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May 21, 2021

Sixers vs. Wizards playoff preview: Matchups, weaknesses, and predictions for round one series

Sixers NBA
Joel-Embiid-Sixers-Wizards_2_122320_USAT Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

Joel Embiid closed out the Wizards Wednesday.

The Sixers' reward for earning the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time in 20 years is a date with the hottest team of the four available opponents. The Washington Wizards have been nothing special this season, but they have star power and managed a 16-6 run to close the year, a better version of themselves than they have been all year.

Is that worth fretting about too much on Philadelphia's end? Almost certainly not. This is not a sleeping giant, it's not a wily group of veterans who know how to win together, and it's not a group guided by a mastermind head coach. What you see is mostly what you get, and the Wizards found themselves on the fringe of the playoff picture for good reason.

But that doesn't mean they aren't worth a closer look. What do they bring to the table, how does it compare to Philly, and what should Sixers fans be worried (or not worried) about heading into this I-95 affair? 

Styles and stats

A quick disclaimer before we flash the chart — effective field-goal percentage (or EFG) adjusts the normal field-goal percentage stat to account for three-point makes being worth more than two-point makes. Pretty simple. 

Category  Philadelphia
76ers
Washington
Wizards 
 W/L Record49-23 34-38 
 OFF RTG (pts. per 100 possessions) 112.5 (13th)110.7 (17th) 
 DEF RTG (pts. allowed per 100)107.0 (2nd) 112.3 (20th) 
 Effective field goal percentage54.1 (14th) 53.1 (20th) 
 Opponent EFG%52.1 (3rd) 53.9 (15th) 
 Pace (possessions used per game) 100.12 (12th)104.67 (1st) 
 Opponent 3P% 36.0 (9th)36.9 (19th) 


To state the obvious going into this matchup, the Sixers are a considerably better team than the Wizards are. Philadelphia has been a high-level defensive outfit all season, effective at mitigating the impact of shooters without compromising Embiid's significant impact as a rim protector. This has been obvious watching them, and it's no less obvious looking through the stats. They have been able to survive with an offense that is slightly above league average as a result of how good they have been defending teams in the halfcourt.

On the surface, the Wizards have the profile of a team that you'd assume is a run-and-gun, high-octane outfit. Bradley Beal nearly led the league in scoring, Russell Westbrook is a missle in transition, and they managed to lead the league in pace by almost two full possessions per game over the next-closest team. If they were actually a transition juggernaut, Philadelphia's issues defending after misses and turnovers might loom large in this series. But the Wizards scored less than 10 percent of their points on the fast break in the regular season, and you wouldn't expect that number to climb in the slower postseason. The Wizards play in a lot of high-scoring games predominantly because they can't stop anybody.

It's worth noting that the Wizards have been better down the stretch, coinciding with Westbrook looking healthier and more lively. They've had a top-10 defense from April 1st onward, though I'm not inclined to throw out the full season's worth of work to prop up a stretch that featured plenty of tanking, banged up, or unmotivated teams. 

There's one major area where the Wizards punch in Philly's weight class, and that's their ability to get to the free-throw line. The Sixers tied for the highest free-throw rate in the league this season, largely thanks to Joel Embiid's dominant campaign, but the Wizards are not too far behind them in third. Beal and Westbrook get to the line a combined 14.1 times per game, and they will put pressure on Philadelphia's perimeter defenders to guard them without picking up cheap fouls. The good news for the Sixers is that Washington is more than happy to level the playing field on the other side of the ball, where they're a foul-prone bunch who tend to "make up for" their poor defense with bad fouls to compound the problem.

This doesn't figure to be an X's and O's masterclass — dating back to his days with Westbrook in Oklahoma City, Scott Brooks was derided as a guy who simply rolls the ball out there and lets his stars figure it out. That's an oversimplification, but any team with Westbrook on it essentially takes on the identity of the mercurial UCLA product, for better or for worse.

Philadelphia will walk into this series as overwhelming favorites, and rightfully so. They swept the season series and are better than their opponent in almost every measurable way, with a superior roster, head coach, and campaign to hang their hats on. An upset would be shocking, even if the Wizards might spook them in a game or two.

Matchups to watch

Ben Simmons vs. Bradley Beal...if he guards him

In early January, the Sixers emerged victorious in a game against the Wizards despite Bradley Beal dropping 60 points on Philly's home floor. It's noteworthy anytime somebody drops 60 points on your home floor, but it was especially noteworthy for this reason — Ben Simmons spent all of 18 seconds on Beal during the game, at the start of a season he believes is worthy of Defensive Player of the Year consideration. Beal put up 35 shots against Philadelphia that evening, and only one of them was defended by Simmons.

Doc Rivers justified the decision postgame with a line of thinking that would become prevalent throughout the year: he preferred to have Simmons as a roamer who could help off-ball as opposed to a one-on-one stopper. There are nights when that's a justifiable tactic, and those might even come against the Wizards in the playoffs. But Philadelphia watched a 21-point lead disappear in that early-season meeting without ever adjusting their plan to stop Beal, and there's reason to believe Rivers could stick with that thought process over a full playoff series.

Philadelphia chose to defend Beal with basically anyone but Simmons during the regular season. While noting that Simmons did miss one of the meetings between the two teams this year, he logged just over six partial possessions and only 1:10 of game time on Beal this year, fewer than any starter (including Embiid) and less than two bench players (Matisse Thybulle and Shake Milton). He spent by far the most time on Westbrook by far, and that's in spite of the aforementioned missed game. Maybe that was a regular-season-only quirk, but we have to take it at face value for now. 

Beal is dangerous because he can hurt you from different areas of the floor and without necessarily being a ball-dominant player. While he's a considerably better catch-and-shoot guy than he is a pull-up shooter from deep (which is not exactly uncommon around the league), defending Beal is rough because you can't afford to drop your head or miss a read regardless of where he is on the floor. He does an excellent job of navigating around screens and preparing to shoot as part of that process, punishing any daylight you afford him.

Danny Green had a hell of a time trying to keep up with him during the 60-point game. You tip your cap to Beal for what he's able to do himself, mind you, but there were moments when you can definitely see the difference in age and speed between the two players. If Green gets hung up on a screen or is a step slow moving with Beal, there's a good chance a made jumper is coming.

Similar to Joel Embiid, Beal is in the midst of his best-ever season from the mid-range, knocking down over 45 percent of his attempts from 16 feet to the three-point line. Though the Sixers would probably be happy to let him live and die by the midrange, it's a useful tool when attacking closeouts if he doesn't want to challenge Embiid at the summit.

Really, this should be a pretty simple change in approach from the Sixers. Simmons on Beal slows down their best player, and Embiid is going to protect the rim and dissuade Westbrook if whoever draws that assignment proves incapable of staying in front of him. But I expect Rivers to stick with what got them here, and it's hard to blame him for thinking the formula is fine given how the season series played out.

The pace-of-play battle

Philadelphia started the year with a mandate from their coach to play fast, decisive basketball. That remains in place all these months later, but there's a ceiling to how fast a team can play when Embiid is the crown jewel of the franchise. And based on how the games between these two teams played out in the regular season, Washington's best chance to emerge victorious will come from forcing the Sixers to play at their speed.

The Wizards have shown no ability to stop Embiid this season — Philly averaged 127 points per game across three meetings this season, and Embiid basically averaged 30/10/3 even with one of those games being cut short. All the Wizards can really hope to do if they wish to stop him is to bait the Sixers into ignoring Embiid in order to trade quick baskets. If the big guy struggles to get touches and rhythm early in games, the possibility exists that he could eventually check out and open a window for Washington to leap through.

There may be a better way to keep Embiid out of sorts. The Wizards acquired big man Daniel Gafford as part of a three-team deal at the trade deadline, and the young, springy big gives the Wizards a jolt of energy coming off of the bench, sort of in the mold of a Richaun Holmes type player. Gafford can come up with some absolutely hellacious blocks, will get burned due to shaky instincts otherwise, and is a threat to finish anything you throw him near the basket. He's small and athletic enough to run the floor like a forward, creating opportunities for lobs and easy dunks in transition.

The question is how much time Scott Brooks is willing to commit to Gafford, both as a general rule and in this specific matchup. Some of that is Brooks being a checkers coach, a guy who sees Embiid and just tries to match him with size instead of using creative problem solving to work around the issue. To some extent, skepticism is justified in this matchup. Gafford is giving up considerable size to Embiid on the defensive end of the floor, and I have no doubt Embiid would throw him in a trash compactor if and when given the chance. Even if Brooks wanted to keep Gafford on the floor for most of the game, there's almost no chance he'd stay out of foul trouble in extended minutes.

That said, Gafford tearing down the floor in transition or being used as a relentless pick-and-roll threat would force Embiid to defend in space and run the floor more than he probably wants to, certainly more than he would against the expected tandem of Alex Len and Robin Lopez.

The Wizards vs. Philadelphia's big three

Let's be clear — Embiid is not the only member of the core group primed for a big series against Washington. The numbers suggest Harris was below his standard play against the Wizards this year, but they are a prime candidate for the switch-hunting he has used to great effect throughout the regular season. Brooks will no doubt have to think about a different starting group than the one he ran out for the play-in games, because Harris cross-matched with any of Westbrook, Beal, and especially Neto is a win for the Sixers whenever they can get it.

Even before he gets to cross-matches, Harris will have the upper hand in matchups with starter Rui Hachimura and backup forward Davis Bertans. The latter will be a tricky cover to some extent, and the Sixers might want to put a sleeker player on him defensively just to focus on getting around screens. But with even modest attempts to screen Harris' defender, the Sixers should be able to get Harris rolling toward the basket and in position to score.

Frankly, Simmons has an even clearer path to a huge series, with the three-guard lineup tailormade for him to bludgeon thanks to a massive size advantage and the defensive ambivalence of the Westbrook-Beal pairing. Assuming he creates the dribble penetration you'd expect out of him, it's not unrealistic for Simmons to hit double-digit assists every night in this series. Washington is poor at preventing dribble penetration and they don't have the bodies to wall off the paint. The Wizards allow the third-highest free-throw rate (and the second most raw free-throw attempts) of any team in the league. So long as Simmons doesn't completely sit out of the offensive proceedings, he should be able to strike a potent balance of scoring and playmaking, even if a decent chunk of the scoring is at the charity stripe.

The inability to offer answers for the Philadelphia big three is why I don't expect this to be an especially painful series for the No. 1 seed. Even at 80-90 percent of their best, they should have no problem blowing through this Wizards outfit.

X-factor: Tyrese Maxey

Philadelphia's rookie guard may not play at all in these playoffs, and in other matchups, I would have been more skeptical he could have an impact. I would not have been bullish about him playing against Indiana, for example, with the knowledge that T.J. McConnell would do his usual backcourt terrorizing in that matchup.

These Wizards are a different story. I like Maxey's chances against a team that has Ish Smith and Raul Neto in fairly prominent roles, and the Sixers should be able to gain all the positives of going small without needing to fear the Wizards can punish them for it. Washington is leaky and undisciplined enough on defense that Rivers could probably play an 11-man rotation in round one and not really have to sweat the outcome too much.

The ability to get Maxey some early playoff minutes, even against a team that will offer little resistance, has the potential to be a huge deal for the Sixers. If he can find his sea legs before the going gets tough in later rounds, Rivers might be able to call on him in a big moment, where he can gain invaluable experience for the future and perhaps offer some off-the-dribble dynamism that the rest of the second unit lacks. 

They shouldn't force him on the floor if the game situation warrants a different solution — if the Wizards bait the Sixers into too much of an up-tempo series, Philadelphia would be better off handing the reins to George Hill, who can settle things down and make sure they decide the identity of the series. But I think Maxey will be just fine in the run-and-gun style we could see in this series, and his ability to put pressure on the rim will be aided by Washington's poor containment on the perimeter. It would be nice to see him in the mix.

Prediction 

The Wizards were my most "feared" team for the Sixers in round one only because I respect their combined star power in the backcourt. Beal is going to get his against anybody, and though I think Westbrook will shoot you out of a game more often than he'll shoot you to a victory, he's a relentless attacker who will take advantage if there are mental lapses in the halfcourt or on the break. With Philadelphia in snooze mode over the last month of the season, the Wizards could very well steal a game off of the Sixers to open the series before Philadelphia wakes up and gets their act together.

But I don't see a reasonable case for a Wizards series win unless one of Philadelphia's stars gets hurt in the middle of the series. Even if that were to happen, they have proven they can win a game against these Wizards with less than their full lineup — Embiid left their third meeting early due to injury and Simmons did not play at all, and the Sixers still managed to win by 20+ points, comfortably outpacing the Wizards on the road with six scorers in double digits.

The Wizards aren't going to stop the Sixers because the Wizards aren't capable of stopping anyone. And if there was a reason you'd prefer drawing them over any of the play-in teams in the opening round, it's because you feel you can get your offense rolling against a Charmin soft defense to open the playoffs, building confidence for a group that enters the postseason with a lot to prove.

I'll give the Wizards a game, and I hesitate to even do that. This should be a comfortable Sixers victory, and anything else would set off a few alarm bells.

Sixers in five games.


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