NBA playoffs: Seth Curry, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris shine as Sixers win series over Wizards

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3 observations after Sixers rise to occasion without Embiid, move on to Round 2 originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

With Joel Embiid out and the Wizards’ confidence perhaps on the rise after their Game 4 win, the Sixers didn’t want to travel back to the nation’s capital. 

They won’t have to.

The Sixers beat Washington 129-112 in Game 5 of their first-round series, securing a spot in Round 2.

The Hawks topped the Knicks shortly after the Sixers' victory, meaning they'll square off with the Sixers in a series starting Sunday.

The Sixers announced Wednesday afternoon that Embiid has a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. His status is officially “day to day.” 

Embiid went through his usual pregame routine beginning about 40 minutes before tip-off.

Seth Curry led the Sixers in Game 5 with a playoff career-high 30 points on 10-for-17 shooting. 

Tobias Harris had 28 points, nine rebounds, six assists and three steals. Ben Simmons posted a triple-double with 19 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds.

Bradley Beal finished a terrific series with 32 points, seven rebounds and five assists. 

Here are three observations on the Sixers’ series-clinching win: 

Thybulle slides into starting 5, Simmons plays center 

Matisse Thybulle started in Embiid’s place and guarded Beal. With Thybulle in, the Sixers were happy to switch, hedge and blitz in many pick-and-roll scenarios. Harris began the game defending Wizards center Daniel Gafford, which allowed Simmons to take Rui Hachimura and be more of a perimeter defensive presence. 

Thybulle thrilled the full-capacity crowd — the first in Philadelphia since March 11, 2020 — with a steal that fueled a fast break and subsequent Harris-to-Simmons alley-oop.

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For the game, Thybulle had seven points on 3-for-5 shooting and a steal in 16 minutes.

The starting lineup made sense. Simmons is the Sixers’ best non-Embiid center, Thybulle is an outstanding perimeter defender to use on Beal, and limiting Simmons-Dwight Howard minutes is both smart and necessary. George Hill and Tyrese Maxey are other starting options Sixers head coach Doc Rivers might consider down the line. Regardless, opening with Simmons at the five is the right move for the time being in our view. 

When Robin Lopez checked into the game for Washington, Rivers countered with Howard. Mike Scott spelled Howard for three pre-garbage time minutes. 

Howard had a high-quality, high-energy night, recording 12 points, eight rebounds and three blocks without allowing Lopez to toss in jump hook after jump hook as he had in Game 4. He made 8 of 10 free throws.

Sixers’ non-Embiid stars complemented by Curry 

Simmons scored an early layup by simply sizing up Gafford and driving past him. He repeated that play late in the second quarter, finishing through contact from Gafford for an and-one. The Sixers need him identifying and exploiting such edges for as long as he’s playing heavy minutes at center. 

Overall, the end of the second quarter was a very strong stretch for Simmons, who found Harris for a three-pointer to put the Sixers up 58-57 with 1:30 to go in the second. That was the first long-range shot by a Sixer not named Curry. 

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Danny Green was also a standout during that period. The 33-year-old unearthed a backcourt steal and converted an ensuing layup, made a three off of his patented corner-to-corner cut and drew an offensive foul on Russell Westbrook. 

“It’s funny," Rivers said, “one of my coaches was like, ‘Let’s get Matisse in for Danny.’ And if you watched, I actually had Matisse walking towards me and I changed my mind. That’s just luck. It really is sometimes. Danny gets a steal, then Danny makes a three, and I was looking at our coaches laughing, like, ‘Thank God we didn’t make that substitution.’

“You know what I love about Danny? This is why he’s so important this team … Danny was struggling in the first quarter. He missed wide-open shots, turned the ball over, but nothing shakes him, man. He just keeps coming. He’s a great guy to have on this young team.”

The Wizards went to their “Hack-a-Simmons” strategy starting with 3:27 left in the first half, intentionally sending the three-time All-Star to the foul line twice. Simmons split the first pair of free throws, then knocked down his next pair. Three out of four will do nicely in those situations, should they arise again. Simmons, who'd been 5 for 20 on free throws in the series entering Game 5, went 5 for 8.

With no Embiid, Harris becomes especially vital as a post-up and isolation scorer and as a rebounder. Moving forward, he’s likely going to need to make some difficult shots, pass effectively when double teamed, draw free throws and beat opposing big men for rebounds.

Wednesday night was a promising start. Harris had two impressive fourth-quarter assists to Simmons at the rim.

With Davis Bertans out due to a right calf strain, Curry had a favorable matchup against Raul Neto. Rivers did well to keep calling his number when he was in a groove early in the third quarter, and Curry poured in 12 points within the first 4:09 of the second half. 

In addition to accepting invitations to take open jumpers, Curry looked to score off of the dribble. It’s rare that he can take contested shots without worrying about a defender blocking them, but he had that opportunity against the 6-foot-1 Neto and took advantage of it. 

Curry had a few encounters with larger players, as well. He took a charge on Gafford in the fourth quarter, a play the Sixers’ bench and home crowd deeply appreciated.

Curry is an elite shooter and the situation demanded he embrace his best skill. He hasn’t always done that this season, sometimes being curiously hesitant to fire, but he was great in Game 5. 

Before the game, Curry said Simmons set the bar high for him when they were playing the video game "Call of Duty: Warzone." 

“We were playing before our little pregame nap earlier today," Curry said. “He was talking about, ‘I’m going to need 30 from you, and I’m going to get a triple-double so we can close it out.’ We were able to go out and get it done.”

Speaking of shooting, Westbrook had a better night in that area than his 3-for-19 Game 4 performance, making 7 of 20 field goals. He had 24 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds. Green and the Sixers were fine with his mid-range jumpers, knowing it was improbable he’d make enough to seriously hurt them. 

Key bench contributions 

It was immediately apparent Tyrese Maxey loved playing in front of a packed Philadelphia crowd for the first time. The adoration was mutual.

Maxey is seemingly fearless and always glad to attack. The Sixers required those qualities on occasions when their second unit’s offense stalled and someone needed to make a play. He’s an exciting player in the open floor, too, and his pace is a welcome ingredient without Embiid. 

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In 27 minutes, Maxey had 13 points and six rebounds. Rivers was most pleased with his defensive showing.

“I think he’s a hell of a player," Rivers said. “I think he has found himself. He’s figured out now how to play, how we need him to play, what makes not only him a good player, but making everybody good on the floor. … I tell you what, I think everybody would love his offense. Where I’m (proud), he was our worst defender and it wasn’t close. The numbers said that, too.

“In the last month, he has turned the corner defensively. He made so many little plays defensively — rebounds, digs, getting steals. So for me, obviously the offensive energy was there and the speed was there, but watching him grow defensively for this team has been absolutely amazing.”

Furkan Korkmaz chipped in 10 points off the bench, knocking down two second-half threes and helping the Sixers’ second unit outscore Washington’s by a 40-19 margin. 

While Rivers used 11 players before garbage time, Washington head coach Scott Brooks played nine — including Garrison Mathews, whose primary job was to send Simmons to the free-throw line — and leaned on his top talent. 

Meanwhile, Simmons played a team-high 39 minutes and Harris played 37. All the Sixers — with Embiid crucially among them, of course — now have a well-earned chance to rest up before their second-round series against Atlanta begins.