WASHINGTON — Are the 76ers closing in on their first playoff series sweep in 30 years? Or will the Washington Wizards somehow find a way to extend the series?
We’ll find out 7 p.m. Monday in Game 4 of their opening-round series. The Sixers took a commanding 3-0 advantage in the best-of-seven competition with a 132-103 Game 3 victory at Capital One Arena.
“That will be incredible,” Ben Simmons said of possibly closing out on Monday and having off until June 6 at the earliest. “We want to get the sweep so we can get some rest. But this is a tough team. You never know what you are going to get every night, especially with [Bradley] Beal and [Russell] Westbrook.
“So we’ve got to come prepared on Monday.”
No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series. Only three series have gone to a seventh game after one team opened with a 3-0 lead.
The last time the Sixers swept an opponent was when they beat the Milwaukee Bucks three-games-to-none in a best-of-five, first-round series in 1991. The last time they swept a best-of-seven series was when they prevailed 4-0 in the second round against the Bucks in 1985. The first-round playoff series went to a best-of-seven format in 2003.
On this night, there were close to 10,000 in attendance. However, a sizable portion was vocal Sixers fans. They even chanted “MVP” when Sixers center Joel Embiid, an MVP finalist, was at the foul line.
But that didn’t stop him from trolling Wizards fans in the building after a dunk.
Embiid faked a pass to Seth Curry before blowing by Wizards reserve center Daniel Gafford at the three-point line. After driving the lane, Embiid was fouled by Gafford while dunking the ball. Before going to the foul line, Embiid walked over to the corner of the court. He was cupping his hands up to ears to encourage boos from the Washington fans.
This came moments after he missed a thunderous dunk attempt over Gafford that violently bounced out of bounds.
“They let me hear about it,” Embiid said of crowd on his missed dunk. “I’ve mentioned in the past, I love playing on the road. They started booing, they started chanting, because I missed a dunk. I had another opportunity and I made a dunk. That’s why I went over to them. I wanted to hear more boos because it gets me going.”
Embiid said the alternative is cheering for him. He actually received a lot of that from the Sixers fans in attendance. Some of them even waited in the arena for Embiid to finish a postgame television interview. They chanted “MVP” again and cheered when he finished the interview and made his way to the tunnel. Before leaving the floor, he tossed his warm-up jersey to a fan in the crowd.
“It felt like this was a Philly crowd,” Embiid said. “It felt like we had more fans. In the past, it’s always been that way. You know our fans have always showed up, and they’ve always been louder on the road, especially here in D.C.
“So tonight, we felt the same.”
Embiid gave the fans, who made the two-plus-hour drive from Philly, a lot to cheer about. The four-time All-Star finished with a career-playoff-high 36 points to go with eight rebounds and three steals. The big fella hit 3 of 4 three-pointers. Twenty-five of his points came in the first half. He played just 27 minutes, 54 seconds while sitting out the fourth quarter.
“I can’t imagine anybody playing better than him,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks. “That was MVP level tonight. Tried different things on him. Good player, I mean, he’s definitely a handful.”
Tobias Harris finished with 20 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists. And Simmons added 14 points, nine assists, and five rebounds. Danny Green and Curry each had 15 points. Green made a game-high five three-pointers on nine attempts. As a team, the Sixers made 17 of 33 threes for 51.5%. They shot 58.6% overall from the field.
The Wizards were paced by their standout backcourt of Beal and Westbrook.
Westbrook had 26 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists after being a game-time decision with a sprained right ankle. Beal finished with 25 points on 10-for-26 shooting, including just 1-for-8 from three. The All-Star shooting guard was a minus-29. Davis Bertans was a game-worst minus-34. He finished with eight points on 2-for-6 shooting. He missed four of his five three-point attempts.
As a team, the Wizards shot just 39.6%, including going 8-of-35 (22.9%) on three-pointers.
“We didn’t play the way we would have loved to play, obviously,” Brooks said. “But they have a lot to do with it. It’s a very talented, experienced team. They are championship ready, right? I don’t think they would surprise anybody [if they won the championship.]”
The Wizards shook up the rotation as a way to combat the Sixers’ height advantage with 7-foot-2 Embiid, 6-11 Simmons, and 6-8 Harris.
In the first two games, the Wizards started 6-1 guard Raul Neto to play alongside Westbrook (6-3) and Beal (6-3) in the backcourt. On Saturday, Bertans, a 6-10 forward, took the place of Neto, a former Sixer, in the lineup.
That enabled the Wizards to size up with the Sixers with a frontcourt of Bertans, Rui Hachimura (6-8), and center Alex Len (7-0). Bertans gave them someone who can stretch the floor in the starting lineup.
Bertans had zero points on 0-for-4 shooting to go with zero assists, zero rebounds, zero steals, and zero blocks while fouling out in 24 minutes in Game 2. But Bertans had 14 points while making 4 of 8 three-pointers in Game 1. He’s a career 40.7% three-point shooter.
So the Wizards had Bertans guarding Harris at the beginning. Hachimura was on Simmons and Len continued to guard Embiid.
That didn’t work out well.
Simmons began the game by putting on another attack-the-rim clinic. He scored six of the Philly’s first 12 points. His sixth point came on a dunk. Curry was double-teamed near the three-point line. He drilled the ball to Simmons underneath the basket for the easy dunk.
“I thought that was key,” coach Doc Rivers said of Simmons’ aggressive start. “You know that’s two games where Ben recognized the coverage. You know, they changed the coverage after Game 1. Ben recognized that. Today, they changed the personnel on him. And I thought Ben really saw that early.
“After we saw it, we were posting every time, every time, because he creates matchups.”
The Wizards made some adjustments, but the Sixers had a 36-28 lead after one quarter. They shot 52% from the field and benefited from the Wizards missing eight of nine three-point attempts.
The Sixers went on to lead 72-58 at intermission. Then, they had a commanding 31-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Following the game, Rivers said, “Great job and we’ve done nothing.”
They were the same two things he’s said after all three series games. However, this team is closing in on its first sweep in 30 years.
Surely, the Sixers want to get a sweep. But is that something Rivers doesn’t want them to focus on too heavily?
“You can’t focus on the results anyway,” he said. “You got to focus on what you are doing at the time, and all the results will happen.
“You start focusing on what will happen, you are not going to get it. You’ve got to focus on doing your job.”