the Sixers have the second-best defensive rating in the NBA and can put together one of the best defensive lineups in the league, bolstered by Simmons and Matisse Thybulle, with Embiid guarding the goal. Now, adjustments will have to be made. When Bradley Beal went off for 60 back in January, head coach Doc Rivers was content leaving Danny Green on him as he went ballistic. In my opinion, Ben needs to be on Beal at all times. You can also make a case that he should be on Westbrook to start off because Beal is nursing a sore hamstring right now.
When it comes down to it, one team has Joel Embiid, and the other team doesn't. 22-year-old big man Daniel Gafford was a great pickup for the Wizards at the trade deadline from Chicago, and he has been performing pretty well for them on the defensive end. But let's be real. Gafford isn't going to neutralize Embiid. After him, their center depth chart is Robin Lopez and Alex Len. Davis Bertans and Rui Hachimura are human traffic cones. So is Beal. If Garrison Mathews plays a single defensive possession, you can pretty much chalk up two points. Tobias Harris makes a living on exposing height mismatches. There is no one to match Ben Simmons' blend of speed and size.
I could see the Wizards stealing a game if their dynamic backcourt starts to go off. Maybe a shooter like Bertans will get red hot from outside (like he has against this team in the past). Maybe Embiid and Harris just don't have it one night. I can't imagine it happens more than once though. After the top two guys on each squad, the talent discrepancy is so wide.
Assuming they can get by the Wizards relatively easy, they have a more challenging opponent in the second round, between the winner of the Knicks and Hawks. Getting out of the first round as timely as possible should give them an opportunity to rest between series, as I anticipate that 4/5 matchup being a pretty even fight, and going at least 6 games.
My prediction: 76ers in 5