The Washington Wizards are glad to be in the NBA playoffs for the first time in three years after overcoming a tumultuous 17-32 borderline disaster start to the season. Now they face off against MVP candidate Joel Embiid in the 1 vs. 8 seed matchup in the Eastern Conference that starts Sunday at 1 p.m. ET from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Unsurprisingly, Washington will be an underdog because of their inconsistent play at times this season, but as Scott Brooks boasted, the Wizards do have arguably the best backcourt in the league right now.
If Washington wants any shot at upsetting Philadelphia, Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook will have to play at an elite level against the 76ers’ strong defense featuring Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle. Beal has battled back from a left hamstring strain that has kept him from being 100 percent the last three games, which has been evident in his lack of explosion. For the first time in two months, the Wizards will have two days off before each of Games 1, 2, and 3 in the series. Beal conservatively is not saying that will guarantee him returning to the level he was playing at when leading the NBA in scoring including a 60 piece vs. Philadelphia in January. Westbrook has been on a monster triple-double tear to break Oscar Robertson’s all-time record and that can be correlated to team success. The key will be to limit turnovers, not settle for jump shots except enough to keep the defense honest, attack the rim even if not rewarded with foul calls from officials that have been harsh to Washington all season, and engage his teammates on both ends of the floor.
On the other end of the floor, the Wizards will have their hands full with Embiid and Brooks will likely continue his use of a three-man center rotation of Alex Len, Daniel Gafford, and Robin Lopez. As much flak as Brooks gets (and much of it is deserving), I am ok with Len starting to battle Embiid physically early and avoid Gafford from getting into foul trouble. Gafford is clearly Washington’s most talented available center on both ends of the floor as a lob threat as well as a rim protector. Lopez’s hook shot has truly revolutionized his game, but we will see how effective that actually is against Embiid or even former Wizard Dwight Howard that will be tougher to back down in the paint.
There is no ands, ifs, or buts around the Wizards needing efficient 3-point shooting to beat the 76ers. Doc Rivers is going to pack the paint against Beal and Westbrook to make their lives difficult but that will leave kick out passing lanes to the likes of Davis Bertans, Raul Neto, and Garrison Mathews if he is able to crack Brooks’ curious rotations. One year after being the 8th best 3-point shooting team in the NBA, Washington plummeted to 8th worst this season at 35.1 percent. Bertans is a defensive liability on pick and roll switches that is often magnified when he is not making shots on the other end of the court that would warrant Anthony Gill receiving playing time behind Rui Hachimura.
As much as I would enjoy seeing an epic 7-game series where Washington advances to see the winner of Knicks-Hawks, I will predict the 76ers take care of business in 6 games because of their overall deeper and more talented rotation that is able to play defense at a much higher level than the Wizards have demonstrated thus far this season.