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Wizards Survive the Play-In Round, Prepare for the 76ers

Usually when you win the No. 1 seed, your opening-round opponent should be an easy matchup.

That may not be the case for the Philadelphia 76ers Sunday when they face Washington, as the Wizards have some pieces that could make this series more interesting than most No. 1 vs. No. 8 matchups. Sure, the Wizards lost convincingly to the Boston Celtics Tuesday night, and the Philadelphia 76ers are better than the Celtics. However, they also blew out the Indiana Pacers on Thursday to advance to this round.

Recap of Previous Action

Neither of those outcomes should’ve been incredibly surprising. Three-level scoring forwards who can also create their own shots and move their feet always give the Wizards trouble. They had no answer on defense for Jayson Tatum, which resulted in him scoring 50 points against them. They also don’t have anyone who’s particularly equipped to contain as dynamic of a point guard as Kemba Walker, who knocked down six three-point shots and scored 29 points.

Worst of all, the Wizards couldn’t find ways to score against a well-coached team in a hostile environment. They made only three shots from behind the arch, and Russell Westbrook shot 6-for-18. That all added up to a 118-100 loss.

The Pacers, on the other hand, have no one resembling Tatum as a scorer – especially with some of their better players sidelined for various reasons. Domantas Sabonis is a borderline All Star, but he’s not a physical force, and his playmaking ability becomes less impactful with some of his top-scoring teammates not on the floor. He’s also a suspect post defender, which the Wizards capitalized on repeatedly.

In their return to Capital One Arena, they rallied to an easy 142-115 victory, knocking down half of their 28 three-point attempts and scoring 72 points in the paint – which is almost unheard of, especially for a team that doesn’t have an elite center.

So, how does this all translate to what Washington will see against the 76ers?

The 76ers have the top record in the Eastern Conference for a reason; they’re a really good team that presents numerous matchup problems. The Wizards will have to play the best basketball they have all season, and even that might not keep the series close. The last time they faced off, Philadelphia won in a landslide, MVP candidate Joel Embiid scored 23 points in only 20 minutes, and star point guard Ben Simmons didn’t even play.

What’s interesting, however, is that the Wizards kept their other two matchups with the 76ers close. They lost by six on December 23 and five on January 6, both of which came with the 76ers at full strength. Washington didn’t have Hachimura in the first matchup, and Beal scored 60 points in their second game. That’s back when Westbrook wasn’t fully healthy, either, so clearly, there is a path for the Wizards.

Deep Dive on the 76ers

Philadelphia features an elite center – maybe the best one in the NBA – and a solid pace-and-space approach (which is to say slow and calculated, not up-tempo) among the rest of its roster.

The biggest challenge on both ends of the court will be overcoming Joel Embiid. He averaged 28.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game this season and is one of the better defensive centers in the league. At seven feet tall and 280 pounds, he’s also a massive human that other teams simply don’t have.

There’s no exact answer, but the Wizards will have to throw multiple bodies at him – not only because he’s a physically taxing assignment, but also because he’ll likely get Washington’s bigs into foul trouble.

It’ll be a more important game for Alex Len than normal, as he provides the Wizards with some degree of size, athleticism, and a true post presence. Robin Lopez and Daniel Gafford are both better than Len in certain areas, but detrimental in others – especially against Embiid. Still, this team has found a new gear since Gafford was acquired from Chicago, and Lopez’s hook shot is unstoppable, so there will be situations when Scott Brooks can – and should – turn to them.

Philly’s next most important player is Ben Simmons, but in a weird way. He’s big, a great passer and one of the best defenders in the NBA, but he can’t shoot. He’ll likely defend Beal or – more likely – Westbrook for much of the series, although that may be challenging for someone who isn’t particularly quick for a guard.

The tougher question might be regarding who Washington guards him with. It might have to be Westbrook, since Raul Neto is too small and Rui Hachimura might not be instinctive enough to handle him, but using Westbrook in a key role defensively might also limit his own playmaking ability, which is a crucial component towards the Wizards’ success.

Aside from Simmons, the 76ers shoot the ball very well. Even Embiid has knocked down nearly 38 percent of his three-point attempts this season, which is better than all but three of the Wizards. Local analyst Quinton Mayo has repeatedly criticized the Wizards’ three-point defense – as well as Brooks’ tendency to “switch” at every level off screens.

Against Philly’s starters (Seth Curry at shooting guard, Danny Green at small forward, and Tobias Harris at power forward), the most logical matchups are Neto, Beal and Hachimura, respectively. In fact, the Harris vs. Hachimura matchup could tell us a lot about what Rui currently is – and has the potential to become – as a player. Harris could be his realistic, but attainable ceiling. He’s a very good multi-level scorer and a respectable defender, but he’s not Jayson Tatum.

You’ll probably see these matchups applied onto the other end of the court, as well. If Simmons sticks to Westbrook with Embiid in the post, Green and Harris will likely stay with Beal and Hachimura, and they’ll hide Curry on Neto.

Philly’s depth could be challenging to match up with. The unit has been led by Shake Milton, Dwight Howard and defensive stopper Matisse Thybulle for most of the season, but they’ve also added veteran point guard George Hill recently, and Furkan Korkmaz and Tyrese Maxey have the proven capability to go crazy in the scoring column if you let them. Aside from maybe Davis Bertans, the Wizards don’t have that type of “lightning in a bottle” scorer.

What to Expect

This series will probably last five or six games. It’s hard to imagine the Wizards force it to go the distance, but there’s also too much firepower for it to likely be a sweep. After all, Washington boasts the second and third-best players in this series, and they’re the team’s primary ball handlers.

Also of note, Westbrook and Embiid have a rather contentious history. They’re both high-energy players who wear their emotions on their sleeves, and it’s led to fireworks at times. Keep an eye on the mental side of the game, and don’t be surprised if technical fouls are dished out at some point.

Here’s the schedule, keeping in mind that Games Five through Seven will only happen if the series isn’t over by then:

  • Sunday: Wizards at 76ers, 1:00 p.m. ET on TNT
  • Wednesday: Wizards at 76ers, 7:00 p.m. ET on NBA TV
  • Saturday: 76ers at Wizards, 7:00 p.m. ET on ESPN
  • Monday, May 31: 76ers at Wizards, 7:00 p.m. on TNT
  • Wednesday, June 2: Wizards at 76ers, TBD
  • Friday, June 4: 76ers at Wizards, TBD
  • Sunday, June 6: Wizards at 76ers, TBD

If the Wizards can keep the series respectable, that’s probably all they can realistically ask for. They’ll want more than that, though, and it’s tough to bet against this backcourt.

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