The 76ers are definitely a different team without Joel Embiid.
Perhaps that’s what added to the excitement of Wednesday night’s achievement. With Embiid out due to a small meniscus tear in his right knee, the Sixers took another step toward what they hope is an NBA championship season.
They punched their ticket to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the third time in four seasons with a 129-112 win over the Washington Wizards in Game 5 of their opening-round series on Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center.
Was this a sign that the Sixers can win in the playoffs without Embiid?
“For sure,” forward Tobias Harris said. “We won the game, right? So I think that’s more than a sign. But you know, obviously, we want him to get healthy, and we want him to be with the group when he’s ready.
“But we know as a team this is the playoffs. Nobody is going to wait for us. Whether Embiid is ready or not, we still have to be ready whenever. That’s just the nature of the beast.”
Winning a playoff series 4-1 signified how far they have come since last season.
Back in August, the Sixers were swept by the Boston Celtics in last season’s first-round playoff series. That led to the organization making changes to the roster, revamping the front office, and hiring a new coaching staff.
But this win in front of 15,523 was far from a breeze without Embiid, whose status is listed as day to day. The Wizards gave the Sixers all they could handle for 2 1/2 quarters.
The Sixers didn’t take their first lead until late in the second quarter and didn’t extend it to double-digit until late in the third.
“I think everybody came in with a great mentality, a great focus from the start of the day all the way through the game,” Harris said. “We held our composure all night. Early on the game, there were a lot of back-and-forth buckets. We just stuck with what we knew best, and just rode that wave the whole night.
“So truth be told, that was a whole collective group effort there. Everybody played a part of that, and that’s a great win for us.”
Now, the Sixers will face the Atlanta Hawks in the conference semifinals. The Hawks also advanced in five games, with their 103-89 victory over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. The second-round series will begin Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center.
The big question is whether Embiid will be available to play when the series begins.
“I have no expectation other than I hope for him to be back,” Rivers said. “But I can’t give you a timeline. I can’t give you anything right now.
“I can just tell you he’s willing to go through whatever it takes to get back on the floor. He’s a warrior. And if there’s a way for him to get back on the floor, he will find it.”
Embiid was injured in Monday’s Game 4 loss.
He took a hard fall on his backside when Robin Lopez blocked his driving layup with 4 minutes, 43 seconds left in the first quarter. While falling to the court, Embiid hyperflexed his right knee. After getting up gingerly, Embiid sat on the bench during a timeout and returned to the game. He later reached down to touch his right knee. He was subbed out of the game with 36.5 seconds remaining in the quarter. Embiid then went to the locker room and didn’t return.
The four-time All-Star worked out on the court for 20 minutes before Wednesday night’s Game 5.
“He has high hopes,” guard George Hill said. “His mindset is to always come back. His mindset is to always be here and play for us and compete.
“So talking to him, he’s very ecstatic of doing what he has to do to get back here on this court, and that’s all you can expect from a leader.”
Without him, Ben Simmons, the Sixers’ multifaceted All-Star, started at center. Seth Curry slid over to point guard while Matisse Thybulle got the start at shooting guard. As a result, the Sixers had a small-ball starting lineup of Simmons (6-foot-10), Harris (6-8), Danny Green (6-6), Thybulle (6-5), and Curry (6-1).
“My concern with going small was transition [defense], because we had no rim protection,” Rivers said. “And the second half, [the Wizards] had [two] transition points.”
Washington was also held to 14 points in the paint, while being outscored 64-49 after intermission.
“That just tells you how locked-in everybody was,” Rivers said. “We talked about the obstacles and all that stuff ... I think the guys decided this is one of the obstacles we have to get through tonight. But defensively, that’s where we are going to hang our hat on every night.
“I thought we did a great job of it tonight.”
The Sixers were also balanced on offense. They had six double-figure scorers while shooting 51.2% from the field.
Curry and Harris had a solid two-man game working, while Simmons posted his third postseason triple-double, with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists.
Curry led the team with a postseason career-high 30 points on 10-for-17 shooting, including making 3 of 6 three-pointers. The Sixers improved to 17-0 when he scores 20 or more points. This came after Simmons had a message for Curry while the two played Call of Duty: Warzone.
“We were playing before our little pregame nap earlier today,” Curry said. “He told me, ‘I’m going to need 30 from you, and I’m going to get a triple-double so we can close it out. And we’re going to be able to get it done.’”
Harris had 28 points and nine rebounds, and Tyrese Maxey had 13 points off the bench.
Bradley Beal paced the Wizards with 32 points.
“Nobody should put their heads down,” Beal said of the Wizards’ first-round exit. “Nobody put us to be in the position we were in or expected us to be here. I don’t think anybody sure enough thought we could take them to five. I still strongly in my heart believe we could have taken them to seven.
“They made more plays than we did, got more stops than we did tonight.”
The Sixers used 10 players in the first quarter, with Curry having the hot hand. He had nine points in the quarter on 4-for-6 shooting. Harris added five points and four rebounds.
Curry’s first basket came on a 22-foot pull-up jumper. Then he added a 27-foot three-pointer and a 5-foot floater on back-to-back possessions. His fourth basket was a 6-foot pull-up jumper with 4 minutes, 19 seconds left in the quarter.
He was subbed out of the game at the 3:41 mark by Maxey.
Maxey picked up where Curry left off. The rookie kept blowing past Wizards defenders like they were columns at the SEPTA train station. After missing his first three shot attempts, the rookie went on make 4 of 6 shots. No one on the Wizards was able to stop him off the dribble.
Maxey scored nine points before coming out of the game with 3:28 before intermission.
However, the Sixers were still down, 50-46.
Then one second later, the Wizards started their Hack-a-Ben tactic of intentionally fouling Simmons. He split a pair of free throws during his first trip to the foul line to pull the Sixers within three points. Washington intentionally fouled him again on Philly’s next possession. This time, Simmons sank both foul shots to cut the deficit to 51-49.
The Sixers took their first lead at 58-57 on Harris’ three-pointer at 1:07 before intermission. Beal responded with a pair of foul shots to put the Wizards up one point. But the Sixers quickly regained the lead and went into the locker room ahead by 65-63.
They built a double-digit lead (98-87) on Simmons’ dunk with 1:05 left in the third quarter. The Sixers extended their lead to as many as 21 points. Late in the game, the crowd chanted “Trust the Process” and “We want Brooklyn.”
“It was really a great team win,” Rivers said. “I just love how they played. We got down early. No panic set in. I really believe they believed they were better today. Like they were the better team. They played with that type of confidence.
“I tell you from one day of changing and going small, installing the spread stuff that we were running, for us to execute that well, it just tells you how focused they were.”