Photo by Wayne Terry, TPL

Get the brooms out, or so Sixers fans had hoped. The Philadelphia 76ers (3-0) took the floor against the Washington Wizards (0-3) in DC on Monday night. Philadelphia was looking to finish a four-game sweep of their first round series against the Wizards. Washington was ostensibly looking to prolong an inevitable demise and force a game 5 in Philadelphia. Embiid departed the game in the first quarter, and that opportunity injected enough life back into the Wizards to take game 4, 122-114.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

All players expected to be available for the playoffs were so for game 4.

Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

Scott Brooks started Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal, Davis Bertans, Rui Hachimura, and Daniel Gafford.

You’ll notice that Gafford–Washington’s best center–was finally promoted to the starting unit after coming off the bench for the first three games. I suppose there’s no better time to make such an adjustment than when history says the series is already over!

First Half

The Sixers jumped out to a fast start, just as they did in each of the first three games. However, just as Philly began to take control of the game, Joel Embiid took a hard fall after attempting a dunk on Robin Lopez. He left the game after playing a few more possessions–even bulldozing Robin Lopez out of the way on a dunk–and did not return. The diagnosis was right knee soreness. Following the loss, Rivers did not have enough information to provide an update. He did, however, mention that the MVP finalist would likely go through imaging on the knee on Tuesday to make sure everything was healthy.

The Sixers were entirely discombobulated by Embiid’s exit. To make matters worse, Simmons was forced to the bench with foul trouble soon thereafter. Without their two All-Stars to lead the charge, the Sixers largely went dry on offense. The Wizards, to their credit, sensed blood in the water and took advantage of the opportunity to inject some life back into their season.

The Second Unit Blues

After Rivers told reporters that he was leaning towards giving Tyrese Maxey a share of Shake Milton’s minutes due to the latter’s recent stretch of horrendous play, he inserted them both into the game in the same lineup. That was the latest installment in a trend of Rivers intentionally misleading the media throughout the season. I can’t say I blame him, as giving away his ideas is of no advantage to his team. Still, the idea was intriguing because that theoretically puts multiple shot-creating ball-handlers on the floor. Even with the fascinating mix in the game, the second unit still emerged as a negative. The Wizards, as they’ve done throughout the series, re-established themselves with four of the five starters on the bench.

Even with the erratic play after Embiid’s departure and Simmons’ gluing to the bench, the Sixers found themselves up a point at halftime thanks to a Danny Green triple right before the buzzer.

Second Half

Once news broke that Embiid would officially be unavailable for the remainder of the game, you could sense the Sixers reeling. The offense became totally disjointed and the defense was unresistant to Washington’s attempts at pressuring the basket in transition. As a result, the Wizards were able to amass a lead as large as 14 points in the third quarter–their biggest lead of the series thus far. 

Zebras Gone Wild

The Sixers were undoubtedly playing poorly. There was absolutely no excuse for their transition defense buckling the way it did. But, the Sixers had no chance of putting any semblance of a run together with the incorrigible officiating. They were whistled for a slew of loose ball fouls that were simply not visible to the human eye. There were a number of unreciprocated fouls on off-ball screens, as well. With the fouls piling up, the Sixers were forced to defend very softly. With aggressive drivers like Beal and downhill playmakers like Westbrook, it was pure fuel for Washington’s offense.

On the Sixers’ end of the court, there were a number of awkward possessions and shots that yielded zilch because of unpunished contact. The Sixers were undoubtedly at fault for their own deficit. But, the preposterous officiating made mounting momentum virtually impossible. That has been a rampant problem throughout this season. The league simply is not assigning competent professionals to judge these high-stake games. The uneven, inexplicable whistles alter the way teams play games, and every night a different team falls victim to it.

The Wizards were letting their celebrations grow awfully loud after connecting on shots in this game. Maybe it makes me a boomer, maybe I have that big loser energy that is popularly diagnosed on Twitter. But, if you’re trailing 3-0, kindly put your head down and get back on defense.

The Wizards Had An Answer For Tobias Harris

Tobias Harris was brutal throughout this game. He’s largely had a great series, but he couldn’t get anything going at all in this game. It ultimately boiled down to Washington being prepared for his moves because his repertoire becomes repetitive. He recycles the same counter options over and over again. By game 4 of this series, the Wizards were prepared for it.

As a result, a number of his attempts were blocked. This likely isn’t an issue that will subside with a different opponent. They’ll figure it out after a couple games, as well. It boils down to Harris needing to add some other moves to his tool box. The potentially unfortunate truth for the Sixers is that he likely isn’t going to add said move in time for the next few rounds of the playoffs.

Hack-A-Simmons

The Wizards deployed the hack-a-Simmons method of defense as the fourth quarter clock ticked down. He connected on 4 of those 8 attempts. Obviously, the free throw issue adds to an already polarizing dialogue around Simmons’ game. I’ve made it quite clear where I stand on the whole thing. Yes, it’s totally fair to criticize Simmons’ total lack of touch as a free throw shooter. Yes, that falls somewhere on the laundry list of reasons why the Sixers lost the game. But, to say that that is the primary culprit of the loss lacks thought. To magnify a poor series from the free throw line to the point of proclaiming that that single flaw will leave the Sixers well short of expectations this postseason is irrational. 

I believe it is justified to argue that Rivers should’ve taken Simmons out until the final 2 minutes, as that threshold is when the hack-a-whoever idea is punished. On the flip side, Simmons is your second best player. You need your second best player on the floor in crunch time. Taking him out, by the way, does nothing to help his confidence. The very last thing you want is to take confidence away from your lead ball-handler and playmaker when you control the series anyway.

The Conversation That Matters

At the end of the day, none of this conversation matters if Embiid isn’t healthy. That’s a story that is still developing. Depending on how you look at it, it’s better if the story doesn’t continue to develop. If he’s ultimately healthy, the Sixers will ostensibly close this series out at home on Wednesday. If he’s not, they have to figure out a way to beat a mediocre team without leaning on the Embiid crutch. But, Sixers fans, take a deep breath and relax. Your team, at this moment, is still in total control.

The Sixers (3-1) will host the Wizards (1-3) on Wednesday. Game 5 tips off at 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBA TV and NBC Sports Philadelphia.