With the conclusion of Thursday evening’s play-in game between the Pacers and the Wizards, the Sixers’ first round foe has identified themselves. It will be the Washington Wizards. The 1-seed Sixers (49-23) will host the 8-seed Wizards (34-38) in a best-of-seven series. Game 1 will tip-off at 1 PM EST on Sunday, May 23. As you can probably tell by their top-seed status, the Sixers are the heavy favorites in this series. But, they still have to come out and take care of business.

So, let’s take a look at this matchup.

Regular Season Outcomes

The Sixers swept the season series against the Wizards. You can refresh yourself on each affair below.

Sixers win 113-107 in Philly; Joel Embiid scores 29, secures 14 boards in season-opener.

Home: Sixers win 141-136 in Philly; Overcome 60-point game from Bradley Beal.

Away: Sixers win 127-101 in DC; Embiid goes down with left knee injury.

Keys To Success For The Sixers

I suppose the top seed is going to have some very marketable, well-documented strengths. But, when you have an MVP candidate, the public can often times reduce the team’s success to that player’s impact. However, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Sixers Will Have The Best Player On The Court

It couldn’t possibly be a weakness to have the best player between the two teams on your side. It’s an even bigger strength when that best player is having a career-best season across numerous statistical categories and is only a underdog in the MVP conversation because of time missed due to injury. 

Embiid averaged 28.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game this season. He also connected on 54.1 percent of his two-point field goal attempts, 37.7 percent of his three-point attempts, and 85.9 percent of his free throw attempts. Embiid attempted 10.7 free throws per game.  

In the three games against the Wizards this season, Embiid averaged 30 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game. At 7’0″ and 280 pounds, and no credible big man opposing him, neutralizing Embiid for a seven-game series is not a favorable task for the Wizards.

Maximizing Ball Movement

The Sixers were 20-5 in games in which they recorded at least 25 assists this season. In those games, the Sixers connected on an average of 42.9 percent of 33 three-point looks. While that volume is well below the league’s average, that efficiency would lead the NBA. The Sixers registered more than 25 assists in two of their three victories against the Wizards. A byproduct of those assist numbers is going to be offensive rating. In those two games, the Sixers scored 128.2 and 122.1 points per 100 possessions, respectively. Those values would top the league. In those two games, they connected on an average of 57.25 percent of 25 three-point attempts per game. In the one game in which Philly did not register at least 25 dimes, they averaged 104.6 points per 100 possessions. That would be tied for second-worst in the NBA.

Washington finished the season 20th in defense, permitting 112.3 points per 100 possessions this season. They surrendered 65.8 percent shooting efficiency at the rim, good for 27th percentile in the NBA this season, according to Cleaning The Glass. The Wizards’ defense allowed 37.1 percent three-point shooting this season, redeemable at the 17th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass.

Paint Scores

Washington’s lack of resistance at the rim will incentivize the Sixers to get downhill as much as possible. Maybe Washington’s interior takes away the first look. But, their defense lacks the foresight to make multiple rotations on the perimeter. The Sixers, as Doc Rivers has said pervasively throughout his first season, must be who they are. They are not a band of snipers like the Los Angeles Clippers are. Philly is a balance of a historically dominant post big man and a group of playmakers with defined roles within the offense. They need to utilize their athleticism and ball skills to pressure the rim. When they do that, it will be a matter of reading and reacting to Washington’s perimeter rotations. A healthy mix of Embiid post-ups and perimeter punishment for double-teams will come, but it will come from consistent ball movement.

Professional Effort Defending Transition

The playoffs are about exploiting weaknesses. For the eventual champion, the playoffs are about covering up as many of your weaknesses as possible. The Sixers’ issues defending in transition are by no means a secret at this point. Philly allowed 1.1 points per possession in transition. That averaged out to 19.5 points per game, ranking in the 69th percentile in the NBA. Put another way, they were tenth best in the league at defending in transition. That’s not bad. But, it’s not winning any championships, either. 

Conversely, the Wizards averaged 1.14 points per possession in transition this season. That translates to 24.9 points per game–most such points in the NBA this season. Washington’s transition offense ranks in the 82nd percentile–sixth best in the league.

The Right Mindset

Doc Rivers has spoken endlessly about improving transition defense this season. He, along with a number of his players, made it clear that it was an area of focus in the team’s practices during this week off. But, the fact of the matter is that transition defense is about discipline, effort, and communication. It is as much a barometer of the defending team’s ego as anything is. So, it boils down to a mindset. The Sixers have to talk to each other, first and foremost. Beyond that, the body language must show a sense of urgency. That means less arguing silent whistles on offense and more effort to get back in a timely manner.

Beyond that, it’s a matter of basketball intelligence. The first stop in transition is the basketball–the leading defender is charged with stepping up to stop the basketball as it accelerates towards the rim. Then, it’s on the other teammates in the picture to decide how to defend. Obviously, the contexts of transition defense are impossible to portray in one paragraph. So, I’ll leave it at this. Russell Westbrook is still one of the fastest East-West players in the league. Bradley Beal isn’t as quick, but he’s one of the game’s best scorers. If neither of them hurt you, Davis Bertans–a 39.5-percent three-point shooter with some of the most dangerous shooting gravity in the league today–lies on the wings, waiting to spray.

Rotations

  Starters 2nd Unit 3rd Unit 4th Unit Closers
PG Ben Simmons Shake Milton Milton Simmons Hill
SG Seth Curry George Hill Furkan Korkmaz Curry Green
SF Danny Green Matisse Thybulle Thybulle Green Harris
PF Tobias Harris Harris Simmons Harris Simmons
C Joel Embiid Dwight Howard Embiid Embiid Embiid

At Second Glance…

You’ll notice a few things here. First, you’ll notice that Mike Scott is not in this rotation. I think his role will be more reserved for when teams try to go bigger with their reserve lineups. Scott’s presence theoretically draws bigs out of the lane and opens the middle for wing players and guards to attack the paint. But, the Wizards aren’t that imposing from a size standpoint to begin with. So, it might not make much sense to bring him in if you have more consistent shooters available and there isn’t much of a small-ball edge or counter-adjustment, anyway.  

Second, you’ll notice Tyrese Maxey is not in this rotation. Simply put, the Wizards have two star guards in their starting lineup, and Ish Smith coming off the bench. That’s three potential matchups who would have a pronounced experience, size, or skill edge on the rookie guard. For a Philly team that likes to switch on defense, that spells danger.

Matching Up

PG: Simmons — Bradley Beal 

SG: Curry — Raul Neto

SF: Green — Russell Westbrook

PF: Harris — Rui Hachimura

C: Embiid — Alex Len

The obvious tricky piece in these matchups is Green guarding Westbrook. Obviously, Green does not have the lateral agility or  athleticism to stay in front of Westbrook. Theoretically, Green will just sag off of Westbrook and dare him to shoot. But, Westbrook is a serviceable midrange shooter. He operates like most other stars. If you let him get going, he’s hard to stop–and that goes for any spot on the court.

Predictions

Wizards 104, 76ers 121

Wizards 109, 76ers 117

76ers 113, Wizards 108

76ers 111, Wizards 116

Wizards 99, 76ers 126

When it comes to nut-cutting time, Beal and Westbrook will get their buckets. But, Washington does not have a versatile third punch to compromise Philly’s halfcourt defense. They damn sure don’t have an interior presence to challenge Embiid on either end. The Wizards went on a wonderful run to finish a difficult regular season on a high note and author a nice turnaround story. But, Philly is too talented in its first layer and deeper once you peel back the additional layers.