The Philadelphia 76ers are the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time in 20 years. Their opponent in the first round is the Washington Wizards, who bested the Indiana Pacers in the play-in tournament to secure the East's eighth seed. The matchup is the first time that the two teams have faced off against each other in the postseason since 1986 when the Sixers bested the Wizards in five games in the first round.
The Sixers dominated the regular season series between the teams, as they won all three games that were played. The Wizards have been playing much better ball since the All-Star break though, and in Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, they have two stars capable of taking over any given game. So, the series won't necessarily be a cakewalk for Philadelphia, despite the fact that they will be heavily favored. Ultimately though, if the Sixers take care of business and play the way that they have been all season, they should be able to advance.
Here's a look at the series schedule and three things to know ahead of the series between the Sixers and Wizards.
(1) Philadelphia 76ers vs. (8) Washington Wizards
76ers win series 4-1
- Game 1: 76ers 125, Wizards 118
- Game 2: 76ers 120, Wizards 95
- Game 3: 76ers 132, Wizards 103
- Game 4: Wizards 122, 76ers 114
- Game 5: 76ers 129, Wizards 112
1. Rivalry renewed: Joel Embiid vs. Russell Westbrook
Joel Embiid and Russell Westbrook have a history of getting into it with each other dating back several seasons, and that rivalry will be renewed with the series between the Sixers and Wizards. The two have played against each other on eight separate occasions, and it feels like there's some drama virtually every time. There was the time that Westbrook waved Embiid off of the court after a Thunder win in 2017.
Russell Westbrook makes sure to wave goodbye to Joel Embiid after the game. pic.twitter.com/yAb97UQLW6— 𝘽𝙤𝙤𝙢𝙩𝙤𝙬𝙣 𝙃𝙤𝙤𝙥𝙨 (@BoomtownHoops) December 16, 2017
Then there was the time the two exchanged intense stare downs in January of 2018.
Westbrook dribbles out the clock and stares down Embiid in the process 😂 pic.twitter.com/E5L8CWIcR6— ESPN Australia & NZ (@ESPNAusNZ) January 29, 2018
And, of course, the time the two almost got into it after Embiid committed a hard foul on Westbrook in transition.
Russ was heated after this hard foul from Embiid 👀 pic.twitter.com/DoveCV4Lk6— ESPN (@espn) January 19, 2019
After that game, Westbrook explained that he thought Embiid's foul went above and beyond a normal basketball play.
"I don't think he just landed on me," Westbrook said of the play, via ESPN. "He had a little extra to it. But it's OK."
When asked if he and Embiid were "cool", Westbrook had a quick - and explicit answer. "F--- no," he said.
For what it's worth, Embiid didn't seem to quite understand why Westbrook was so angry.
"I think I was going for the ball, and I think he lost the ball, but I was already in the air," Embiid said. "I don't know why he was mad. I have no idea ... but he's always in his feelings."
There are other examples, but you get the point. The two guys aren't going to grab drinks at Moshulu in between games. Both players are competitive and vocal, and that should be on full display in the series. Now, the two play completely different positions, so they won't be guarding each other -- aside from switch situations -- or going directly at each other. But, there will still be no shortage of chirping, which leads to added intensity. Neither guy will want to lose a series to the other, and the beef between the two will provide an added layer of intrigue to the series.
2. Will Ben Simmons start out guarding Bradley Beal?
When it comes to Washington's offensive attack, it's no secret that a lot falls on Bradley Beal's shoulders. Beal was second in the NBA in scoring this season behind Steph Curry, and he's had some explosive efforts against the Sixers. Given the fact that Ben Simmons is a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year, and arguably the best perimeter defender in the league, you might think that he'd start games guarding Beal. However, if the regular season was any indication, that won't necessarily be the case.
During the meetings during the regular season, Simmons didn't spend a ton of time on Beal, as Doc Rivers deployed him elsewhere, namely against Westbrook. Instead of Simmons, Rivers has gone with Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle as primary defenders on Beal. Even when Beal poured in a career-high 60 points against the Sixers in January, Rivers didn't switch Simmons onto him -- although afterward, he admitted that he probably should have.
"I guess after 60 we probably could have made [that] change," Rivers said. "We liked what Ben was doing as a roamer tonight, off of [Russell] Westbrook, they've been able to run. We thought it would allow him to get a lot of rebounds and push the break. We felt strongly that we can get a lot of easy baskets. So that part of it worked. The other part didn't."
Beal did drop 60, but the Sixers won that game, along with the other two that they played against the Wizards during the regular season. Given that success, it's quite possible that Rivers will look to employ a similar strategy. Simmons will likely start out guarding Westbrook, and he'll look to get into passing lanes and provide help when necessary. As a help defender one can play farther off of Westbrook than Beal. However, if Beal starts really going off at some point in the series against the Sixers, Rivers likely won't wait to switch Simmons onto him.
3. Washington doesn't have an answer for Embiid
Very few teams had success limiting Embiid's production this season, and the Wizards weren't one of them. In three games against Washington, Embiid averaged 30 points, 9.7 rebounds, and two blocks per performance. In those games, he shot 60 percent from the floor, 83 percent from long range and 96 percent from the foul line. He basically got whatever he wanted with minimal resistance. In this series, the Wizards will obviously try to make things tougher on the MVP candidate.
Alex Len, Daniel Gafford and Robin Lopez will all be tasked with trying to slow Embiid, but none of them will be able to do so individually. So, Washington will have a decision to make. They can employ single coverage on Embiid, allow him to get his, and try to shut down the rest of Philadelphia's offensive attack, or they can double Embiid and try to force the rest of the Sixers to beat them. Given how downright dominant Embiid has been this season, they will likely go with the latter option, which means that Embiid should expect a steady diet of double teams against Washington. Luckily for Philadelphia, this is an area where Embiid greatly improved this season.
Even with consistent double, or even triple, teams, Embiid is still going to get his against Washington -- he's just that good. Plus, Philadelphia's supporting cast has shown all season that they're capable of stepping up around Embiid. So, unless Washington's roster is comprised of real Wizards capable of putting a spell on Embiid and stealing his basketball abilities à la Space Jam, they're going to have their hands full with Philadelphia's star center all series.