The Wizards outplayed the Philadelphia 76ers for a large portion of Wednesday night’s 113-107 loss. Despite starting the fourth quarter up by 10 points, the Wizards lost in the final seconds, and it was one play in particular that put the game out of reach.
Setting the Scene
The Wizards were down four when Bradley Beal hit a smooth step-back jumper over Shake Milton. The timing was perfect. The shot went in with 34 seconds left in the game and cut the deficit to just two points. If the Wizards could get a stop on the next possession, they would be in position to either tie or win the game in the last seconds of regulation.
Like many NBA teams in crunch time, the Sixers were looking to force a simple defensive switch to get a favorable matchup for their best offensive player, Joel Embiid. Their goal was to get a smaller player on Embiid. Shake Milton brings the ball up and does a dribble handoff to Seth Curry, who of course looks for Embiid to set the screen and force the switch. This is where the play breaks down for the Wizards.
Two things are happening here. Beal “dies” on the Embiid screen and is out of position to continue guarding Curry. With no other options, Thomas Bryant correctly picks up Curry. Under most circumstances, Beal needed to stay with Embiid at this point, but that’s not what he did.
Beal is basically out of the play, but he decides to try to recover onto Curry. There’s one problem: Bryant is already there. Embiid smartly rolls slightly into the open space to make himself available for a pocket pass, which forces the Wizards into a difficult choice, leave him open or rotate someone over to pick him up.
Russell Westbrook at this point is guarding Ben Simmons near the basket and he sees Embiid wide open. His instinct is to run to Embiid, which of course leaves Simmons open. Curry sees that, makes the simple bounce pass and Simmons gets what ended up being the game winning dunk.
So What Went Wrong?
I understand the reaction many have had that this was a Westbrook breakdown. He appeared to gamble looking for a pass to Embiid, but there were several mistakes made. Here are some things I am pondering:
- Was Bryant’s job to switch or to hedge? If he was to hedge, then he was too far back to slow down Curry. Once he moved over to at least look like he was slowing Curry down, he didn’t seem to commit to guarding Curry or Embiid so his positioning could have made it difficult for his teammates to determine if they should rotate or not.
- If Bryant’s job was indeed to switch, then why did Beal leave Embiid? Based on how Beal ran back to his man, it seems his understanding was not to switch. But there has to be communication so Bryant knows to give Curry back to Beal. And, Bryant also needs to do a better job of stopping Curry first to give Beal time to recover.
- Was Westbrook expecting Avdija to rotate down to Simmons once he moved up to guard Embiid? Avdija’s man was one pass away, so it wouldn’t make sense for him to rotate off his man (Tobias Harris), but it’s odd for Westbrook to just leave his man under the basket without expecting someone to rotate.
Depending on the answers to those questions fingers can point in a number of directions.
If you ask me, I would have elected to hard trap on Curry once the screen was set. That would have made the entry pass to Embiid difficult and might have allowed Westbrook to get into the passing lane.
If Westbrook rotated, then Avdija could have split the difference between Simmons and Harris by taking a step closer to Simmons. That would have forced the Sixers into a difficult pass to Embiid and disrupted the rhythm of the play. Or, it could have forced the ball to someone other than Embiid.
All this would require timely rotations, communication and good anticipation of where the ball is going. Unfortunately the Wizards have not shown an ability to consistently do these things in late game situations, and it cost them a game that they probably should have won.