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May 26, 2021

What to watch for in Game 2 of Sixers vs. Wizards

The Sixers are up 1-0, undefeated in their season series against Washington, and left feeling they can clean a lot of things up before Game 2. Between Joel Embiid's foul trouble, poor transition defense, and a number of other oddities from the opener, a more comfortable win is a realistic goal on Wedneday night.

What should we expect and watch for in the second postseason meeting between the Sixers and Wizards? I'm glad you asked.

Can the Sixers clean up their defense?

In the immediate aftermath of Sunday's Game 1, Doc Rivers made it clear that their first-half defense was simply not good enough. 

"I didn't like it all in the first half," Rivers said after the game. "First half, I'm gonna say 20 of their points came off of our mess-ups in transition, guys running back to their own man, guys not loading to the ball. I mean this team over all the teams, they're going to force you to load to the ball and then get back out to your guy. I didn't think we did a very good job of it, second half I thought it was great. So we have a blueprint now to the watch tomorrow and go over."

With a couple of days to reflect on the game and review the film, Rivers did not have a kinder interpretation of their defensive performance. In fact, his list of issues was long enough that he spared reporters from listening to most of it.

"Not matching up, running to your own men — buddy running is what we call it, balls in front but your man is next to you, you start buddy running with him instead of getting in front of the ball — and then communication. You know, there are two or three more if you want me to name them," Rivers said Tuesday. "But it's funny, man, you work a whole week and then that happens, you're looking around like what the heck, but we did fix it in-game, which is a big thing. And I thought Washington definitely got our attention by the way they played, there's no doubt about that."

Transition defense has been the turd in the punch bowl for Philadelphia all season, something they've remained confident they can clean up when the games start to matter. The jury is still out on that, even if Rivers believes the Wizards offered up a wake-up call to open the playoffs.

If you're an optimist, you can look at possessions like this early offense disaster and convince yourself that effort is all that needs to be there to fix it. This isn't a positional mix-up, and it's not even transition offense so much as it is a quick score after a Sixers bucket:

To Rivers' point, the Sixers certainly looked better on defense in the second half, particularly in transition. The Wizards score just four points on the break after halftime compared to 14 in the first half, and even that feels like it undersells the gap in performance. They deserve the benefit of the doubt for now, with Philly back in game rhythm after a week off.

The cross-match battle

Had the game felt truly in jeopardy, Doc Rivers' decision to go with George Hill over Seth Curry to close out the game probably would have been scrutinized a little more. As it is, Hill's strong Game 1 performance and inclusion in the closing group prompted questions about his role this week, with Rivers noting it will probably depend on the game and situation.

"Honestly, it's all situational for me," Rivers said at practice on Tuesday. "If George is playing well, then it can't hurt you, and that will work, especially on certain plays when you need an extra ball handler, that's when George comes in to play for us. I think we put four ball handlers out on the floor at the same time down the stretch, because they were trapping and we just thought he's one of the guys that can handle it."

Hill's offensive contributions are more than enough to justify playing him in big spots, but a defensive quirk might be the reason Hill needs to play late in games. It all depends on how Scott Brooks decides to manage his rotation after what he saw in the opener, and few would accuse him of being a particularly inventive coach.

Before Hill made his return late in the fourth quarter, Curry ended up cross-matched with Wizards bench forward Davis Bertans, who played well in a reserve role on Sunday afternoon. The Sixers were clearly willing to live with defending Bertans using a smaller player — Shake Milton guarded him toward the start of the fourth — but Curry on him in crunch time can be problematic.

Normally, you would look at a size difference like this and say it makes Curry a threat to get posted up or bodied on the way to the basket. But with Bertans being as perimeter based as he is, the discrepancy hurts Philly in a different way. When Curry struggles to track Bertans' movement (with screens or without), it's hard for him to offer a decent contest due to his lack of burst and length combined with Bertans' quick trigger. It hurt the Sixers once in crunch time on Sunday:

Bertans made a strong case for a bigger role in this series, and while he won't be at the top of the scouting report, a movement shooter who can tilt your defense messes with your gameplan quite a bit. We'll see if it ends up impacting how the Sixers choose to sub it in crunch time.

Reinforcements for Washington

Sticking with that same point, you could make a strong argument that three of Washington's top performers came off of the bench on Sunday: Bertans, Daniel Gafford, and Ish Smith. Smith's pace was a problem for the Sixers before they locked in, Gafford made an impact with his activity and athleticism, and Bertans' shooting we've already discussed (and highlighted) above.

On the other side of the coin, starting forward Rui Hachimura was a complete disaster defending Tobias Harris, who used his experience and grown-man strength to teach a lesson to his younger counterpart. Bradley Beal was excellent on offense, but backcourt mate Russell Westbrook was not, and Scott Brooks will have to consider whether playing them both 40+ minutes comes with diminishing returns past a certain point.

"Play the guys who played well more" and "make sure your stars rest enough" are simple enough, and considering how close Game 1 ended up being, simplicity is where Washington will start with their adjustments. But I don't expect much from Brooks, at least not yet.

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