Which meant Sunday afternoon the Wizards had a chance to shock the NBA. They shot 56 percent from the field, outplayed the 76ers in the paint and on the break and held Embiid to numbers fitting of a mere mortal. But for all that, the Wizards still will go into Wednesday’s Game 2 facing a 1-0 series deficit.
“I’m surprised we didn’t win,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said after Washington’s 125-118 defeat. “We went to the game thinking about the win. We don’t want to be close. … We were solid but not good enough.”
Though the Wizards in Game 1 flirted with gaining real respect as a worthy challenger to Philadelphia, they fumbled and fouled their way out of that potential story line.
In a physical game, Washington couldn’t defend the 76ers without hacking. Although Embiid was saddled with early fouls and sat for most of the first half, the Wizards had a bad habit of welcoming him back to the floor by ushering him to the free throw line. Embiid shot 13 free throws — the Wizards took just 15 — but blaming that discrepancy on the officiating would be misguided. The Wizards simply couldn’t defend Embiid without fouling.
The 76ers’ defense, on the other hand, came through when needed, holding the Wizards without a field goal for nearly four minutes in the fourth quarter. Much of that defensive attention zeroed in on Washington’s backcourt.
Russell Westbrook was off. He made seven shots but committed six turnovers, though the last of those seemed iffy at best. With Washington down five inside the final 40 seconds, Westbrook was called out of bounds after a sloppy exchange from Gafford. Officials reviewed the play, and Westbrook watched on the big screen. He saw his right heel hovering over the line, without appearing to touch it, so Westbrook wagged his finger toward the scorer’s table.
However, the play stood and the Wizards lost possession. It was the third turnover of the quarter for the favorite target of the Philadelphia fans; at one point, the arena sound system had to be cranked up to drown out a profane serenade directed at Westbrook.
Then there was Washington’s other star, Beal, who was playing in his first postseason game since 2018 and was clearly enjoying himself. He parodied Embiid’s footwork after the big man was called for taking too many steps. He turned to give the fans an earful after he nailed his first three-pointer of the game in the third quarter, giving Washington a 77-73 lead. Near the end of that period, the 76ers’ crowd rose for defensive specialist Matisse Thybulle, but Beal drove past him anyway and scored. He celebrated by wildly waving his arms, mocking the crowd’s enthusiasm.
“I was like a kid in a candy shop,” said Beal, who finished with a team-best 33 points and 10 rebounds. “I just felt really excited to be back on the floor.”
But Beal was as sloppy as his backcourt mate and also committed six turnovers, including a pair during Washington’s fourth-quarter scoring drought.
After the loss, the Wizards maintained optimism. And why not? Playoff newbies such as Gafford (12 points on 6-for-6 shooting) and Rui Hachimura (12 points in 36 minutes) didn’t look completely overwhelmed. Davis Bertans rediscovered his three-point stroke and made four of the team’s eight deep shots. There was reason to describe Sunday’s second-half stumble as a minor blip, a message delivered by Brooks and several players.
“They won the first game. If it was last week, the play-in tournament, it would not be a good feeling right now, but it’s [first to] four,” Brooks said.
“We didn’t play great at all. . . . I think we still got a couple levels we can tap into,” Beal said.
“We weren’t even playing close to the level we can play. At this moment, it’s a good sign,” Bertans said.
As much as the Wizards said they’ll take confidence from their performance, they must also know that eighth seeds don’t get many opportunities like this. Embiid won’t always be limited by foul trouble, and one of the league’s top three-point shooting teams can’t be expected to make only 31 percent from beyond the arc for the rest of the series. (The Sixers shot better than 37 percent on three-point tries during the regular season.)
The Wizards played with enough effort and execution to surprise the Sixers in Philadelphia on Sunday. The bigger surprise might be if they get another chance like that.