When the top-seeded 76ers face No. 8 Washington in their opening-round NBA Eastern Conference playoff series beginning Sunday, all eyes will rightly be on the Wizards’ future Hall of Fame backcourt of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the Wizards need dominant performances from their dynamic backcourt just to be competitive against the heavily favored Sixers.
Then again, that may not be enough, evidenced by the Sixers’ 141-136 win over the visiting Wizards on Jan. 6, when Beal scored 60 points.
This season, the Sixers were 3-0 against the Wizards.
As Washington enters the playoffs, the Wizards will need more than their backcourt to show up, and they are hoping that Daniel Gafford can serve as sort of a secret weapon.
The 6-foot-10 Gafford is in his second season out of Arkansas, where he was a college teammate of Sixers rookie Isaiah Joe. He was drafted in the second round, 38th overall by the Chicago Bulls, in 2019 and dealt to the Wizards at the March 25 trade deadline this season. So this will be the first time he will face the Sixers with Washington.
During Thursday’s 142-115 play-in win over Indiana that earned the Wizards the No. 8 seed, Gafford came off the bench to contribute 15 points, 13 rebounds, and five blocked shots in just more than 22 minutes.
He was among the few who played well in Tuesday’s 118-100 play-in loss at Boston, totaling 12 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots in 20 minutes, 31 seconds.
During the two play-in games he has shot 12-for-15 from the field (80%). In 23 regular season games with the Wizards, he averaged 10.1 points and 5.6 rebounds. With center Thomas Bryant out after suffering a season-ending torn ACL in January, Gafford has provided a major boost to the Wizards’ frontcourt.
“He is special, his athleticism,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said about Gafford on a Zoom interview after Thursday’s win. “Give him credit. He is coachable, wants to get better, has an enthusiasm for the game, is a smart kid, quiet. But you can get some stuff out of him. He comes out with good basketball stuff. From what I have seen he is a big-time pickup from [GM] Tommy [Sheppard] and our group. Our guards love playing with him.”
Gafford has played only a total of 14 minutes in two games against the Sixers, both when he was with the Bulls.
Now he will have to help defend Joel Embiid, who has averaged 30 points and 9.7 rebounds in the three games against the Wizards this season.
“Joel Embiid is one of the best bigs in this league,” Gafford said. “We can’t come out like he is going to take it easy on us. So we got to come out and match his physicality. That is the main thing. We got to play at the same level he is playing.”
Of course, Gafford, 22, or any of the Wizards not named Westbrook or Beal will take the team only so far.
A major key will be the health of Beal, who missed three late-season games with a hamstring injury. In his first two games back, he shot 18-for-52. But he was 9-for-17 and scored a game-high 25 points against Indiana.
Beal doesn’t appear to be 100%.
“It [the hamstring] is going to wear down a little bit, but it is feeling better,” Beal said after Thursday’s win. “Tonight, I was a little bit more comfortable and confident, and that has been a positive. We are trending in the right direction. Obviously, I am being cautious about certain movements out there on the floor but am able to manipulate some things that work in my favor.”
And there is Westbrook, who has the NBA career record of 184 triple-doubles, recently passing Oscar Robertson, who had 181.
When the Wizards went 17-6 to finish the regular season, Westbrook averaged 23 points, 13.5 rebounds and 14.0 assists. After an off-game Tuesday against Boston, where he shot 6-for-19 with four turnovers and was a minus-19, Westbrook had 18 points, eight rebounds and 15 assists against Indiana. In the three games against the Sixers, he averaged 22 points, 8.0 rebounds and 11.7 assists.
Westbrook, who in the past has feuded with Embiid, wasn’t about to provide any bulletin board material when talking about the Sixers after Thursday’s win.
“They are the No. 1 team in the East for a reason,” Westbrook said. “They have been playing well all season long, they are a good team overall. They have a lot of big talent on the team. We have to make sure we prepare the right way and go in the series taking them one at a time.”