It isn’t often that a man gets an opportunity to walk a mile in the moccasins of a bowling pin, but there Rui Hachimura was, standing alone on the edge of the restricted area, aware that he had a calculation to make.
Staring into the void of a wide open paint, the second-year forward saw 290 pounds of MVP candidate barrelling toward him with the ball in his hands and a full head of steam and no other Wizards between Point A and Point B. Rather than hold his ground and contest an inevitable dunk, Hachimura slyly removed himself from the pending tragedy, politely making way for Joel Embiid’s rim-rocking punctuation mark. Heaven, apparently, can wait.
The offseason? That’s another story. As Embiid celebrated his dunk in the closing minutes of the first half by holding up a hand to his ear, you could almost hear Doc Rivers yelling from the bench, “End it on Monday!” Up 3-0 on a Wizards team that looks well aware of its fate, the only thing left for the Sixers to do is make it a quick and painless end. They’ve given themselves a whale of an opportunity. Now, it’s time to handle it like a championship team.
“It would be big for us,” Sixers forward Tobias Harris said after the Sixers’ flattened the Wizards 132-103 in Game 3 of this first-round playoff series. “From the start of the series, the goal is always to come in and handle business ... We need that same type of mentality in the next one.”
Win on Monday, and the Sixers will have a week to prepare for the Eastern Conference semis, which are slated to begin on June 6. Might as well end it and get the rest, because it’s already over. Maybe it never should have started. That’s how overmatched the Wizards have been in the first three games of this series. They were a playoff team only because the rules say that eight teams must qualify. The Sixers have an opportunity to right that wrong on Monday. Given the way the rest of Eastern Conference playoffs are unfolding, they would be wise to take advantage.
Even before Game 3 tipped off at Capital One Arena on Saturday night, one of the Sixers’ biggest obstacles in the Eastern Conference had punched their ticket to the second round. The Bucks should have raised several eyebrows with their authoritative sweep of the Heat, especially when the Sixers think back to their regular-season struggles against the East’s third seed. A victory by the Nets over the Celtics on Sunday would leave Brooklyn a game away from locking in an epic conference semifinals matchup as the Sixers await the outcome of the Hawks-Knicks series (Atlanta enters Sunday’s Game 4 up, 2-1). The Sixers will tell you that they can’t afford to look past either team, but let’s be real. An extra week of rest and preparation would pay dividends that extend far beyond this next series.
The Sixers sound like they understand the importance of the task at hand. Why shouldn’t they? They know Seth Curry was a game-time decision with an ankle injury. They know that Embiid feels each of his minutes more than most men of more mortal proportions. They know that Tobias Harris has battled a knee injury this season. They know that Danny Green and George Hill are 33 and 35 years old.
“It’s real important, especially if you have older guys or guys banged up,” said Green, who knocked down five threes on Saturday night in what was his 148th career playoff game. “That week would definitely help them get their strength, some other guys get their rhythm, and it’s always good to get reps.”
Thus far, things have gone about as well as anybody could have hoped. In three games, the Sixers have gotten three 20-point first-half performances from their top three scorers. After Harris and Ben Simmons led the way in Games 1 and 2, Embiid used Game 3 as an exhibition of his MVP credentials. The Wizards shifted away from their strategy of double-teaming the big man and seemed resigned to the consequences. In just 28 minutes of action, he scored 36 points, and shot 14-of-18 from the field, including 3-of-4 from three-point range. He has yet to crack the 30-minute mark in this series, with two back-to-back blowouts following a Game 1 that he spent in foul trouble.
By the 8-minute mark of the fourth quarter, the Sixers were in shutdown mode. Green was sauntering around the sideline, gazing into the stands. Curry was sipping Gatorade and standing next to Simmons, who had his legs splayed open while leaning back in a folding chair behind the baseline.
Even when they were on the court, they’d carried themselves with a similar ease. Embiid spent the first half shaking and shimmying his way to 25 points. Green interrupted his string of four second-quarter three-pointers by pulling up from 25 feet on a fast break for a comically off-the-mark heat check. Curry celebrated a corner three in the first quarter by giving Davis Bertans a nodding, back-pedaling stare down.
There’s a thin line between swagger and complacency. The Sixers need to walk the right side of it one more time.
“We’ve got a lot of games to win to get to where we want to be,” Simmons said. “But, overall, we’re on track to where we want to go.”
They’ve already won three games. Now it’s time to win a free week.