While maybe not the easiest of the four available play-in options, Washington presents an interesting challenge to start the postseason for a Sixers team with title hopes. Make no mistake: the Sixers should absolutely dispatch with Washington in short order, but the Wizards are one of the few down-bracket playoff teams that got especially hot down the stretch. After a horrid 18-32 performance throughout the season’s first 50 games, Washington went 16-6 to finish the year, spurred largely by rejuvenated play from point guard Russell Westbrook.
On the whole, the Wizards are a tale of two ends of the court. Offensively, Washington performed well, leading the NBA in pace and ranking third in points per game (116.6).
Defensively, they rank dead last in opponents points per game, yielding 118.5 per contest.
Beyond the box scores, this pairing is ripe with potential drama and games-within-the-games. So here are five matchups to watch for in this series.
Joel Embiid vs. Daniel Gafford
While he’s only got one start to his credit in his second NBA season, the bet here is that Gafford (and fellow reserve center Robin Lopez) will be tasked with guarding the MVP finalist a great deal. Alex Len is the Wizards’ current starting center, but he tends to fade into the background rather quickly in high-leverage matchups. Gafford has had a nice season, especially since being acquired by Washington in March. Most recently, he played 22 minutes off the bench for Washington versus Indiana, totaling 15 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 blocks. The sophomore will surely have his work cut out for him guarding Embiid, who tends to feast on young, eager centers.
A wrinkle to keep an eye on: Gafford’s fouls. Embiid’s propensity to get to the free throw line is well documented, and Gafford has committed 5 fouls per 36 minutes since he entered the NBA.
(Embiid and Gafford did not face off during the regular season.)
Matisse Thybulle vs. Bradley Beal
There are more juicy, starter-vs.-starter matchups in this series, but don’t underrate the potential of seeing lots of Thybulle guarding Beal in this series.
Matisse — who this year took an extremely meaningful leap into being a likely All-Defense selection, despite averaging 20 minutes per game — spent a good deal of time guarding Beal this season.
The good: When guarded by Thybulle, Beal shot 3/10 from the field.
The bad: in those minutes, Beal also got to the free throw line a ton, making 9 of 10.
Beal is a unique challenge for any NBA defender, as his on-and-off ball capabilities make him especially difficult to contain. Thybulle’s speed and instincts should serve him well in the matchup, and Thybulle will have to focus on defending the star without fouling him and yielding freebies at the line.
Thybulle could be a big factor in this series, as the Sixers will be tasked with guarding both Beal and Westbrook. My gut reaction to the necessity to play Thybulle is excitement on the defensive end, but worry on offense, as I fear that Thybulle and Ben Simmons might combine to cramp the spacing a bit too much for Embiid to operate effectively in the post. The regular season numbers tell a different story, however:
Sixers half court offense with Joel Ben and Matisse on the court together is 89th percentile.— rob manoff (@manoffrm) May 21, 2021
Both of these stats from @HardwoodKnocks pod from today.
Here’s hoping the Sixers’ offense continues to thrive with the trio, because there likely isn’t a more suffocating defensive combination in all of basketball.
Ben Simmons vs. Bradley Beal
Potentially the most publicized available matchup pits one of the NBA’s best defenders against one of its best scorers. Simmons vs. Beal has all the makings of a compelling duel between two of the very best at what they do.
To many Sixers fans’ chagrin, we didn’t get to see much of this matchup in the regular season, as Doc Rivers preferred to have Danny Green guard Beal and instead enlist Simmons on Russell Westbrook. It makes a fair amount of sense, in theory, as the Westbrook assignment enables Simmons to hang back and play centerfield agains the Washington offense. 60 points later, one can’t help but think the most sensible matchup is probably the right one, too.
For what it’s worth, in 1:10 of head-to-head time during the regular season, Beal went 1/4 from the field.
Give the people what they want, Doc.
Danny Green vs. Russell Westbrook
For Green, the Beal matchup proved nightmarish. In 11:31 of head-to-head time, Beal went 13/21 from the field and 4/6 from three. Beal’s skill with the ball is tough enough to guard, but his ability to run around screens and shoot off movement evinced the weakest part of the 33-year-old’s defensive repertoire.
Russell Westbrook could be a more fruitful matchup for Green. While the numbers still aren’t particularly pretty (Westbrook went 7/13 versus Green in 7 minutes during the regular season), the guard simply profiles as a more tenable matchup for Green than Beal. Unlike Beal, Green doesn’t need to chase Westbrook around a bunch of screens and go over picks — the Sixers would happily invite the erratic guard to fire away from deep. Green is also a disruptive off ball defender, so entrusting him with the Westbrook matchup could enable Green to create havoc by helping on other assignments in the halfcourt.
At the end of the day, the right answer for the Sixers in crunch time might be to play Thybulle instead of Green. But when he’s on the court, keeping Green off of Beal and closer to Westbrook feels like the right move for Rivers and co.
Joel Embiid vs. Russell Westbrook
Ding! Ding! Ding!
The matchup we’ve all been waiting for.
Unlike the others, this isn’t as simple as one player guarding another and predicting how that will play out.
The Embiid/Westbrook is a matchup much more of an extra curricular nature. The two have sniped back and forth ever since Embiid entered the league.
embiid vs. westbrook in the 1st round of the playoffs. i’m here for all the pettiness pic.twitter.com/pdxh6rgbOX— buckets (@buckets) May 21, 2021
There is very clearly no love lost between the two, and it’s not hard to envision tempers flaring as Joel and Russ meet at the rim more than once throughout the series. I’m here for it. I can’t wait.
It’s a 1 vs. 8 matchup, some added drama should make things more interesting throughout. We will, of course, be keeping a watchful eye on the body language and any and all interaction between these guys as the series goes on.