The Philadelphia 76ers (2-0) traveled to Washington to take on the Wizards (0-2) in game 3 of their best-of-7 first round series on Saturday night. Philadelphia was looking to take a commanding 3-0 lead over the Wizards and push them to the brink of elimination. Washington was looking to get on the board in the series and avoid the terminal prognosis of a 3-0 deficit. Joel Embiid’s 36 points–a playoff career-high–powered the Sixers to a 132-103 victory to put them on the brink of clinching their first round series.
Before we get to what I saw, let’s set the scene.
All players expected to be available for the playoffs were available for game 3.
Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Rivers told reporters that Curry was unable to participate in Friday’s practice after injuring his left ankle in game 2. But, he was able to participate in Saturday morning’s shootaround and was deemed available to play just an hour before game time. Nonetheless, Curry was clearly fighting through some discomfort to play in game 3.
Scott Brooks started Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal, Davis Bertans, Rui Hachimura, and Alex Len.
Westbrook was questionable to play up until 30 minutes prior to game time due to a sprained right ankle ostensibly suffered in game 2. So, he was fighting through discomfort, as well.
The Wizards were going to come out and give the Sixers their best shot in this game to avoid the death sentence that is a 3-0 deficit in this series. I thought Danny Green set the tone with his intensity and urgency from the tip-off. He hustled to the loose ball on the tip and stole it away from the Wizards to give Philly the first possession of the game. Just over halfway through the first quarter, Green hustled for the offensive rebound off his own missed jumper to create an extra possession for Philadelphia.
Those small hustle plays send volts of energy to the rest of the team that a 2-0 lead should not be taken for granted. The Sixers got the message. They came out and poured in 9 of their first 13 field goal attempts. Meanwhile, Washington struggled to put multiple shots together to keep pace early in the first quarter.
I haven’t noticed this until now, so my apologies if I’m late to the party here, but Embiid is suddenly insistent on handling the ball off of defensive rebounds as if he’s a point guard. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that as long as he’s not turning the ball over every time he dribbles it. I’m more or less fascinated as to why he’s decided to forgo making the outlet pass to a ball-handler to ignite the break. Maybe it’s a subtle message to his teammates that he’d like to be more involved in the offense. There’s no concrete evidence behind that accusation. Rather, it’s a plausible theory that would explain why Embiid has suddenly taken to bringing the ball up himself in transition.
Matching Speed With Speed
The Sixers’ second unit largely struggled even with Rivers adjusting the rotation to play Tyrese Maxey in Shake Milton’s spot. Milton did not play in the first quarter. But, Rivers opted to play Matisse Thybulle with Dwight Howard–not that that’s uncommon. To aggravate the lack of spacing and the slog that is the Sixers’ second unit, Thybulle was inexplicably put in positions to dribble and make plays for his teammates. That went as well as anyone who knows the Sixers would think it went. That, along with Washington returning Westbrook to the floor to play against Philly’s all-bench unit, brought the Wizards back into a game that the Sixers had led by 16 points in the first quarter.
Rivers offered some insights into that adjustment after the victory. “They had Neto and Ish on the floor at the same time,” Rivers said. “We just need to match speed with speed.”
The Transition Defense Is Still Messy
As potent as Philly’s offense was, their defense was largely unimpressive. The Wizards were getting anything they wanted when they played with pace, and Philly was their typical dreadful selves defending in transition. Rivers can say it’s getting better in practice, but their kryptonite has been defending transition all season.
I suspect it will improve a bit if the Sixers don’t play a team with prolific guards in the second round. But, the eye test says it has not getting any better. The Wizards have exploited that weakness in the first halves of all three games thus far.
Embiid was going through the motions a bit until he re-entered the game in the second quarter. He limited his perimeter shooting a bit, and upped his physicality around the rim. It was then that he had his elite moment of the playoffs thus far. Embiid missed what would’ve been an incredible dunk in the middle of the second quarter, and Wizards fans let him hear it. Their mistake was taking the bait when he encouraged them to boo louder. Embiid thrives on that energy, and it certainly woke him up. A few plays later, he threw down a monstrous dunk and let the crowd know that he loved the energy. That put a nice bow on both a 25-point first half for the MVP finalist and a 14-point lead for Philly at intermission.
The Sixers ostensibly put the series away with their Broadway-like performance in the third quarter. The marvel of it was not any single player putting forth a herculean effort to put the game away. It was a perfect balance of factors on the offensive end. The result was an unstoppable machine. When Embiid had the one-on-one matchup advantage, he was methodically destroying them with an array of soft post moves. When Washington started throwing the double-teams, Embiid was responding with timely passes out to his open shooters to punish those doubles.
“He sees that double and he’s not always trying to score.”
Of course, the passes don’t matter if the shooters aren’t hitting. But, they were in the third quarter. Washington started the second half with a pair of triples to send one last pulse coursing through their veins before the slaughter officially commenced. Embiid dominated in single-coverage matchups and his shooters were Washington pay for doubles. So, the Wizards had no way of stopping the buzzsaw. A 14-point deficit spiraled into a 27-point deficit in just minutes for Washington.
According to Ben Simmons, the difference is that Embiid isn’t forcing scores as much this year. “He sees that double and he’s not always trying to score,” Simmons said after game 3. “I think that’s the one thing–he’s able to find the guys that are open and make plays by doing that. He’s realizing if he’s able to do that then we’re gonna score every time. So, it’s tough for a team to really do that every time because he’s getting better at passing out of the post and his IQ and he’s able to see different things on the floor and us helping him with certain spacing is going to allow him to do his thing.”
Shake Milton seems to be in an endless rut in this series. No matter which Washington unit he’s playing against, nothing is going well. His shots are well off the mark. When he does hit the net, the baskets are negated by offensive fouls. When he puts the ball on the floor, he’s committing live-ball turnovers. He’s a human, so such sharp poor play is obviously going to leak into his mind and affect his confidence. The only way to break it is to play through it. Unfortunately for him and the Sixers, it’s happening in the playoffs. By the same token, however, the saving grace is that they don’t need Milton to win this series. You just hope he finds his swagger before a lack of depth actually costs the Sixers a playoff game.
“It just takes one day to really try and find a good rhythm or to be able to flow off of that.”
Tobias Harris has seemingly taken it upon himself to make sure Milton’s head is in the right place as he goes through this struggle. “Just be yourself. That’s something I talk to him about. It’s obviously early in the playoffs, as well,” Harris said following the game.
“You can never get too high or too low out there. You got to stay true to yourself. Stay true to your work and what you put in all year. It just takes one day to really try and find a good rhythm or to be able to flow off of that. So, that’s my advice to him. In the moment, you have to just be ready for that. You have to trust that the game will come. We, as a team, we need Shake. We know what type of player he is. He’ll have that game where he’ll break out and get in his rhythm and you would just forget about all of the rest and keep moving forward. So, that’s my advice to him. I’ve told him that already. We’re confident in him, as well.”
George Hill has sneakily been more willing to attempt triples in this series than he was at any time during his regular season tenure with Philly. The Sixers are going to need Hill to shoot without hesitance in order for him to be fully effective in the playoffs. The thumb injury left him hesitant through most of his regular season tenure. So, it’s certainly a sight the Sixers and their fans should be happy to see.
Game 4 tips off in DC at 7 PM EST on Monday. You can catch the action on TNT.