The Philadelphia 76ers may be the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but they had their hands full with the eighth-seeded Washington Wizards on Sunday afternoon, escaping with a 125-118 victory to open the best-of-seven first-round playoff series.
For those who expect the Sixers to cruise past their underdog opponents, Tobias Harris — who set a playoff career high with 37 points, including 28 in the first half — has a message for them: not so fast.
“Yesterday I was watching NBA games, and I was kind of surprised. I said, ‘Man, all these games are really close.’ It wasn’t like a real big spread in any of them,” Harris said. “And I think this whole playoffs, game in and game out, you’re gonna see dogfights from all around the league.
“I mean, Washington, you know they’ve been one of the hottest teams, after the All-Star break in the whole NBA, so for us, we know the power that they have and the guys that can make shots on the team. So that just adds to our focus as a group and knowing how locked in we need to be for this whole series, and that’s only going to help us into where we’re trying to go.”
If Sunday’s game is any indication, the Wizards made a convincing argument they can make things difficult for the 76ers for however long this series lasts. Bradley Beal, who has dealt with a hamstring issue in recent weeks, went for 33 points, and the Wizards immediately got Joel Embiid into foul trouble in the first half.
Before the game, Sixers coach Doc Rivers said he was concerned that his team would look rusty after a week off — particularly against a Wizards team that played its way into the playoffs and had a much shorter layoff.
Much like the East’s No. 2 seed, the Brooklyn Nets, who got off to a sluggish start against the Boston Celtics on Saturday night, it took Philadelphia a while to get going Sunday, as both Beal and Russell Westbrook (16 points, 14 assists) were able to make plays.
“He’s Westbrook,” Rivers said. “Like we know that coming in, and the other guy’s name is Bradley Beal and we know that coming in. So we’re going to guard him, make it as tough as possible on him, and yet we know they still may have success.”
Embiid, though, dismissed the idea that the layoff contributed to how the Sixers played.
“You know we’ve been there,” Embiid said. “And we also have a goal, and to get to that goal, we got to get through these guys. So you know, the mindset is just me, it doesn’t matter if it’s a week or two weeks off, it doesn’t matter if we haven’t played in a while. That should not be an excuse.”
Part of the 76ers’ sluggish start could be correlated to Embiid’s foul trouble. An MVP finalist, Embiid went to the bench halfway through the first quarter after picking up two quick fouls and then again early in the second quarter after he snagged a third.
Embiid played just 10 minutes in the first half. While the Sixers outscored the Wizards by nine in those minutes, they still went into halftime trailing 62-61 — a reminder of the team’s past playoff struggles whenever the big man was off the court.
That things weren’t any worse for Philadelphia could be directly tied to the play of Harris, who was sensational, carrying over from the best season of his 10-year NBA career into the playoffs. His 28 first-half points helped buoy the Sixers, allowing them to maintain contact instead of falling into a huge hole.
“Man, it was huge, especially in that time,” said Embiid, who had 30 points, six rebounds and three assists in 30 minutes. “When I was on the bench, we needed a scorer, and you know, he showed up the whole game really, but especially in that first half. … That was huge for us.”
Rivers was displeased with his team’s transition defense early on. The Wizards — one of the NBA’s best teams in transition — had 14 fast-break points in the first half before the Sixers tightened things up defensively after the break.
“I mean, this team, over all the teams, they’re going to force you to load to the ball and then get back out to your guy,” Rivers said. “I didn’t think we did a very good job of it; second half I thought it was great.
“So we have a blueprint now to watch tomorrow and go over.”
A 15-4 run midway through the third quarter allowed the Sixers to take the lead for good, but the Wizards managed to hang around. Washington had the ball down five in the final minute when Westbrook was called for stepping out of bounds after corralling an awkward pass. Ultimately, the officials determined that there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the call, giving the ball to Philadelphia and basically ending any chance the Wizards had of trying to close the gap.
“It is what it is,” Westbrook said. “It don’t matter now. It doesn’t matter.”