The consensus concerning the 76ers and their playoff prospects goes something like this:
Since they earned the No. 1 seed, the Sixers won’t face the combustible, second-seeded Nets or the well-rounded, third-seeded Bucks until the Eastern Conference finals. Further, since the NBA playoffs do not re-seed, the Sixers won’t face No. 6 Miami or No. 7 Boston, either. The Sixers should crush the Wizards, rollover either the Knicks or the Hawks, and cruise to the Finals.
Don’t be so sure.
The Wiz: dynamic duo
The Sixers begin their first-round series against the Washington Wizards on Sunday. The Wizards feature elite scoring guards Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal. For all of their defensive accomplishments, the Sixers struggle against elite scoring guards.
Beal dropped a career-high 60 points on the Sixers on Jan. 6. He’s averaging 29.4 points per game against the Sixers since the 2017-18 season. That’s 2.4 points per game more than his overall average. The time frame is significant because 2017-18 was Joel Embiid’s first All-Star season -- the season in which the Sixers began to design their defense around his rim-protecting presence -- and Ben Simmons’ first NBA season. Simmons considers himself a premier defender, too.
Westbrook’s numbers against the Sixers in that same time span -- 24.3 points, 10.6 rebounds, 9.8 assists -- virtually mirror his overall numbers. Of course, those overall numbers are insanely, incomparably, historically good.
Again, the Sixers are an elite defensive team, and that’s mainly because of Embiid. Simmons and Matisse Thybulle, long and wiry and relentless, rank among the NBA’s top 10 perimeter defenders, but both benefit from Embiid’s deterrent influence.
Yes, the Sixers should win this best-of-seven series, and they should do so in no more than six games. The Sixers went 3-0 against Washington this season. Embiid averaged 30.0 points and shot 60.4% from the field, his best field-goal percentage against any team he faced at least three times. The Wizards had no answer for him, and that didn’t change when they traded for second-year backup center Daniel Gafford at the deadline.
But the Sixers haven’t seen the Wizards since March 12. These Wizards are 18-7 in their last 25 games. And while the Wiz might not be able to match up with Embiid, the Sixers don’t have anyone to match up against Beal and Westbrook, either.
The Knicks: house money
No team was more fun to watch this season than the No. 4-seed Knicks. They went 41-31 because new coach Tom Thibodeau instilled a defensive system and a professional culture that propelled the Knicks to No. 4 in defensive rating, which was a complete turnabout from last season. Also, Thibodeau let Julius Randle blossom into an All-Star.
This, from a team projected by most projectors to win about 22 games. They are a collection of eager youths and ho-hum veterans, and that’s why they play with the abandon of the undesired. They have nothing to lose, but they’re not losers.
Derrick Rose is a former MVP. Nerlens Noel, the first piece of the Process, was traded by Philadelphia, disgruntled and disrespected, in 2017. He’d been displaced by Embiid, so he’ll be eager for vengeance.
Yes, the Sixers swept the Knicks this season, 3-0, but the Sixers won Games 2 and 3 by a total of four points, and Game 3 went into overtime -- a game that presaged the Knicks’ big run. They’re 20-9 since that loss on March 21, which included a nine-game winning streak in mid-April and road wins against the Clippers and Mavericks.
If it happens, the Sixers should win this series in seven games, and every game would be a delightful matchup between the NBA’s most petulant big men, Embiid and Randle.
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The Hawks: midseason U-turn
The Hawks fired former Sixers assistant Lloyd Pierce on March 1 after a 14-20 start, amid whispers that he’d lost a team plagued by injuries. They filled his seat with Nate McMillan, the failed Pacers coach whom Pierce (or, at least, Pierce’s bosses) had hired as an assistant. McMillan was always Plan B for Trae Young & Co.. The plan has worked out nicely.
The Hawks went 27-11 with McMillan and locked down the No. 5 seed. He got some injured players back, and he reconnected with Young, but more than anything he installed an offensive system that gets everybody shots. Nine Hawks average double-digit points, everybody shoots three-pointers, and, on any given night, McMillan can get quick perimeter scoring from Bodgan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, or Sweet Lou Williams.
The Hawks’ strength lies in their quantity of quality.
Joel Embiid will devour Clint Capella, but if the Hawks get hot, they could win a series in six.