May 22, 2021
While walking around my neighborhood on Friday, I stumbled upon something I hadn't seen in years — something that I thought had gone extinct alongside Beanie Babies and those 3D pictures that are impossible to see. That's right, for the first time since the early 2000s, at least that I can remember, I saw some Sixers playoff car flags in the wild.
They were glorious, flapping in the breeze like they didn't have a care in the world.
And with the Sixers capturing the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs for the first time in 20 years, those flags seem like an appropriate metaphor for the local hoops team, who are massive first-round favorites against the Wizards, including eight-point favorites in Game 1 according to both FanDuel and DraftKings, via Pickswise.
Right now, the Doc Rivers' team has every reason to be loose. They've got arguably the best path to the Eastern Conference Finals they could've hoped for, avoiding potential matchups with Brooklyn, Milwaukee or Miami along the way. Instead, they'll only have to face one of those three with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line. If they can handle business against Washington, they'll face the winner of the Knicks and Hawks series — and again, the Sixers would be massive favorites in that series.
That's the glass-half-full way of looking at things. But there's another, darker prism through which to view this team, one that comes not just from living through The Process, but from years of being a Sixers fan (and a Philly sports fan in general). And that's an understanding that anything short of a trip to the NBA Finals is going to be a disappointment.
For all the talk of the Sixers walking into a good situation, they're also walking into a dangerous one. One slip up, one injury, one off series could derail the entire thing and lead to another offseason of questions about Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris, and whether or not they're the right trio of stars to put this team over the hump.
Despite that possibility, the majority of Sixers fans seem overwhelmingly upbeat about the team's postseason chances, which is a step in the right direction after a few years of earlier-than-expected exits. And perhaps that's why the car flags have returned to the region, because fans truly believe this is the team that can deliver the city its first trip to the Finals since 2001 and, just maybe, its first NBA title since 1983.
Can they? Will they? And what might go wrong along the way? All that and more in today's edition of What They're Saying on the eve of the Sixers' first playoff game of the year. But first, a look at two of the team's defensive terrors: Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle...
Let's start with Ben Simmons, who will be back in the playoffs after missing last year's sweep at the hands of the Celtics with an injury. In the past, Simmons has struggled in the postseason, when the game slows down and is often played more in the half-court than on an open floor, with the latter being much more favorable to Simmons' style of play.
This year is going to be his latest chance to prove that he can be dominant in this setting, something he's been unable to do in the past — defensive side of the ball excluded. Obviously, playing alongside Joel Embiid, who is having an MVP-caliber season, means that Simmons doesn't have to dominate every time down the court, and the two have been better together than in any of the previous years. But there are going to be times when the team needs Simmons on the offensive end, and he's running out of excuses.
Could this be the season Simmons finally changes the narrative? Over at The Ringer, Dan Devine took a look at the five most intriguing players in the playoffs... and Simmons was first on his list. Here's what he had to say:
Why might things be different this postseason? Well, we can start with the fact that things were different during the regular season. Lineups featuring Embiid and Simmons scored 104.1 points per 100 plays in the half court, according to Cleaning the Glass—the best mark the pair have managed in their four years together, and a full 10 points more per-100 than last season.
Shipping out Al Horford and Josh Richardson, two shaky-at-best long-range shooters, in exchange for Danny Green and Seth Curry, two excellent long-range shooters, has created more room for Embiid to embarrass and Simmons to slice. You still have to do something with all that new space for activities, though, and Simmons and head coach Doc Rivers have found some ways to get the former no. 1 pick into his comfort zone—which is to say, within arm’s reach of the rim—even when things slow down and Embiid is on the floor. [...]
Even without the credible threat of a jumper, Simmons is capable of making the plays—the purposeful off-ball cuts, the hard drives deep into the paint, the decisive duck-ins and flashes into the key from the dunker spot—that can elevate Philly’s offense rather than allow it to bog down when it matters most. If he can consistently bring the sort of juice that makes him a dangerous offensive player, even in the half court, Philly’s chances of winning the East improve dramatically. If he’s again minimized against the best opposition in the biggest moments, though … well, that tired old trade talk might come back again, this time louder than ever. [theringer.com]
It's really, really fun to watch Matisse Thybulle play basketball — assuming you're not a fan of whatever player he's guarding. Over at Uproxx/Dime, admitted Sixers fan Brian Grubb does a nice job of putting into words exactly what makes Thybulle so fun. It starts with a sand castle competition and somehow gets better from there.
This is where we rattle off some stats for the people who like stats. Matisse Thybulle finished tied for third in the NBA in total steals despite playing about 500 fewer minutes than anyone else in the top-20. He finished 19th in the league in total blocks despite being a backup shooting guard. If you stretch his numbers out to starter minutes, he would average something like three steals and two blocks every game, which is crazy. He’s the only player in NBA history to accumulate 100 steals and 70 blocks in a season while playing fewer than 20 minutes per game. He did all of it in just his second season, after a shortened and disjointed rookie campaign that ended inside a bubble in Disney World. It’s all very impressive.
But the stats aren’t even the point, really. You have to watch the way he does it. It’s honestly incredible. I have never seen a player have this much of an impact on a game without scoring, like, at all. I have definitely never seen a player make defense look this exciting. Defense is usually a slog, a try-hard endeavor meant to slow down an opponent and gum-up the flow of a game. Great defense can make for an ugly basketball game.
Matisse Thybulle does not make the game ugly. Matisse Thybulle makes defense look cool as hell. Like, look at this play, in which he chases down Zach LaVine, one of the best athletes alive who is used to blowing by opposing defenders and scoring, and spikes the ball against the backboard like it’s a dang volleyball.[uproxx.com]
Matisse Thybulle with a BLOCK on Zach LaVine pic.twitter.com/pC5hhult6x— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) January 18, 2020
Speaking of Thybulle, there's a chance that he plays a bigger role this postseason than many are expecting. Obviously, his defensive abilities speak for themselves. And if he can get on a roll shooting the ball, he could contribute mightily to the Sixers' championship aspirations. Even if not, he's far less of an offensive liability than he was in the past, and his defense is so good that it's almost worth overlooking because of the net positive impact he makes overall.
In the first round, he can help spell the starters when it comes to guarding the always difficult-to-stop Bradley Beal. And the matchups aren't going to get any easier from there, so this could be a good test run for how Doc Rivers uses the young defensive-minded Thybulle in his rotations this postseason. Over at Liberty Ballers, Steve Lipman broke down five matchups to watch in this series, and despite Thybulle being a bench player, his matchup with Beal made the cut (as it should).
Matisse Thybulle vs. Bradley Beal
There are more juicy, starter-vs.-starter matchups in this series, but don’t underrate the potential of seeing lots of Thybulle guarding Beal in this series.
Matisse — who this year took an extremely meaningful leap into being a likely All-Defense selection, despite averaging 20 minutes per game — spent a good deal of time guarding Beal this season.
The good: When guarded by Thybulle, Beal shot 3/10 from the field.
The bad: in those minutes, Beal also got to the free throw line a ton, making 9 of 10.
Beal is a unique challenge for any NBA defender, as his on-and-off ball capabilities make him especially difficult to contain. Thybulle’s speed and instincts should serve him well in the matchup, and Thybulle will have to focus on defending the star without fouling him and yielding freebies at the line.
Thybulle could be a big factor in this series, as the Sixers will be tasked with guarding both Beal and Westbrook. My gut reaction to the necessity to play Thybulle is excitement on the defensive end, but worry on offense, as I fear that Thybulle and Ben Simmons might combine to cramp the spacing a bit too much for Embiid to operate effectively in the post... [libertyballers.com]
Marcus Hayes, always known for his radiant positivity, took a look at how the Sixers could run into trouble this postseason, long before reaching the conference finals, let alone the NBA Finals.
The consensus concerning the 76ers and their playoff prospects goes something like this:
Since they earned the No. 1 seed, the Sixers won’t face the combustible, second-seeded Nets or the well-rounded, third-seeded Bucks until the Eastern Conference finals. Further, since the NBA playoffs do not re-seed, the Sixers won’t face No. 6 Miami or No. 7 Boston, either. The Sixers should crush the Wizards, rollover either the Knicks or the Hawks, and cruise to the Finals.
Don’t be so sure. [inquirer.com]
While he looked at teams they could face further down the road as well, like the Knicks and Hawks, but first things first, the Wizards. Obviously, the biggest threat they pose comes in the form of Westbrook and Beal, two players who have absolutely dominated the Sixers over the years.
The Wiz: dynamic duo
The Sixers begin their first-round series against the Washington Wizards on Sunday. The Wizards feature elite scoring guards Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal. For all of their defensive accomplishments, the Sixers struggle against elite scoring guards.
Beal dropped a career-high 60 points on the Sixers on Jan. 6. He’s averaging 29.4 points per game against the Sixers since the 2017-18 season. That’s 2.4 points per game more than his overall average. The time frame is significant because 2017-18 was Joel Embiid’s first All-Star season -- the season in which the Sixers began to design their defense around his rim-protecting presence -- and Ben Simmons’ first NBA season. Simmons considers himself a premier defender, too.
Westbrook’s numbers against the Sixers in that same time span -- 24.3 points, 10.6 rebounds, 9.8 assists -- virtually mirror his overall numbers. Of course, those overall numbers are insanely, incomparably, historically good. [inquirer.com]
Don't worry, though. Marcus still thinks the Sixers will win their first-round matchup relatively easily.
Over at the Athletic, Rich Hofmann and Derek Bodner broke down the first-round matchup for the Sixers. And, like Marcus, they also took a look at what could derail Philly in the first round, although it seems quite unlikely.
If a No. 1 seed were to lose a series to a No. 8 seed, something completely unexpected has to happen. What could that potentially be in this series?
One area to look at is if Bertāns (11.5 points per game on 39.5 percent shooting from 3) has a game or two where he goes supernova from the perimeter and the Wizards steal a game or two because of it. Bertāns hasn’t lived up to expectations this year, but it’s easy to remember a meeting between these two teams the previous season when Bertāns dropped 25 points on 9-for-16 shooting in a win against the Sixers back in Dec. 2019. Bertāns is certainly capable of getting hot from the perimeter and stressing the Sixers’ defense, but the Sixers should be able to abuse him on the other end of the court, both by asking him to defend in space against pick-and-rolls, and by taking him 1-on-1.
The other area to watch out for is transition defense, which we mentioned above. [theathletic.com]
Again, neither Rich nor Derek think this is a cause for concern, as they both have the Sixers beating the Wizards in five games.
NJ.com's Chris Franklin also sees the Sixers winning easily, but he does lay out a plan of attack for the Wizards (he also has one for Philly, but you'll have to click over for that).
The Wizards win if:
They find a way to create turnovers and push the pace. The Sixers transition defense ranked 20th in the league in most transition points allowed (19.5 points per game). Conversely, the Wizards transition offense was the best in the league, averaging 24.9 points a game in transition. The Wizards will also win if they find a third scorer who can lessen the load off of Beal and Westbrook. Finally, if Wizards can force the Sixers to consistently take outside shots from beyond the foul line area and not drive to the basket, it will give them a better chance to win the series.
The Sixers roster is deep, and Doc Rivers’ usage of his bench players will give his starters some time to rest. One thing that cannot go unmentioned is that 50% of the fans will be allowed back into the Wells Fargo Center after Philadelphia relaxed some of its COVID-19 protocols. With nearly 10,000 fans in attendance, it could provide an extra boost for the Sixers.
Washington will grab one game in this series, potentially in Game 3 or Game 4, but the Sixers should take this in five games. [nj.com]
The CBS Sports basketball staff seems pretty confident in the Sixers, with all eight of their writers picking the Sixers in five games or fewer, with the exception of one, who has Philly winning in six games. Here's a look at how four of them see it playing out...
Ward-Henninger's take: The Wizards will need monumental efforts from Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, and Philly's defense is just too good to allow that to happen consistently. Washington has absolutely no answer for Joel Embiid, so it's hard to see anything but a sweep coming. Pick: 76ers in four
Herbert's take: The Sixers are far more talented, but this pick is more about the matchup problem — Washington's guards won't be able to bully Philadelphia like they've bullied other teams. Pick: 76ers in four
Botkin's take: Too much Joel Embiid. Too much defense. Bradley Beal isn't fully healthy. Russell Westbrook is a wild card, good for a couple good games and a couple disastrous ones. Sixers march on. Pick: 76ers in five
Kaskey-Blomain's take: The Sixers dominated the regular season series between the teams, as they won all three games that were played. The Wizards have been playing much better ball since the All-Star break though, and in Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook they have two stars capable of taking over any given game. So, the series won't necessarily be a cakewalk for Philadelphia, despite the fact that they will be heavily favored. Ultimately though, if the Sixers take care of business and play the way that they have been all season, they should be able to advance. Pick: 76ers in six. [cbssports.com]
All five of the Post's writers have the Sixers making the conference finals, and all but one have them playing the Nets. Two picked the Sixers to advance to the NBA Finals. And just one, Peter Botte, picked them to win it all. Here are his picks for every round (you'll have to click over to see the rest).
76ers over Wizards in 5
Nets over Celtics in 5
Bucks over Heat in 7
Knicks over Hawks in 6
Jazz over Grizzlies in 5
Lakers over Suns in 7
Trail Blazers over Nuggets in 6
Mavericks over Clippers in 7
76ers over Knicks in 5
Bucks over Nets in 7
Lakers over Jazz in 6
Trail Blazers over Mavericks in 7
76ers over Bucks in 6
Lakers over Trail Blazers in 6
76ers over Lakers in 7 [nypost.com]
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