Who ya got? Previewing 76ers vs. Wizards
After a furious late-season push, the Washington Wizards sealed their once-improbable playoff berth with a decisive win over the Indiana Pacers in the East's final play-in game. Their reward: a date with the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers.
NBA feature writers Joseph Casciaro and Joe Wolfond are here to break it down.
Wolfond: 76ers in 5
The fun stops here for Russell Westbrook. He'll have his opportunities to do damage in transition against a turnover-prone Sixers team, but he could have a very rough go of it in the half court, where he'll have to try to get around or through a huge first layer of defense (the Sixers favored Ben Simmons as his primary during the regular season) just to see Joel Embiid at the rim.
In other words, he'll probably hoist a ton of mid-range pull-ups. He'll have a game where a bunch of them go in, and the Wizards might win as a result. But for the most part, Philly has the personnel to turn him into an offensive liability. If the Sixers stick with Simmons on Westbrook, Bradley Beal can get cooking playing off the ball as he did during their regular-season meetings, in which he averaged 36.7 points on 67.5% true shooting in three games. But Washington as a team is still going to struggle to score in this matchup.
As much as the Wizards' defense improved in the second half of the season, I don't think it's going to be good enough to keep them in the series. The center trio of Alex Len, Robin Lopez, and Daniel Gafford has done a terrific job protecting the rim, but it faces an entirely different type of challenge in Embiid.
The Wizards also have a troubling lack of big wing defenders (Rui Hachimura is basically their best option), which is why Jayson Tatum dropped 50 on their heads in the first play-in game. Tobias Harris is no Tatum, but he can fill it up against smaller defenders. And if Simmons is at his assertive best, he should be able to physically overwhelm whoever Washington throws at him.
Casciaro: 76ers in 5
I can't believe we're both giving the Wizards a game against the rested, top-seeded Sixers, but I'm on board with the idea that Westbrook's jumper will befriend him at least once. For the most part, it will betray him and the Wizards.
Embiid should have his way on both ends of the court, Simmons should frustrate Westbrook and force him into the type of shots that sink the Wizards, and even Beal won't be able to salvage things.
Once you get past each team's top two players, the Sixers also hold an overwhelming depth and talent advantage. And we haven't even gotten to Doc Rivers versus Scott Brooks. I think I just talked myself into a sweep.
Wolfond: Robin Lopez
You may not be surprised to hear that this matchup features the most dominant post scorer in the NBA. You may, however, be surprised to hear that said post scorer plays for the Wizards. That's right: Among players to finish at least 50 possessions from the post this season, Lopez was the most efficient scorer by a mile, averaging 1.22 points per possession, per Synergy. Embiid ranks ninth at 1.08, albeit on much greater volume.
Westbrook's boxscore-stuffing exploits got most of the attention, but Lopez's ascendence was one of the biggest reasons for Washington's midseason turnaround. Between his unstoppable hook shot and stalwart rim protection (opponents shot just 51% at the basket with him in the vicinity), he's been a stabilizing force at both ends of the court. Over the last 25 regular-season games, the Wizards outscored opponents by 6.4 points per 100 possessions with Lopez on the floor.
Len continued to draw token starts and performed well in his own right, but starting Lopez feels like the most sensible course of action for Washington. He's the best defensive option to throw at Embiid (he has about 30 pounds on Len and about 50 on Gafford), and his interior scoring (assuming he can maintain it) will be crucial to bailing out a Wizards offense that is inevitably going to get bogged down at times.
Essentially, he'll be tasked with stymieing Embiid in the post at one end and scoring on him in the post at the other. No biggie.
Casciaro: Tobias Harris
I think your point about Washington's lack of wing stoppers is an important one.
Harris averaged 19.5 points and 3.5 assists on 51-39-89 shooting (59.7% true shooting) this year in what was his finest all-around season. On an individual and team level, he and the Sixers were both more assertive and deliberate in using Harris to hunt and target mismatches. I see that continuing in this series, where he may hold the biggest advantage in the matchup.
Given the many reasons we've outlined as to why the Sixers have a leg up on the Wizards, if Harris also has the series he's capable of having, Washington will be hopelessly outgunned.