The gap between regular season and playoff basketball is enormous. The scenario in which one team can thoroughly scout the other and implement game-to-game adjustments throughout the two weeks of a series on top of the added intensity and attention to details put forth by the players truly make for a different game.
That alone makes looking back on two teams’ regular season matchups to try and solve the equation of knowing what to expect in a playoff series a questionable task. Add on top of that the weirdness of the Wizards and the Sixers’ three contests and it becomes even more fruitless.
The two teams met for the season opener, a January matchup still early in the season, and a game in Washington that was held shortly after the All-Star break in March. The Sixers won all three. On top of that, the Wiz, through trades, injuries and coaching decisions, are playing a rotation that looks almost nothing like what they rolled out at the start of the season. Thomas Bryant got injured. Ish Smith and Raul Neto stepped up and earned more minutes. Isaac Bonga got excised from the rotation. Mo Wagner (who is bad) got traded and the Wiz ended up with Daniel Gafford (who is good).
Regardless, I watched all three of their matchups back from the regular season and found some principles that should be applied by the Sixers if they want to not only win this series, but want to absolutely dominate and finish it up with time to spare.
Let’s do this.
The Sixers SHOULD NOT have Danny Green guard Bradley Beal
If this was prime, defensive-movement-menace Danny Green from back in the day, then I wouldn’t be writing this section.
Alas, Green has lost a step, and while still an excellent defender off-ball with his length and timing, as well as being the GOAT Transition Defender™, two types of players have given him a ton of trouble this season.
1) Movement shooters with size advantages (read: Doug McDermott and Michael Porter Jr).
2) Drivers with a lightning quick first step and enough of a pull-up threat that you can’t back up too far.
Saver for the size part, Bradley Beal fits both of those descriptors quite well. He’s a driving machine with plenty of shooting gravity to draw his defenders close, while also working off-ball screens like he’s a technician.
In each of their matchups this season, but most especially during his 60-point demolition of the Sixers in Wells Fargo Center during January, Beal got all the space he wanted running Green through a myriad of screening actions. Keep an eye on Green and how he’s unable to keep up at every twist and turn throughout this compilation, even if not every play results in a score for the Wizards.
The goal of defense in the NBA, against the best scorers in the entire planet, is to take away as many easy advantages as possible. Much like there is no good answer to Joel Embiid, there is no good answer to Beal. You simply have to make things as difficult as you can for him.
Look at the space Beal has in all of these screenshots and tell me he’s not having a blast with Green constantly trailing him.
I will say it one final time — Danny Green is good and a very important member of the Sixers. But he absolutely should not be guarding Bradley Beal in this series. pic.twitter.com/dbPPZHNtrD— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) May 23, 2021
Now Beal has been slowed down a bit by a nagging injury, so perhaps the speed gap will be mitigated and allow Green to keep up. However, I’d rather bet on another Sixers’ defender for the assignment regardless of Beal’s health, because in my opinion...
The Sixers SHOULD up Matisse Thybulle’s minutes in this series
It’s no secret what the case for this would be. You’ve seen all the mind boggling stats, and similar to several of us at Liberty Ballers have screamed from the mountaintops that ‘Tisse deserves All-Defensive team recognition in spite of playing 20 minutes per game.
In particular, for this series this Sixers should take some of those Danny Green minutes and give them to Thybulle, especially in closer games down the stretch if they need someone to neuter the offensive output from Beal.
Check out this masterclass of a defensive possession from Thybulle:
Even when Beal has created space for an advantage, Thybulle erases it with his intimidating closing speed, and the shot is deterred from the superstar (i.e. the idyllic outcome of every possession from an NBA defense that does not involve a turnover).
Then compare that sequence to this one from Green, which happened, I kid you not, the exact next possession down the court, as the Sixers started the game with Green and Thybulle constantly swapping assignments on Beal and Westbrook (Ben Simmons was not available for this game).
That defense from Green isn’t bad, but he simply does not have the same speed and force of Thybulle, and thus Beal has no fear of attacking him. He gets into the teeth of the Sixers’ defensive shell and gets the shot he wants from the spot he desires.
Green can handle some reps against Westbrook, as even though he’d be at a significant speed deficit, he doesn’t have to play up due to the poor pull-up shooting of Westbrook, and he has the requisite strength and stability to not be simply bowled over when Russ rushes at him. And as far as off-ball movement goes... that’s just a no from Westbrook.
The Sixers can then put Simmons on Beal (which isn’t a perfect fit, but an acceptable one) in those starter minutes, then in certain situations send in Thybulle for Green, let him go at Beal and stash Simmons back on Westbrook. The offense will suffer, but the Wizards are a team whose strength is derived through their scoring punch, not their defense. The bully-ball tactics alone of Embiid, Simmons and Tobias Harris should be enough to keep the offense humming even with a non-threat like Thybulle on the court, and the defensive improvement is simply too enticing to not explore this change in the rotation.
The Sixers SHOULD NOT expect Joel Embiid to dominate the Wizards’ bigs as easily as he did Mo Wagner
This possession will never not be hilarious to me:
Poor Wagner played Embiid five whole times during the 2020-21 season — three times as a member of the Wizards, once as a Boston Celtic, and a final round during the season-ending homestead as a big man for the Orlando Magic. No one has an answer for Embiid, but the answers Wagner puts down on his test somehow drop him another letter grade lower.
He always overplays Embiid’s right hand, which in theory isn’t a terrible idea, but he lacks the strength, recovery speed, length, know-how, etc. to get back into the fray and bother a superior player to which he has conceded an open lane to the basket. Often Embiid drives at him from a face-up, but this time around, he feels him on that shoulder and opts in favor of the “turn over my shoulder and murder this fool” poster. Pretty effective.
Embiid scored 29, 38 and 23 points in his three games against Washington (that last one being his 20-minute performance before leaving the game with the now infamous knee injury), and he did so on hyper-efficient shooting, posting true shooting percentage marks of 69.2, 73.9, and 84.3. He’ll still be good (obviously), but instead of feasting on Wagner and two games of the defensively-challenged Thomas Bryant, he now faces a sturdier body in Alex Len and a lively athlete in Daniel Gafford in addition to Robin Lopez within the Wizards’ revamped center trio. Embiid may have to work just a bit harder to post his out-of-this-world stats this time around.
The Sixers SHOULD keep hammering their trademark action for Seth Curry
Doc Rivers and Co. have spammed Iverson cuts into pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-offs for Seth Curry all season, and they should continue to do that against Washington.
Trying to handle the Sixers’ biggest shooting threat in movement while involving their two most dangerous offensive threats overall in having Embiid and Harris as the screeners is tough for any team, and nearly impossible for a poor communicating squad like the Wizards.
In the first play, Smith gets caught gambling over the top vs. Curry on the first play, giving him an easy advantage for a mid-range jumper. In the second play, Westbrook loads up on that action to take it away, but in doing so fails to cover his actual assignment on the play (as is tradition), and cedes a wide-open lane to Simmons. Ben takes that gladly and then uses it to hit Green for a kickout corner three.
There were a few possessions where the Wizards were able to successfully handle that action, particularly when Smith could recover in time to get back in front of Curry and then pressure him as a ball-handler. Still, it’s been a great action for the Sixers all season, and one I’m sure they’ll force Washington to find an answer to throughout the upcoming series.
The Sixers SHOULD NOT let this series go seven games because if they do, I’m going to fail my Econ finals
Kidding, but also not. Both of those final exams fall on June 7, the day after the potential Sixers-Wizards Game 7 is scheduled for, basically ensuring that I would not study for either in lieu of that contest.
Econometrics and Intermediate Microeconomics are hard, guys. Show your boy some love and close this series out before the calendar turns to June.
Sixers in five (please).