Sixers vs. Wizards: Doc Rivers explains approach against Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook

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Can Sixers handle Beal and Westbrook? Rivers explains their approach originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Before the Sixers knew their first-round playoff opponent, Ben Simmons noted that they didn't care which team ended up with the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.

“If we were scared, we shouldn’t be in this position,” he said last week. 

However, Simmons is fully aware of the difficulties posed by the Wizards’ backcourt of Russell Westbrook, the NBA's all-time leader in triple-doubles and Bradley Beal, a three-time All-Star who's averaged 30-plus points in each of the last two seasons.

“One is a (former) MVP and one is one of the best scorers the league has seen in Beal,” Simmons said after the Sixers' practice Friday. “So it’s going to be a tough matchup and a tough challenge for me and the other guys guarding those guys. We’re here for a reason and we’re looking forward to the matchup. We have a lot of respect for that team. Even that play-in game last night, they’re coming prepared.”

Simmons on Thursday night was named a Defensive Player of the Year finalist. There’s no question he’ll be a key part of the plan to defend Westbrook and Beal. Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle also figure to factor into that picture.

As for being a DPOY finalist, Simmons had no hesitation in admitting he’s not elated. 

“I probably won’t be excited unless I’m winning it, to be honest,” he said. “I don’t really care to be top-three, I want to be No. 1. Until those results come out, I don’t really care.”

The conventional wisdom is that Sixers head coach Doc Rivers should place Simmons on the opposition’s top perimeter scorer and watch him work. That wasn’t the Sixers’ strategy back on Jan. 6, though, when Beal scored a career-best 60 points in a 141-136 loss at Wells Fargo Center. Per the NBA’s tracking data, Beal shot 8 for 14 when guarded by Green in that game, while Simmons defended him for a mere 18 seconds.

“He didn’t score 60 in the next (one), so I think we did a little bit better,” Rivers said. “But he’s capable of scoring 60 any night. That’s who he is. He proved that to us. … He can’t see one coverage. He’s good enough that you have to know going into a series that there’s two or three coverages that he has to see.”

Following the Sixers’ May 13 loss to the Heat, a matchup in which Green was on Jimmy Butler and Simmons took Duncan Robinson, Rivers acknowledged the Sixers “just don’t like Danny chasing. He tends to struggle in that.” We’ll learn soon whether Rivers considers Beal a “chasing” assignment for the 33-year-old Green.

Beal has been playing through a left hamstring strain but is skilled both as a movement shooter and shot creator. While it's already clear he’d be a hard cover for Green, the Sixers might prefer having Simmons spend time on Westbrook, a player whose jump shot merits much less respect than Beal’s. Simmons’ speed and athleticism profile well on Westbrook, and encouraging him to lurk in passing lanes could generate fast breaks. 

Conversely, the Sixers will be wary of Washington’s transition offense. The Wizards were No. 1 in the NBA in pace this season and will presumably aim to avoid the Sixers’ sturdy half-court defense. 

“First is transition,” Rivers said. “They’re a great transition team and against us they’ll try to be more of that, would be my guess. Second is obviously those two guys. On one hand, you’ve got Russ pushing the ball up the floor, putting a ton of pressure, trying to be the most physical guard in the series. 

“And then you’ve got Bradley. He’s just a flamethrower. So you have to deal with both. It’s not one or the other, it’s both. And with Russ, you have to really try to take away the drives as much as possible. And try to take away his assists as much as possible, as well.”

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