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June 02, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers close out Wizards with excellent Game 5 performance

Behind a huge performance from Seth Curry and excellent efforts from almost everyone in the rotation, the Sixers closed out the Wizards with a 129-112 victory in Game 5. Philadelphia is headed back to the second round.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• It is not often that we have an opportunity to give Curry featured billing for this team, and getting him to hunt his own shot has been one of the biggest challenges for this group all season. But with the Sixers in need of a jolt with their MVP on the shelf, it was Curry who rose to the occasion on offense, taking advantage of a favorable matchup with Raul Neto.

This Sixers team has made their money by sticking with what works this season, and the start of the third quarter was a distillation of Doc Rivers' approach to offense. As Curry began torturing poor Neto, he didn't even have to call his own number — Tobias Harris put two fingers in the air and gave them a twirl, their universal sign to run it back if the Wizards couldn't stop it.

For most of the night, they couldn't. Curry's ability to make tough shots off-the-dribble kept Washington off-balance all night, opening up lanes to the basket and open shots from midrange when they swarmed hard to stop him from getting threes up. There are few players on this team as fun to watch as Curry when he gets it going, and he had a little extra sauce to share deep into a terrific game.

It's difficult to get this exact version of Curry when Joel Embiid is in the lineup, admittedly. There are only so many shots and touches to go around, and he's not always going to have a guy he can exploit to the degree he did Neto. But it is undeniable that he is back in form after struggling to find his footing in the aftermath of getting COVID, and that is a big deal for this group.

• This version of Harris is much closer to the one we saw all season, the memory of Game 4 left in the dust rather quickly. It wasn't all pretty for Harris — he still had some issues finishing around the basket — but he found his footing thanks to a matchup with Rui Hachimura, a player he has absolutely tortured during this series.

Where Harris really changed this game, though, was at the defensive end of the floor. The Wizards looked like they were going to turn a Daniel Gafford block into fast-break points the other way on a possession midway through the third, only for Harris to bolt across the floor, intercept the pass, and send it back in the other direction. Ben Simmons scored through contact and made the ensuing free throw, a five-point swing in a game that was close the whole way.

That was one of just a few examples of Harris buckling down to make sure the Sixers got this over the line. He isn't the most consistent defender in the world, but he has had a bunch of impact moments this season and far better game-to-game effort there than he ever has in the past. Like many other guys on this year's team, he takes his responsibility as a leader seriously.

• This series did not play out how everyone in Philadelphia probably hoped, but Tyrese Maxey rising to the occasion has been one of the great stories of the first round, just a couple of months removed from Maxey being basically out of the rotation.

When Maxey has been on the floor, it has been impossible to keep him away from the ball. Even when the Sixers aren't running offense for him, he is the guy who ends up with the ball in his hands in late clock situations, his teammates confident the rookie can create some separation with the seconds winding down.

Here's the crazy part: Maxey would be having an even better series if the officials were giving him the calls he deserves. Maxey had a dunk attempt poked away by a hand through the netting in the first quarter, and he appeared to be fouled on a nice finish in transition midway through the second quarter, a fact that did not escape the booing fans at the Wells Fargo Center.

In any case, the Sixers need even more of him moving forward, especially if they are in a position where they need to downsize without Embiid available. Maxey being on the floor actually provides the benefits you want out of small ball, mainly shot creation, and he has been an absolute delight to watch in his first playoff minutes.

• It boggles my mind that Lakers fans watched Danny Green play basketball last season and concluded that he should be the guy they should complain about on social media for most of the season. His cold spells are brutal on offense, I will grant you that, but this guy wins wherever he goes and it is not an accident in any way. 

With the Sixers locked in a tight battle through the first 24 minutes, Green came alive to send the Sixers into halftime riding an avalanche of good vibes. After clamping Bradley Beal on one possession, he nearly drew a charge on another, then stole a pass in the backcourt from Russell Westbrook and scored at the rim. Just 30 seconds or so later, he hit a corner three on his signature baseline cut, only to draw an offensive foul on Westbrook and give the Sixers one last look at the basket before halftime.

After all that, he sensed the moment, and beckoned to the capacity crowd to get fired up. Philadelphia obliged, and he made it quite easy to do so.

(By the way, I couldn't believe he just shook off the weird fall he took with his knee buckling toward the end of the first half. You'd probably have to take me out of Wells Fargo Center on a stretcher if my leg bent that way.)

• Dwight Howard making consecutive free throws during a playoff game is like finding a five-dollar bill on the sidewalk. Doing it three times in the same game? Consider that a gift from a higher power. 

This was a tough series for Howard overall, but he did his best to make up for it in the final game when they needed him most. Howard was all over the offensive glass and a menace at the rim on the other end, offering the shot-blocking they needed on a night where they had very little of it without him.

• The best thing I think you can say about Ben Simmons' night — when the Wizards decided to go with the Hack-a-Ben strategy late in the first half — it actually seemed to get Simmons more into the game after a tough start. It's an area many people (including his teammates) have chalked up to a mental battle, and seeing him rise to the occasion after he was challenged was terrific.

Was it the extra work at the line between Game 4 and 5? Did the crowd have anything to do with that? Wells Fargo Center welcomed him to the line with a rousing ovation, and Simmons made 3-of-4 at the line before Scott Brooks decided to abandon the strategy. By then, it was too late, and Simmons became a much more active participant in Philadelphia's offense from that point on.

In the third quarter, we even saw Simmons playing the part of switch hunter, which the Wizards served up to him on a platter by trying to use Ish Smith against him on defense. Simmons put Smith on his hip or in his wake on quite a few possessions late in the third, using the size advantage to get to the basket or hit cutters when doubles were coming his way.

There were flashes of how Simmons can impact the game as a short-roll passer, admittedly in limited opportunities. Coming off of screens, Simmons hit Green in the corner for a couple of wide-open threes in the first half, Green just couldn't get the shots to go down.

Looking past this series, maximizing his impact on defense is going to be tricky for Philadelphia without Embiid. He's going to be the biggest guy on the floor in a lot of lineups, and assuming they play the Atlanta Hawks in the second round, dealing with Clint Capela rolling to the rim is going to be a huge challenge whenever Howard is not in the game. Rivers opted to use Matisse Thybulle on Beal for a lot of Wednesday's game, and I'm interested to see how they choose to attack the new set of problems they'll have in front of them.

• The Sixers did not have their best player, and they have stiffer challenges in front of them in the playoffs. But as they have so often this season, they took care of business and found a way to get it done in spite of some built-in excuses to struggle. Win by any means necessary, and worry about the rest later.

The Bad

• In the opening minutes of Game 5, you could see why Rivers (and Brett Brown before him) has been a bit hesitant to play smaller lineups with Simmons or Harris as the defensive five. The Wizards were getting basically whatever they wanted around the basket, making it crystal clear that rim protection is a critical part of making this work.

The challenge of defending Bradley Beal is that he can hurt you at all three levels, and you can't credibly defend him if you're not able to get up into his chest and steer him toward the help you have waiting in the paint. Philadelphia tried to play up on him, and all that accomplished was providing him a runway to the rim in the early minutes, with nobody there to turn him away once he got past the second level.

Philadelphia would clean it up over time, but they've got to be much better if they are going to hold down the fort without Embiid in the playoffs. You're not always (or even often) going to be able to contain guys on the perimeter, and they need to either figure out how to protect the rim with who they have or adjust the scheme to capitalize on their switching capabilities. A problem for another day.

• Simmons spending a lot of time in the dunker's spot is normal for this Sixers team, but that's in an ecosystem structured around Embiid. The amount of time he has spent there over the last two games is slightly alarming, and it's not clear whether that's a decision being made by Rivers or a choice Simmons is making on his own.

Rivers was not exactly demanding for the Sixers to run inventive offense against Washington, who looked better on defense than they have any right to for stretches of this game. The Sixers were running a bastardized version of the Globetrotter Weave at times, running through handoff after handoff without moving even an inch closer to the basket. Even their successful possessions were pretty ugly a lot of the time, with far too much isolation play and standing around for a group that could have toyed with different looks.

A bit of blame goes to Simmons, too, at least until the Hack-a-Ben strategy got him going. As he showed in the second half and throughout a lot of this series, this is a team he can punish when he's not just lingering in space waiting for something to happen. Being able to show him the difference on film will hopefully be a difference-maker between rounds.

The Ugly

• I don't say this to make light of all the terrible fan behavior around the league right now, but if the officiating is this bad for the rest of the playoffs, I am slightly concerned they will be the next target of the ornery people flooding these arenas. Some of the calls being made right now would be let go in preseason games, let alone playoff games, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to whether they're going to let them play physical or call touch fouls inside.

Not sure what the solution is here. It's not as though they're going to get officiating reinforcements or clearer rules in the middle of the playoffs. Everyone is just going to have to learn to live with it.

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