Sixers Draw Familiar Rival in NBA Playoffs, Fighting Off ‘Slippage’

Bradley Beal, Matisse Thybulle

Getty Bradley Beal faces stiff defense from Matisse Thybulle during a Sixers-Wizards game earlier in the year.

The Philadelphia 76ers have been patiently waiting for their first victim. It’ll be the Washington Wizards following their convincing 142-115 win over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night.

The Wizards are riding a good deal of momentum heading into the first-round playoff matchup. They went 4-2 down the stretch before surviving the play-in tournament. Triple-double machine Russell Westbrook was a borderline MVP candidate all year, while Bradley Beal finished second in scoring behind Stephen Curry. Beal has been battling a nagging hamstring injury, though.

The Sixers went 3-0 against the Wizards this season and have won five straight in the series dating back to 2019. Of course, it was their March 12 meeting in Washington that provided the most drama of the year. That’s when Sixers All-Star Joel Embiid landed awkwardly on his left knee in what initially looked to be an ACL tear. Luckily, it was just a bone bruise and the big man only missed 10 games.

Embiid still managed to enter the conversation for NBA MVP, although the 7-footer thought his season was done at the time. And all those awards and championships became after-thoughts.

“As soon as I fell, the first thing that I’m thinking is: ‘My season is over,'” Embiid told ESPN. “‘There’s no championship. There’s no more MVP. There’s no more Defensive Player of the Year.'”

The Sixers and Wizards begin their first-round series on Sunday (May 23) at 1 p.m. in South Philadelphia. The team will welcome roughly 10,000 fans into the Wells Fargo Center to cheer them on as COVID-19 restrictions slowly get loosened.

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Looking Back at Wizards-Sixers Rivalry

The Sixers swept the season series this year and two of those three games were cakewalks. The average margin of victory was 15.6 points but the second matchup (Jan. 6, 2021) was a back-and-forth affair that saw Beal explode for 60 points. The Sixers held on for a 141-136 win thanks to Embiid (38 points) and Seth Curry (28 points).

“They pay me to take over the game, and they pay me to dominate,” Embiid said after that one.

Beal added: “I put it on myself to close it out. I’ve got to be better.”

Dec. 23, 2020: The Sixers beat the Wizards 113-97 in the first meeting. Embiid was once again dominant and scored 15 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter while grabbing 14 rebounds. Shake Milton added 19 off the bench, with Ben Simmons contributing 16 points and nine rebounds. Beal scored a game-high 31 points and Westbrook recorded a triple-double (21 points, 15 assists, 11 rebounds). It was the first game of the season for both squads.

March 12, 2021: Embiid’s scary “knee game” saw an injury-riddled Sixers team coast to a 127-101 victory despite losing their star center midway through the third quarter. He still finished with a team-high 23 points and seven boards. Shake Milton (18 points) and Furkan Korkmaz (18 points) came alive off the bench. Meanwhile, Matisse Thybulle drew the start for a hobbled Ben Simmons and helped hold Beal to 19 points. Westbrook scored a game-high 25 points for the Wizards.

Doc Rivers Talks About ‘Slippage’

The Sixers won 10 of their final 12 games, highlighted by a dominating eight-game winning streak. All this while fighting off one injury after another to key guys like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle, Seth Curry, Furkan Korkmaz, and Danny Green. And the team still had no problem claiming the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference at 49-23.

So it was curious to hear Sixers head coach Doc Rivers use the word “slippage” to describe their play down the stretch. The bar has been set very high these days in Philadelphia.

“You have a training camp for the regular season, and you have a training camp in the playoffs,” Rivers told reporters. “In the regular season, you’re just learning how to play with each other. For the playoffs, you’re fine-tuning what you already know. We had a lot of slippage in the second half of the season. With all these guys missing games and the amount of games that you have with lack of practice, it just gives us an opportunity to sharpen our tools.”

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