The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joel Embiid has always tormented the Wizards. Now they will try a three-headed solution.

Wizards center Daniel Gafford celebrates after scoring against the Pacers on Thursday night. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

On the other side of the Washington Wizards’ rousing move into the Eastern Conference playoffs, described as “one of the most beautiful things we’ve done all year” by Bradley Beal, stands a shot-blocking, trash-talking and anxiety-inducing headache named Joel Embiid.

As dominant as a true big man has been in the NBA over the past two decades, Embiid has toyed with Washington every time he has been healthy enough to play. Over the years, the Wizards have offered the likes of Thomas Bryant, Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi against Embiid, matchups that played out more like martyrdom. This season, the Philadelphia 76ers’ publicity team could cut Embiid’s highlight tape by merely using the three regular season matchups with the Wizards: 30.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.

Before preparing to meet the MVP candidate again, Wizards Coach Scott Brooks tried out a hopeful message of parity.

“He’s one of the best bigs in a long time. But, hey, like I tell our guys, there’s no reason to fear anybody you play against,” Brooks said. “They put their socks on one sock at a time, just like us. Unless they do something different, putting both on at the same time — I don’t think so; that’s some tricky stuff there.”

A Wizards playoff primer as they prepare to face the Sixers

Even more impressive than the ol’ two-socks trick would be the eighth-seeded Wizards pulling off the unthinkable: stopping Embiid and beating the top-seeded 76ers. They will try to do so with their new solution at center, premised on the belief that, on this roster, three is greater than one.

If Embiid stayed up Thursday night to watch Washington embarrass the Indiana Pacers, 142-115, to earn the East’s final playoff berth, he would have noticed the work of the Wizards’ three centers. There was Alex Len, starting the game and frustrating Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis, a two-time all-star. There was Robin Lopez, making hook shots sexy again. And there was Daniel Gafford, handing out blocks like an Instagram model going through her DMs.

“The three centers — look what they did. They all chipped in. They all contributed,” Brooks said. “They don’t get a lot of credit, [but] they deserve a lot of credit because they get our guards open and our guards appreciate all three of them.”

As a trio, they produced 28 points on 12-for-15 shooting, plus 23 rebounds and seven blocks. Individually, Len’s stat line (four points, seven rebounds) could not stack up to Sabonis’s 19 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, but his defensive work was immeasurable.

“I thought his minutes were critical and huge for our success,” Brooks said. “He was guarding a guy that kind of had his way against us, and he made him earn every bucket, and he got him [into] some foul trouble.”

Lopez is quirky enough to appear on the video board during a timeout bit, naming 24 Disney characters in 24 seconds, but there was nothing silly about his grown-man game against Indiana. During Washington’s devastating 16-0 second-quarter run, Lopez hit consecutive hook shots and only took a seat after making 4 of 5 attempts in the period.

Still, among Washington’s options, Gafford — who had 15 points and 13 rebounds — might be the best center. And he plays only about 18 minutes per night.

Barry Svrluga: These Wizards are many things as they enter the playoffs. Afraid is not one of them.

His output as a constant lob threat and rim protector may warrant more run, but Gafford makes use of the time he does get. Against the Pacers, he needed less than 13 minutes in the first half to record five blocked shots. He was such a problem that, at halftime, injured Pacers center Myles Turner walked off the court offering unsolicited advice to teammate Malcolm Brogdon on how to avoid getting his layups snuffed out.

On the other end, Gafford and his elastic arms cashed in on seemingly every lob thrown toward the rim.

“Either you step up and stop us,” Beal said of the Wizards’ guards, “or it’s going to be on top of your head with Gaf.”

Maybe Embiid was reclining in front of his television and scouting the Gafford-Len-Lopez trio. Or perhaps he was too busy polishing his Big Energy gold-plated rope chain to give a single care about which center the Wizards plan to throw at him this time.

Gafford, a trade deadline acquisition, wasn’t around when the Wizards faced the 76ers on March 12. That night, Embiid walked to the jump-ball circle, saw Moritz Wagner as his opponent and promptly had a block, a putback and an and-one dunk in the first three minutes.

No matter the name on the back of the red, white and blue jersey in front of him, Embiid has thrived against Washington, averaging 25.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 13 career matchups.

But Washington’s three meetings with Embiid and the 76ers were played before the Wizards salvaged their season — and before they formed a three-headed big-man monster that now faces its biggest task.

“It’s a great challenge for me and any other big on this team,” Gafford said. “We just got to come out and match his physicality. That’s the main thing. He’s going to talk a lot of trash, for sure. But Joel Embiid is one of the best bigs in this league, and we can’t come out thinking he’s just going to take it easy on us.”

What to read on the Washington Wizards

Beal gets the max: The 29-year-old guard agreed to a maximum contract that will cement him as the cornerstone of the franchise. Only in Washington do NBA stars get $251 million participation trophies, writes Candace Buckner.

Wes Unseld’s first season: Players praised the coach’s even keel. But the defense was still bad.

Offseason needs: Securing Bradley Beal’s future is at the top of the organization’s to-do list. Finding a permanent solution at point guard is No. 2 on the Wizards’ offseason checklist.

Candace Buckner: Forget the excuses about lineup disruption, chemistry issues brought on by the massive trade-deadline makeover and Bradley Beal’s season-ending injury. The Wizards took a step back this year.

Peace for Kristaps Porzingis: The big man called Washington the “perfect place” to help him reach his career goal because of the Wizards’ mix of young and veteran players.

Kyle Kuzma’s fashion game: What started as a desire to look sharp became part of his identity when he was drafted with the 27th pick in 2017 and he moved to Los Angeles.

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