Given the previous two years and the disappointing postseason exits that came with them, the Philadelphia 76ers needed to announce their return to the NBA Playoffs with malice, especially as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
They didn’t necessarily do that on Sunday afternoon, but they did just enough to get the job done to defeat the No. 8 seed Washington Wizards 125-118 from Wells Fargo Center, continuing their bona fide home form in which they went a combined 60-11 in Philadelphia during the regular season since the start of the 2019-20 campaign.
The City of Philadelphia did its part by timing its easing of capacity restrictions perfectly on Sunday as Wells Fargo Center was packed with 11,000 fans in attendance — the largest indoor attendance in the city since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tobias Harris led the way with a career-high 37 points on the night, fueled by a monster first-half effort that helped keep the 76ers afloat during a slow start.
Limited by early foul trouble, Joel Embiid posted 30 points and six rebounds in 30 minutes. Most importantly, however, was his ability to stay on the court in a second half that saw the Sixers outscore Washington 64-56 to close out the Game 1 triumph.
Ben Simmons added six points with 15 rebounds on the afternoon while trying to make his latest case on why he deserves the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year Award. Switching off on the Wizards’ two most explosive players — Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal — Simmons did just enough to limit them. Westbrook posted 16 points, 15 assists, and six turnovers on the day while the NBA’s leading scorer in Beal got his, posting 33 points.
He didn’t get his first points of the afternoon until there were just over seven minutes gone in the first quarter as the Sixers made it clear from the start that they were going to force any other Wizard to beat them in Game 1. He and Westbrook were held to a combined 10 points during that stretch.
In the first, it was Davis Bertans — whose two-straight three-pointers helped fuel a 10-0 Wizards run — and the speed of the Wizards that put a damper on a strong Sixers start, featuring 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting from Harris.
Washington held a one-point lead after Embiid exited with two fouls and just two points while Philadephia went 1-of-8 from three-point range in the opening quarter.
After Embiid posted seven early points in the second and helping the Sixers go back up by three, he was whistled for his third foul of the day 7:07 before the half, sending him back to the bench for the remainder of the second quarter.
It allowed the Wizards to continue to hang around, keeping that one-point advantage at the break as Harris did the heavy lifting yet again with another stellar quarter in which he poured in 16, bringing his first-half total to 28.
The Wizards’ transition game continued giving the 76ers fits as a 7-1 run gave the visitors their largest lead of the day at 77-72 with 4:50 gone in the third quarter.
But Embiid was back on the floor and the Sixers were truly able to stretch out their offense and cut down Washington’s chances to break.
Four-straight three-pointers from Harris, Danny Green, and two from Seth Curry provided an immediate response to help the Sixers regain control while finding their stroke from deep to spark a 16-4 run and take a seven-point lead at 88-81 less than three minutes later.
Into the fourth quarter, the 76ers extended their lead to as large as 11 with 9:55 remaining while giving Embiid a break. But when the Wizards cut the advantage to five, the All-Star big man was called upon once again to help see things out as the underdogs continued to nip at the Sixers’ heels.
The Wizards had their chances, including some looks down five with a minute to go. But a key turnover by Westbrook stepping out of bounds in the final seconds helped clinch the Philadelphia win.