WASHINGTON – At 23 and about to reach the early pinnacle of his young NBA career, Rui Hachimura felt more as though he was back in college.
Such was the rigor of his preparation ahead of his first playoff game with the Washington Wizards on Sunday. As he focused on video of the Philadelphia 76ers, Hachimura couldn’t help but think back to his days at Gonzaga, where he played fewer games against fewer teams and had ample time to pore over film and scouting reports on a single opponent.
“Especially in the NBA, since we play different teams every game, we watch film and stuff, but not in so much detail,” Hachimura said Monday. “This time [in the playoffs], we know who we play, so we’re watching a lot of stuff in a lot more detail.”
For the Wizards’ three playoff novices – Hachimura and centers Daniel Gafford and Alex Len – the increased level of preparation wasn’t the only new aspect to adjust to ahead of Game 1, which Washington lost 125-118 on Sunday at Wells Fargo Center.
On every possession, the intensity was higher than it is in a regular season game. The level of physicality was greater, especially going up against Philadelphia center Joel Embiid.
Heading into Wednesday’s Game 2 at Wells Fargo Center, the Wizards know they have experience with veterans Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook, Robin Lopez and Ish Smith anchoring the team. But newbies Hachimura, Len and Gafford will have to acclimate quickly if eighth-seeded Washington is to find success against the top-seeded 76ers.
The trio’s playoff inexperience matters because of how significant they are in the matchup against Philadelphia. Consider their roles: Len and Gafford are two of the three centers expected to contain Embiid, a finalist for MVP honors. Hachimura and Len start. And with rookie Deni Avdija injured, Hachimura – at 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds – is the Wizards’ best defender who can play on the wing and is burly enough to handle Tobias Harris (6-8, 226) and Ben Simmons (6-11, 240) or slide to help double-team Embiid (7-0, 280) in the low post.
But as much as Washington studied its opponent heading into Sunday’s game, the brute strength required in the playoffs is something that must be felt, not simply relayed by a teammate.
Hachimura had primary defensive duties on Harris, who had 28 first-half points. And although he was minus-19 for the game, Hachimura played well on offense. He scored 12 points in his playoff debut, making two critical three-pointers late, and grabbed five rebounds. He did not recede into the passive, hesitant player Washington has spent more than a year toughening up.
But on defense, there is room to grow.
“We didn’t challenge [Harris’s] dribble. We didn’t challenge his space,” Brooks said. “I thought in the second half we did a better job. You can’t take nothing away from him. He’s a professional scorer, man. That guy, he scores all over the floor, too. He can post up smaller players, take the bigger players off the dribble. … I thought we were much better in the second half, but we’ve got to play 48 minutes of that.”
Now, at least, Hachimura has a better idea of what he’ll be facing in Game 2. He proved last week after a dismal performance against the Boston Celtics in the play-in tournament that he can bounce back and play stronger if given a second chance in a high-pressure situation. It should be even easier to do so this time around, Hachimura said, with an extra day off.
He plans to use it healing his body and, of course, watching more film.
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