Philadelphia, welcome to the moment. Phila unite. Here they come. The Philadelphia 76ers (1-seed; 49-23) hosted the Washington Wizards (8-seed; 34-38) on Sunday in game 1 of their first round series. Philadelphia was looking to set the tone for what designs to be little more than a warmup series in these playoffs. Washington was looking to take one on the road and put pressure on the Sixers early. Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris combined for 67 points to propel the Sixers to a 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Wizards will be without Deni Avdija (fractured right ankle) and Thomas Bryant (torn left ACL) in this series. Scott Brooks started Russell Westbrook, Raul Neto, Bradley Beal, Rui Hachimura, and Alex Len.
All Sixers were available in this game. Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Sixers were hedging Wizards ball screens in the middle of the floor early in this game. That makes sense when the ball-handler is someone like Russell Westbrook. But, there were a couple of early defensive possessions in which they were hedging those screens for the likes of Raul Neto. You’re not particularly concerned about Neto burning you with speed around those ball screens in the middle, so I don’t see the need to hedge. Outside of that, it was very clear that Rivers wanted Simmons stapled to Bradley Beal. He was not roaming around the court. Simmons was strictly on Washington’s leading scorer.
The Sixers got whatever they wanted at the rim early in this game. Whether it was Embiid jumpers over smaller Wizards out of the post, Simmons hooks by the block, or Harris line-drives, Philly was met with virtually no resistance in the paint. That’s why it was fairly jarring that they started flinging up triples in the middle of the first quarter. Rivers has championed the idea of not fixing what isn’t broken all season. So, that the Sixers got away from what was working and broke their own offensive rhythm by spamming from deep felt like a lost opportunity to put the Wizards in a chokehold early.
NBA officiating has been absolute garbage this season. The illness infected the Sixers early in the game, as Embiid was whistled for a pair of laughable fouls in the first quarter. Some of the calls throughout the season have been correct by the way of the manual. However, the officials arbitrarily choose when to actually follow such policies. Embiid was called for a phantom foul almost halfway through the second quarter, and was forced to the bench for the rest of half.
“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.”
Philadelphia’s transition defense disintegrated early on. Much of it had to do with the all-reserve unit being inserted in the game. The middle of the lane was completely open, and Washington’s speedy guards took advantage and got right to the rim. That’s completely unacceptable with a secondary big like Dwight Howard there. He’s a natural rim protector and should be able to thwart attacks at the rim. However, it would be unfair to fault him too heavily for the poor transition defense. The other four players on the court failed to get back on defense, thus opening up those pockets for Washington to attack.
Coach Rivers was not at all content with his team’s transition focus after the victory over the Wizards. “I didn’t like it at all in the first half. Second half, it was great,” Rivers said. “First half, I’m gonna say twenty of their points came off of our mess-ups in transition. Guys running back to their own man. Guys not loading to the ball. 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 watch tomorrow and go over.”
“You just want to keep giving him the ball because he’s feeling it. He was terrific tonight.”
Tobias Harris was absolutely fabulous against the Wizards in the first half. He hunted mismatches the entire half, getting to his sweet spots for jumpers or punishing Washington at the rim. He was remarkably confident and aggressive early on, and rode the hot start through the remainder of the half. Harris scored 28 points before intermission. Such a fast start is exactly what the Sixers need behind Embiid. Simmons’ mystery as a scorer is not enough to back Embiid. There was some degree of concern about Harris, at least in my eyes, after the way he ended the regular season. But, the quick line-drive play was rampant in the first half. Harris got back to what made him successful all season, and he held the Sixers to a 1-point deficit with Embiid mired in foul trouble.
Simmons was extremely complimentary of his teammate after the game. “We all know he should’ve been [an All-Star]. He’s so talented and gifted,” Simmons said. “He continues to get better and better, especially tonight. You see him early on dominating the game. You just want to keep giving him the ball because he’s feeling it. He was terrific tonight.”
Seth Curry was hit in the stomach area late in the second quarter and left the game. He did return for the second half.
It’s truly amazing how impactful the three-point shot is, both from a mathematic standpoint and an emotional standpoint. The Sixers could not hit the ocean on their three-point attempts in the first half. Then, out of nowhere, they were catching fish over and over again. With the three-point shooting picking up in the third frame, the Wells Fargo Center came alive. The Sixers trailed by 5 points in the first few minutes of the third quarter. Then, just a couple of made threes later, the entire building erupted.
“I think we’re counting like the Republicans because it felt like thirty-thousand in the stands.”
The energy in South Philly completely shifted. A once contained–maybe even a bit anxious–crowd was alive. The half-filled Wells Fargo Center projected the atmosphere of a full arena in the throes of a Finals run. Seth Curry hit a triple to put the Sixers up by 7 midway through the third period. While 7 points is nothing, the game might as well have been over. The Sixers were awake, and the adrenaline coursed through The Center’s veins.
Rivers was clearly surprised by the crowd’s energy. “I can’t believe that that was ten-thousand, eleven-thousand. There’s no way,” Rivers said after the game. “I think we’re counting like the Republicans because it felt like thirty-thousand in the stands. They were amazing. So, let’s keep it going. It’s so nice to have that at home. We got down early in the second quarter and in the beginning of the third quarter. They never wavered, and that gives a team energy. I don’t think people understand how important that is.”
The Simmons Polarity Continues
Simmons put forth a horrendous showing from the free throw line in this game. Fortunately for the Sixers, he put his imprint on the game in every other way. While the shooting efficiency ultimately evened out when all was said and done, there were periods of drab offense throughout the game. Simmons’ passing generated looks at the precise moment in which they were available, and the Sixers were able to find their ways out of those slumps before the game turned too drastically. You can get on Simmons all you’d like about his scoring output, but you’re just going to have to accept that that’s not his game if he’s going to average double-double assists and rebounds in these playoffs.
Of course, that sentiment rightfully changes when he’s scoring 6 points along with 5 assists and 4 rebounds. Context matters in every situation. Not just on the basketball court, but in life, as well. You must evaluate Ben Simmons in the context of the overall game. Limiting his value to the binary of some arbitrary point total is to not fully grasp basketball. There is more than one way to create value on the floor. In the game 1 victory, Simmons generated points by seeing plays multiple steps ahead of everyone else.
To be fair, Simmons needs to figure out his free throw issue fast. Down the stretch of this game, the Wizards were eager to foul him. They were happy to make him earn the points at the free throw line. After he missed his sixth free throw of the contest, Simmons was forced off ball to avoid the fouls. As a result, Embiid was forced to over-create with the ball in his hands, and that led to an unnecessary turnover down the stretch.
Game 2 will take place on Wednesday night. Tip-off is in Philly at 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBA TV.