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NBA: Hot Wizards ready to challenge top-seeded 76ers

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The top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers are hoping an entire season’s worth of momentum will be enough to send home a Washington Wizards team that used its own late-season momentum just to reach the playoffs.

The two teams tip off their Eastern Conference first-round series as the Sixers host eighth-seeded Washington in Game 1 of their best-of-series Sunday afternoon.

The 76ers finished the regular season with a 49-23 record and spent the majority of the campaign atop the East standings — 93 days in total and 24 of the final 35 days of the regular season — and fended off the Brooklyn Nets down the stretch.

Meanwhile, the Wizards defied the odds in the second half of the season to clinch the East’s final playoff spot with a 142-115 victory in a win-or-go-home play-in game against Indiana after a 34-38 regular season.

With a 17-32 record on April 5, the Wizards had just a 0.6 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN. Washington doubled its win total over the final 23 games and finished 17-6 to lock up a spot in the play-in round.

“The Wizards pose their problems. They’re a fantastic offensive team,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “The turnaround job that (coach Scott Brooks) has done should be mentioned and talked about more, because they’ve done a heck of a job.”

After losing to Boston in the seventh-seed play-in game, the Wizards locked back in and were sharp in a 142-115 drubbing of the Indiana Pacers on Thursday. Bradley Beal scored a game-high 25 points and Russell Westbrook added 18 points, 15 assists and eight rebounds.

Westbrook and Beal averaged 53.5 points between them during the regular season and both have proved to be thorns in the 76ers’ side.

Beal scored a career-high 60 in a 141-136 loss at Philadelphia on Jan. 6 and averaged 36.7 points in three games against the 76ers this season. Westbrook led all scorers with 25 in the teams’ last meeting — a 127-101 Philadelphia rout — on March 12.

“It’s not one or the other — it’s both. You have to deal with both,” Rivers said.

Philadelphia has its own two-headed monster in MVP finalist Joel Embiid and Defensive Player of the Year finalist Ben Simmons. Embiid averaged 30 points and 9.7 rebounds as the 76ers won two of their three regular-season meetings with the Wizards.

When the 76ers’ starting lineup of Embiid, Simmons, Tobias Harris, Danny Green and Seth Curry has been intact this season, they were nearly unbeatable at 27-5 — and, at home, they were 16-0.

“Our spirit, our intensity, our toughness has to be displayed every minute on the court (to beat them),” Wizards coach Brooks said. “We have to keep doing what we’ve done the last couple of months of fighting together. We know how talented they are. … They have the best record for a reason.”

76ers forward Matisse Thybulle (hand) missed the final four regular-season games but has been a full participant in practice ahead of the playoffs. Embiid (non-COVID illness), Simmons (back) and Green (hip) were held out of Philadelphia’s regular-season finale on May 16, but are expected to be in the lineup for Game 1.

Washington will be without forward Deni Avdija (right fibular hairline fracture) and center Thomas Bryant (torn ACL) for their postseason run.

–Field Level Media

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