The Philadelphia 76ers now know their first-round opponent and they can begin (if they haven’t already) scheming to stop the vicious backcourt-led attack of the Washington Wizards. The Wizards have had sort of an odd season. They opened the year 5-15 and looked very much in contention for the first overall pick in the upcoming draft. By late March, they made a trade with the Chicago Bulls to acquire the 22-year-old big man out of Arkansas, Daniel Gafford. Gafford added some much-needed athleticism to their frontcourt and following the player swap, they went on a hot streak between early April through mid-May which got them very much back into the playoff picture.
So at one point in the season, the Wiz may have loved the fact there was a Play-In offering them more rope to stay alive. Then just a few weeks after that, they may have well bemoaned the fact that they’d have to “defend” their shot at a playoff berth against the fence-sitting riff-raff beneath them. In one shortened season the Wizards have embodied the pros and cons our new tournament feature poses.
But here they are, having secured the 8th seed.
Russell Westbrook told the Wizards a few months ago that he was not going to miss the playoffs.— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) May 21, 2021
He was correct.
Story on a team that continues to back itself into corners only to continually fight its way out of them ($1 A MONTH offer inside the link): https://t.co/UCmpWfdpy8 pic.twitter.com/P9gO4WoRI2
And as Sixers team President Daryl Morey saw first-hand last season with Houston, a group featuring Russell Westbrook is looking to run more than a Herm Edwards or Marty Schottenheimer-led football team. If the Wizards control the tempo, we could be looking at a long seven-game series. If the Sixers can win the transition game, it could be over in a hurry.
Transition is the key
During the stretch when the Wizards were blistering hot, they won 8 in a row with victories over the Jazz and Warriors. They won 10 of 11, including a win over the Lakers. Around the same time they also had a few heartbreaking losses, (one point Ls at the hands of the Bucks, Hawks and Mavs) that should have at least alerted whoever was set to face them at the time that they were playing more like a 4th seed than an 8th seed.
During their hot streak, (between April 12th through May 8th) they were:
- 3rd in the NBA in points off turnovers, tied with none other than the Sixers, both dropping 18.8 points per game off of enemy bungles
- they were first in the league in points in the paint, with their backcourt applying relentless pressure on the rim
- and they were 2nd overall in second-chance points
Westbrook-Gafford 2-man lineup: 112.5 ORTG, 101.9 DRTG, +10.6 NET in 115 minutes— Marc (@SpIashford) April 22, 2021
Westbrook-Beal-Gafford 3-man lineup:
107.5 ORTG, 89.2 DRTG, +18.3 NET in 41 minutes
Gaff: 24.6 PPG, 12.5 REB, 4.2 BLK, 67.5 TS% per 36
Wizards are 8-1 when Gafford plays.
The Wiz at their best were getting into the paint, outrunning and outworking opponents, the elements of basketball that are pretty much guaranteed to make an opposing head coach apoplectic.
“Get back on defense, protect the rim, and box out, or I will literally explode. Do you guys want me to literally explode?” -Doc Rivers (probably)
Here, some quotes by Sixers’ forward Tobias Harris following last week’s practice, courtesy of our Tom West:
“Number one [focus], transition defense for us. That would be an understatement,” Harris said.
“Transition, communication — that’s another thing. A lot of times we’re out there playing and not using our voices on the defensive end, which has cost us a lot of easy points for other teams. So those two things, I think, will be at the top of the list.”
The Wizards’ season-long numbers are not as good as the stretch when they were running teams out of the gym. On the year the Sixers rank 3rd overall in fast-break points scored (15.2) to Washington’s 23rd overall (11.3).
It’s been part of Philly’s DNA to turn their elite defense into offense.
The Sixers are heavy favorites to win this series. Bradley Beal sustained a hamstring injury that limited some of Washington’s firepower recently and it remains to be seen how that issue will hold up against the East’s top seed. Beal appeared to start slowly but then get warmed up in each of his Play-In games for what it’s worth.
But it makes sense for Philadelphia to prepare as if they’ll be facing the very best version of Washington and focus on slowing them down to a grinding halt.
“Any team the Sixers face in the playoffs will be determined to avoid going against a set defense and maximize open-floor possessions. While this topic has sometimes seemed like a head-scratcher for the Sixers, the best way to remedy the transition defense problem is indeed simply focusing on doing it.”
The Sixers rank 29th (second to last) in fast-break points allowed (allowing 14.3 per game). That’s bad. Doc’s Sixers rank only 22nd in the league in opponent’s points off turnovers allowed. The teams who finished worse than the Sixers in these categories comprise a handful of groups vying for the number one pick, not the Larry O’Brien.
The good news is if they can limit their own turnovers and get back on defense ahead of the playoffs, they might suddenly wake up with the best defense in the league... by a considerable margin. What happens when the team with the second overall defensive rating suddenly cleans up the two areas where they routinely hemorrhage buckets? The sky is the limit for this defense if they can clean that stuff up.
Another key might be getting some more minutes for Matisse Thybulle, who is an absolute game wrecker. Matisse has only played 3.7 minutes per game while both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were on the floor. If Rivers wanted, he could ramp up an All-NBA Defensive caliber lineup with more of that trio. Thybulle only averaged 20 minutes per game this regular season. They should certainly look to get that number higher now with players like Westbrook and Beal and former Sixers Ish Smith and Raul Neto to limit.
On the other end, the Sixers will need to be careful with their turnovers (they rank just 20th overall in turnovers per game with 14.4 TO/game). Those mistakes certainly provide easier looks for their foe.
If Philadelphia can wall off the paint, and win the transition battle, they’ll be well on their way. They managed to sweep the season series 3-0. And while the Wiz have improved by adding Gafford, Joel Embiid did put up a career-high 50-burger on the former Razorback when he was still with the Bulls pre-trade.
Joel Embiid’s performance tonight will certainly help him in the MVP race:— Harrison Grimm (@Harrison_Grimm) February 20, 2021
50 points (17/26 FG, 1/2 3PT, 15/17 FT)
"Who's guarding Embiid?"— Barstool Philly (@BarstoolPhilly) May 21, 2021
Wizards: Alex Len and Daniel Gafford pic.twitter.com/NfTO1Vpi1E
Turning stellar (Sixers finished as the third overall defense on points per 100 possessions allowed basis per Cleaningtheglass.com) defense into offense is something the Sixers have done well this season against the Wiz:
The #Sixers will need to turn defense into offense against the Wiz. Here are some defensive highlights from Thybulle, Embiid, and Simmons from their regular season sweep over Washington. Operation: protect this house. pic.twitter.com/s4kBi8pOQD— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) May 21, 2021
And it’s something they’ll want to continue to prioritize. Because if they let Westbrook and Beal run up and down the floor unchecked, this thing could get ugly in a hurry.