By Ben Sullivan
Seth Curry scored a playoff career-high 30 points and the Sixers beat the Wiz 129-112 to end the Easter Conference series in five games.
With an NBA title still in sight, the 76ers will need their injured franchise center Joel Embiid — healthy and ready to roll — in the second round against Atlanta.
Led again by Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal, the Wizards were hopeful they could the could take advantage of Embiid’s absence and force a return home for Game 6.
“Nobody expected us to take them to five,” Beal said. “I strongly in my heart believe we could have taken them to seven.”
Beal and Westbrook, playing his first game in Philly since a fan dumped popcorn on him in Game 2, could call the season a win after just getting the Wizards to the playoffs after a 17-32 record in early April.
“I just wanted to come to a place and change the culture. Bring my energy, my leadership, and make the guys around here better,” Westbrook said. “I feel like I was able to accomplish that.”
Tobias Harris added 28 points and teamed with Curry and Simmons to carry the offensive load with Embiid out. Simmons had 19 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds to keep the top-seeded 76ers in the hunt for their first championship since 1983.
Embiid is day to day with a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee and he was reduced to Philadelphia’s biggest cheerleader as the Sixers put the misery of last season’s first-round sweep behind them.
Embiid gave a sneak peek that the injury suffered in a Game 4 loss might not keep him out very long. The NBA MVP candidate had the crowd going wild when he hit the court for pregame warmups. He shot jumpers around the perimeter, fadeaways, even some free throws — all without any sort of noticeable knee brace under his white leggings —- and put on a show that proved his absence might not last beyond Game 5.
Rivers, in his first season, said he expected Embiid to return in the postseason.
“I don’t know when or how early,” he said. “I’m hopeful. I think that’s a better way of putting it.”
With the first capacity crowd this season allowed at Wells Fargo Center — there were 15,523 in the house — the Sixers shook of a slow start and had the place rocking late in the first half when Simmons hit Harris for a 3 and their first lead of the night. Ben Simmons — staunchly defended by Rivers after a slew of missed free throws in Game 4 — hung tight from the line when the Wizards tried to Hack-A-Ben him again.
He also did what he does best, create plays and make his attacks to the rim look silky smooth. He even made 5 of 8 from the free-throw line.
Simmons, who missed 15 of 20 free throws over the first four games, drew Westbrook’s third foul in third. Westbrook complained to the referees all night and had four fouls through three quarters. Beal scored 32 points and Westbrook had 24.
The Sixers needed all the scoring help they could and they found plenty from super-sub Tyrese Maxey. Maxey scored nine points in the first half at a time when the Sixers needed some juice to keep pace with the Wizards. Maxey, a rookie out of Kentucky, hit the rim in traffic with pizzaz and fans erupted with each basket. He’s an instant fan favorite and played the bulk of the starter’s minutes in the first half.
Unselfish and on a mission, the Sixers expect so much more.
Sixers fans broke out “Trust the Process!” chants over the final minutes and the laborious rebuilding plan that brought the franchise Embiid and Simmons will surely need both of them to finish the job.