A somber breeze exudes from the city of Philadelphia on Wednesday night. As the Philadelphia 76ers (3-1) prepare to host the Washington Wizards (1-3) in game 5 of their first round series, the news breaks in the hours leading up to tip-off. Joel Embiid has suffered a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee, the Sixers announced at 1 PM EST. He is considered day-to-day.
The tone of torn in relation to any type of knee injury doesn’t exactly yield high hopes. Such is especially the case when the subject is 7’0″ and 280 pounds. At any rate, life does not stop for this. Time does not freeze for the sake of Joel Embiid’s knee. The opposition does not pardon you or take the opportunity to shred you lightly. Philly still has to attempt to close out their first round series tonight. Washington is still fighting to force a sixth game in this series.
In the end, the Sixers still came out and executed. Behind a triple-double from Ben Simmons, the Sixers moved onto the second round with a 129-112 victory over the Wizards.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
In addition to losing Deni Avdija and Thomas Bryant for the season before the playoffs, the Wizards have ostensibly lost Davis Bertans for the remainder of their 2020-21 lives. Bertans, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, suffered a grade 2 calf strain during game 4. He is expected to need at least a month of recovery time.
Scott Brooks started Russell Westbrook, Raul Neto, Bradley Beal, Rui Hachimura, and Daniel Gafford.
Embiid was the only Sixer unavailable for this game. Doc Rivers started Seth Curry, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Ben Simmons.
Meek Mill was the bell ringer for this game. If the meal options at Wells Fargo Center don’t take years off your heart, the electrical currents from a Meek Mill bell ringing might do the trick.
Starting Simmons as the de facto center would logically invite more opportunities to weaponize him as a playmaker in the half-court out of the short roll. The one time I noticed them do it in the first six minutes, it yielded a wide-open corner triple that Danny Green was unable to deposit. Even without the bucket dropping, the Sixers should have kept threatening such actions. That is the best way to unlock Simmons as a small-ball center in the half-court setting. They did not do nearly enough of that in the early-goings. As a byproduct, there was far too much reliance on jumpers early on.
The Sixers met an early deficit largely because of an uninspiring showing on the defensive end. You can sleep at night if Russell Westbrook beats you by way of isolation jumpers. He made the Sixers pay a couple times for not respecting him from the perimeter.
What is unacceptable is the ease with which Bradley Beal was getting to the rim in the first quarter. The Sixers defended him with fear. They were biting his fakes and offering little resistance as he knifed his way to the rim. Beyond that, the Sixers did not counter with enough physicality against Daniel Gafford in the early-goings of this game. Put that all together, and you get a deficit built upon Washington getting whatever looks they wanted.
Where would the Sixers be without Tyrese Maxey? The rookie guard was once again inserted to provide a seasoning of energy when the Sixers were in a slog on offense. I came away most impressed by his long stint in the first half. You could see a rookie lose his touch and his instincts in a high-leverage situation in the playoffs. To exacerbate the issue, he has the maximum capacity home crowd in the background for the first time in his career.
“My role on this team is to always stay ready for whatever situation the coaching staff puts me in.”
It would be understandable if the overwhelming context regressed him to a shell of what he’s become over the last few weeks. But, not this kid. Maxey stabilized the Sixers. He gave maximum effort on defense, even generating or securing a couple of loose balls to aid transition opportunities. On top of that, his shooting touch and instincts were on full display.
Aside from a couple of declined three-point looks, Maxey didn’t second-guess himself at all. The rookie guard was driving with purpose and navigating crowded spaces with control. He didn’t loose focus of the task at hand once he got to the rim, either. He was able to execute a handful of crafty finishes over bigger defenders. Most impressive was his instinct to dust defenders with burst out of the first step. He was perfectly comfortable with leveraging his speed to get around defenders and create open looks against the pressure of the clock.
Barring injuries, that intangible translates from season to season. It would’ve been easy for Maxey to retreat to the bench, clutching his tail between his legs. He showed me that he is truly comfortable in his own skin as a basketball player. And that makes me confident that his career trajectory meets a higher ceiling than originally thought.
According to Maxey, that spur-of-the-moment boost is a product of embracing his role. “My role on this team is to always stay ready for whatever situation the coaching staff puts me in,” Maxey said after game 5. “So today, I had to go in there and bring energy, fly around the defensive end, and try to make plays on offense. Just, you know, be solid.”
Scott Brooks resorted to the hack-a-Simmons strategy once again late in the first half. While it helped his team produce a victory in game 4, Simmons was able to capitalize on the free shots. I would imagine that that alleviates some of the stress on Simmons’ mind. For the Sixers’ sake, you hope the memory of flipping the birds at Brooks’ strategy sticks with him when he goes to the line in future playoff games.
Even with a stinker of a first half, Green’s championship pedigree shined through late in the first half. He forced a pair of Westbrook turnovers in the backcourt to give the Sixers extra possessions before halftime. He also knocked in a corner triple to give the Sixers a 2-point advantage right before the intermission buzzer.
Those backcourt defensive plays are what change the environment in a playoff game, especially when they come at the expense of a player that the home crowd fans audibly despise. You could feel the energy in the building change to favor the Sixers on those two plays. Green, we have come to know, does not make the fancy plays. But, he makes winning plays. Those winning plays win championships.
The Sixers did a fabulous job of trapping Bradley Beal by the sidelines quickly and aggressively. They left him no time to break the doubles, and cut off his passing vision severely. Without anywhere to go, Beal was forced to entrust his teammates with the ball. Forcing other Wizards to put the ball on the floor–something they clearly weren’t comfortable doing–paid dividends for the Sixers. They were able to force a slew of live-ball turnovers and generate transition scores on the other end.
According to Ben Simmons, game 5 wasn’t supposed to be the first time the Sixers played Beal that way. “We were supposed to do it last game, too. But, there were times when it was like seven possessions where we didn’t do it, didn’t blitz it,” Simmons said after the victory. “So, it was just communication thing, and knowing what we’re going to be in and everyone being locked into that and following coach’s call.”
It had been a brutal series for Dwight Howard up to the second half of this game. But, Howard was heavily involved in the Sixers taking control of game 5 after intermission. A handful of those transition opportunities that Philly used to take control were generated from Howard’s well-timed rim protection. He wasn’t the beneficiary of endless vicious dunks on the offensive end, but he was effective in converting his opportunities from the charity stripe.
“But defensively, that’s what we’re gonna hang our hat on every night, and I thought we did a great job of it tonight.”
The Sixers put the series away with a significant defensive stand in the third and fourth quarters. Whereas transition defense had been a significant vulnerability in the first half, the Sixers were able stymie that source of offense for Washington. To magnify the Wizards’ own shortcomings, Philly put on a clinic in ball movement and team work on the offensive end. It was an onslaught of passes off of off-ball screens for shooters to get comfortable. It was bully ball to draw attention in the paint, only to feed a cutter at the rim. Philly got virtually whatever it wanted in the second half.
Doc Rivers certainly noticed the heightened transition defense. “You know, my concern going small was transition because we had no rim protection,” Rivers said after the victory. “And then in the second half they had zero transition points. I think they had eight points in the paint. That just tells you how locked in everybody was. We talked about the obstacles and all that stuff. I think one of the guys said, ‘If you don’t have an obstacle, and you reach your goal, it probably wasn’t a great goal’. So, I think our guys decided this is one of the obstacles we had to get through tonight. They did. But defensively, that’s what we’re gonna hang our hat on every night, and I thought we did a great job of it tonight.”
The Sixers (4-1) will move onto the second round to host the Atlanta Hawks. Game 1 will take place on Sunday, June 6th. The tip-off time has not yet been announced.