Pick Your Poison vs. Sixers Potent Starters
In the first round of last year’s playoffs, the Sixers’ starting unit couldn’t hang with the Celtics.
With Ben Simmons missing the postseason with a knee injury, it felt like Joel Embiid was trying to beat Boston single-handedly at times. The ultra-big starting lineup experiment with Al Horford was a disaster. Josh Richardson couldn’t hit shots from outside consistently enough. Shake Milton struggled as a full-time point guard and Tobias Harris was shut down.
What a difference a year makes.
On Saturday night, the Sixers’ revamped starting lineup took it to the Wizards for the third straight game in a 132-103 win. The Sixers have gone from ill-fitting to fitting like a glove with two offseason trades and a coaching change.
“We know who we are as a team,” Seth Curry said postgame. “Our starting lineup has a lot of confidence playing together. We have all year long.”
Curry and the veteran Green replaced Richardson and Horford. The 2020-21 version of Tobias Harris replaced last year’s. Simmons and Embiid are both healthy and playing their best basketball.
The results speak for themselves.
The Sixers’ starters have a 150.4 offensive rating and a 106.4 defensive rating. That means that five-man lineup is outscoring the Wizards by over 44 points per 100 possessions – not that you needed a fancy metric to tell you what you're clearly seeing.
Led by their MVP finalist in Embiid, who dropped a playoff career-high 36 points Saturday, this is not the same team that was put out of its misery with a first-round sweep last season.
“[Embiid has] got a lot of dogs with him now,” Simmons said. “I think that’s helping, taking a lot of stress off him. … I think it’s just fun knowing we got each other’s backs, knowing we’re capable of winning games against anybody.
“And that’s the main thing: When you go onto the court, you know you’ve got guys who are going to compete at a high level and not take s--- from anybody. It’s nice to have that.”
That trust level has been a key element for Embiid. While Washington inexplicably went away from doubling the All-Star big in Game 3, we saw in Game 2 the faith he had in his team to get the job done.
Instead of passing out of traps to find Horford or Richardson, he’s finding Curry and Green, two players that connected on over 40 percent of their threes this season. When teams are paying so much attention to Embiid, he has confidence that this super-efficient version of Harris can create offense. He also believes in Simmons being able to beat a 1-on-1 matchup.
It’s a far cry from what Embiid dealt with last postseason.
“As long as the team scores, I’m happy,” Embiid said. “If we’re making shots and you double, then that’s an easy way to find solutions. And then if we’re making shots and you’re scared to leave those shooters, that leaves me 1-on-1, and that’s also a hard decision to make. I guess that’s on them to make that choice. I’m happy that we’re making shots, we’re playing together and we can move the ball.”
Making shots was not an issue in Game 3. The Sixers shot just under 60 percent from the field and over 50 percent from three. For the series, three starters are shooting over 60 percent from the field. Three starters are hitting over 45 percent of their threes.
In Game 1, Harris was the star with a playoff career-high 37 points. In Game 2, it was Simmons who led the way with 22 points and a near triple-double in just 28 minutes. In Game 3, it was Embiid’s turn.
Those three players complemented with the outside shooting of Green and Curry is tough to stop.
“I think it’s extremely balanced, which always is a great thing,” Harris said. “We’re just out there flowing off of one another. As we started the playoffs that’s just one thing we wanted to do is build that trust. It starts defensively, us being able to communicate with one another, use our voices, and that just rolls right over to the offensive end.”
There’s been a formula for the Sixers all season long. Embiid is the focal point, Harris supplies supplemental scoring and shot creation, Green and Curry space the floor, and Simmons pushes the pace and generates open looks for everyone.
That formula has earned the Sixers the East’s top seed and three playoff wins over the eighth-seeded Wizards.
Time will tell if it’s one that can bring them to their ultimate goal.
“Any team in the league when they get hot, they’re hard to guard,” Green said. “But I think the fact that we have a guy like Joel that can draw double teams in the post, Ben can push the pace and draw double teams in transition, Tobias who also draws double teams in the post. We have so many guys that score and cause mismatches and we have guys that can shoot around them. It’s hard to guard.”
Much harder to guard than last year’s starting lineup.