The Philadelphia 76ers, today, in June 2021, sure don’t look like a team that got swept out of the first round of the playoffs in August 2020 amid major and persistent questions about its make-up. They don’t look like a team that fired its coach in the off-season, salary-dumped a major acquisition from the previous summer and re-shaped its wing core.
Far from it. Even after closing out their 2021 first-round series against the Washington Wizards without star centre and MVP finalist Joel Embiid, who is day-to-day with a meniscus tear, the 76ers look like title contenders.
Even funnier, this is all already old news. Led by Embiid and Ben Simmons, who had meshed at a whole other level under new head coach Doc Rivers, the No. 1 seed 76ers were the East team to beat heading into the Wizards series — and showed why for three straight games. Aggregate score through those three games: 377–316.
Then Embiid got injured in the first half of Game 4. A Philly lead and a likely sweep suddenly turned into a big third-quarter Wizards run, not to mention a big Wizards win. Sure, one great quarter doesn’t make a series, but the win looked extra telling because star Wizards point guard Russell Westbrook shot three for 19.
If Westbrook could shoot the ball at about the same clip that Danny Jansen’s hitting it and the Wiz could still steal a win, was this suddenly anybody’s series?
No. No, it wasn’t.
It sort of looked it through the first half of Game 5 on Wednesday night, with the 76ers holding onto a slim two-point lead after two quarters. Then Philly went tit for tat with the big Wizards’ third quarter from two nights earlier, pouring in 38 points on sizzling shooting from the field. With Simmons playing facilitator, Seth Curry went full “Sith Curry” mode, scoring Philadelphia’s first 12 points of the quarter:
Sith Curry. Unlimited threes! pic.twitter.com/45Z6EEJuVt
— Trevor Lane (@Trevor_Lane) April 20, 2021
The loss of Embiid was also mitigated — for one game, anyway — by the relative explosion from Dwight Howard. He didn’t start, but he put up 12 points in 16 minutes, went two of two from the field and eight of 10 from the line. He even chipped in three blocks.
For one night, all the people who were clamouring ahead of the season to see a version of the 76ers with just one of Simmons or Embiid got their wish, and it went pretty well. The team moved the ball (28 assists on 43 made shots), shot it well (51.2 per cent from the floor) and still managed to win the rebounding battle despite going small to start (40 boards to 38).
The Wizards had a heck of a run to end the season, but they were no match for this 76ers team — not even without their MVP candidate. And now their season is done, and Philadelphia is moving on to the second round for the first time since facing the Toronto Raptors there in 2019.
Here are some takeaways from the short-lived 76ers-Wizards series:
I’m OK, Ben Simmons is OK
Every compliment for Simmons always comes with a caveat: “Yeah, but if he could shoot threes….”
After Monday night’s loss, that caveat broadened to, “Yeah, but if he would only shoot — period.” When Embiid is playing, and the two are creating wide-open three-point looks for shooters like Curry and Danny Green, Simmons isn’t going to — and doesn’t need to — shoot the ball a ton.
But when Embiid went down Monday, Simmons barely looked at the hoop. When all was said and done on his team’s loss, he had notched 13 points on just five shots from the field.
After the game, Rivers was forced to address the issue. And he responded with a vigorous defence of his unique and talented point guard.
“Ben is not a 40-point guy. It’s not what he does. He does other things for your team, and I just don’t understand why that’s not sinking in, in our city,” Rivers said.
And guess what? Simmons scored exactly 40 on Wednesday!
HA. No. But he did more than double his shot total to an ungainly 11, and scored 19 points, good for third on the team behind Curry’s 30 and Tobias Harris’s 28. He also added 10 rebounds and 11 assists for a triple double, and was a team-leading plus-17 in 39 points. Point: Rivers.
Still just 24, Simmons has lots of time to add to his game, and a three-point shot (and more shots in general) would help both him and his team’s ceiling. But he’s clearly not a volume shooter at this point, and isn’t going to become one in these playoffs.
A second-year star is born
If we remember this series at all from a Wizards perspective, it may be for the coming out of Rui Hachimura. We mentioned earlier that the Wizards managed to win Game 4 despite Westbrook’s poor shooting night, and a big reason for that was the superb play of Hachimura.
In 42 minutes (right in line with Westbrook, who also played 42, and Beal, who played 43), Hachimura scored 20 points on eight of 12 shooting, and added 13 boards, two assists, a steal and a block.
He added 21 more in a team-high 43 minutes Wednesday, giving him averages of 14.8 points on 61.5 per cent shooting for the series, both numbers well up from his season and career numbers. If he can pick up next season where he left off this one, the Wizards may be on the way to their first Big 3 since Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler patrolled the floor in Washington.
In regards to the other two members of that potential Big 3, Bradley Beal was his usual bucket-getting self, going 10 of 23 for 32 points, while Westbrook again struggled from the floor Wednesday, going seven for 20.
If a few of those 20 shots end up going Hachimura’s way next season — and Westbrook can focus even more on the all-timer passing and rebounding abilities that helped him average a triple double yet again this season — perhaps the Wizards wind up with a far more winnable first-round matchup next spring.
Looking ahead for Philadelphia
Shortly after the 76ers walked off the floor as victors in their series, the Atlanta Hawks claimed victory over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden to move on from theirs. Now the pair will meet Sunday in a one-vs.-five matchup for the right to move on to the Eastern Conference Final.
As good as Philadelphia was in closing out Washington, the vast majority of the talk between now and tip-off of the series will be about Embiid’s health. On the face of it, a meniscus tear in his right knee hardly feels like a day-to-day injury. After all, Embiid missed most of the 2016–17 season after surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee.
That said, this one is said to be “small.” He’s being treated with physical therapy right now, not surgery, and has yet to be ruled out for any further games.
And, let’s face it, the Sixers could use him against one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Just 14-20 on Feb. 28, the Hawks closed out the season on a 27-11 run. Now, counting the five-game series against the New York Knicks, Atlanta has won 31 of their past 43, which would be good for a 59-win pace over an 82-game season.
Trae Young led the team in scoring in every game of the Knicks, and saved his best for last in notching 36 in the close-out Game 5 in front of Spike Lee et al at the Garden. Meanwhile, Trae’s counterpart, Clint Capela, has been dominant in the paint in his first year in Atlanta. He led the NBA this year with 14.3 rebounds, and added 15.2 points on almost 60 per cent shooting.
He also added a career-best 2.0 blocks, which would likely be mitigated should he have to chase Embiid around the court.
If Embiid can’t go for Game 1, the 76ers will need Simmons to do his “other things,” and will count on Howard to come up big again — perhaps even in the starting lineup this time. But if they make it to the ECF, they’ll absolutely need Embiid to contend with Milwaukee or Brooklyn.
For 76ers fans, here’s hoping that meniscus tear is really small.