The Philadelphia 76ers (15-13) hosted the Miami Heat (16-12) on Wednesday night. The Sixers looked to get back to the winner’s circle after a blowout loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday. The Heat wanted to do the same after a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday. Gabe Vincent and Duncan Robinson combined for 47 points to knock the Sixers down, and they never got all the way back up in a 101-96 defeat.
Before we get to what I saw, some context is due.
The Heat were without the services of Bam Adebayo (UCL reconstruction in right thumb), Jimmy Butler (tailbone contusion), and Tyler Herro (right quadriceps contusion). Caleb Martin (health and safety protocol) and Markieff Morris (whiplash) were also unavailable.
Victor Oladipo, who is still recovering from surgery on his right quadriceps, was out.
Erik Spoelstra started Kyle Lowry, Gabe Vincent, Duncan Robinson, PJ Tucker, and Dewayne Dedmon.
The Sixers were without the services of Furkan Korkmaz (non-COVID illness) and Georges Niang (health and safety protocol).
Grant Riller was nursing a sore right shoulder and was unavailable; Jaden Springer was in concussion protocol and was unavailable.
Ben Simmons, who is not mentally ready to play, was out.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Tyrese Maxey took a page out of the Matisse Thybulle book of shutting down off-ball shooters in his first stint of the game. Maxey energetically chased Duncan Robinson around away from the rock, navigating screens whilst keeping his head on a swivel so that he could track both ball and assignment. More importantly, he didn’t bite on any of Robinson’s elusive cuts. A sniper with Robinson’s gravity (and lack of vertical pop) relies upon the ability to shift and change directions in creative ways so as to weaponize his screener and create space. The hope is that most defenders fall asleep or run out of energy, allowing you to free yourself. But, Maxey wasn’t that guy on Wednesday.
It helped that he stayed in a low stance. His natural low center of gravity makes it easy for him to move quickly. In a low stance, he can navigate sharp screens with minimal friction and, thus, get through them quickly. But beyond that, Maxey kept his arms in the passing lanes to deter passes that might’ve otherwise been there.
The same cannot be said for Thybulle, himself. Robinson was able to beat him to spots throughout the first quarter to get open looks on threes. A couple of those defensive miscues came in transition. Robinson was able to jut into gaps off of high screens or while the Sixers set up their defense and connect on a handful of triples. You don’t need to worry about Robinson bursting past you as a ball-handler. Rather, the problem is letting him get enough open looks to get hot. A shooter of his caliber only needs a few to go in before he sees an ocean where the basket meets the backboard.
Once Robinson started to cook, Philly really struggled to manage his shooting gravity. And for a product of Miami’s developmental program, that’s dangerous in multiple ways. On one play in particular, Robinson lifted two Sixers up with the threat of his shot and then used that gravity to hit his screener cutting to the rim. Miami made the extra pass on the play and cashed in on a triple from Max Strus.
Andre Drummond’s warts are well-documented. But, I didn’t have my money on Omer Yurtseven absolutely eating his lunch. Yurtseven got very cozy under the basket, putting the ball on the deck and dribbling into and out of pressure under the rim to make plays. There was one play in which Yurtseven started on one block, got to the other, and then spun back to the original for a finish over Drummond.
It’s fine if the reserve big man eats the dust on the occasional move in a one-on-one matchup. But for a big who is in the top-5th percentile of the league in rebounding percentage, losing rebounds to Yurtseven is unacceptable.
While we’re talking about effort and focus, Embiid mailed in a few possessions on defense. And the Heat got points at the rim out of it. I can’t say Embiid was why Philly trailed at halftime. After all, he logged 14 points and 10 boards prior to intermission. But, he can’t play the frustration card on the court when he’s not going the extra distance to block offensive rebounders out and clean the glass.
Philly looked fully prepared to let the game slip away in the second quarter. Embiid recently questioned why teams use zone defenses, and the answer looks something like, “You don’t like it because your team struggles with it”. That was certainly the case on Wednesday. The Sixers were moving the ball quite well, they were just turning it over equally as often. To their credit, they kept themselves within distance going into the second half. But if Gabe Vincent is raining threes as he falls out of bounds, there’s not a ton Philly can do about that.
Scratch that — maybe don’t commit stupid fouls on three-point shooters?
To use a Marc Zumoff reference, Seth Curry is the dip-in-stroke-two king. The guy loves to pump-fake out of a three, take one dribble in, and rip a midrange jumper. When your offense stinks as badly as the Sixers’ stunk on Wednesday, you’ll take whatever works.
Fans can be as tired of Danny Green’s play as they want, but the reality is that suggesting Thybulle start in his place is malpractice to the offense. Embiid’s life (and ability to establish himself early in games) becomes exponentially more difficult when defenses are willing to cheat off of Thybulle to deny the offense’s catalyst an entry pass. Throughout the third quarter, the Sixers struggled to deliver entry passes to Embiid under the pressures of Miami’s zone. And Embiid rightfully started to disengage on both ends because he wasn’t getting touches. The Sixers can never allow that to happen. Meanwhile, Miami was back-cutting the frustrated Embiid to oblivion on its way to a 23-point lead in the third frame.
Once Green replaced Maxey, Philly went on a massive run to get itself back into the game heading into the fourth quarter. I’m not saying don’t get frustrated with zeros in the box score and an inability to keep up with opposing assignments from time to time. But, Green’s shooting prowess changes the way defenses treat Philly’s entire offense. He might not make 40 percent of his threes, but defenses won’t come form the weak-side corner to double Embiid from the baseline before his teammates even look in his direction to make an entry pass.
Tyrese Maxey’s craftiness at the rim is enough to swing the building’s energy by itself. Seriously, the volume achieves new decibels as he turns the corner on the middle of the floor and attacks the rim. He has rapidly improved at trimming the edge he leaves on his layups, too. Earlier in the season, he would leave the ball exposed as he laid it up for far too long. Defenses would spike it off the backboard. Now, it’s not leaving his hands until he meets the backboard. As a result, he’s not getting blocked nearly as much as he used to.
The combination of that subtle improvement, as well as his elevated free throw rate, have developed to the point where any defensive involvement with the shot is either not impacting the shot at all or getting him to the line for free throws.
Maxey’s dominant charge to bring the Sixers to life in the fourth quarter is also why it made no sense to then move the offense away from him when the rest of the starting brigade (sans Thybulle) returned to the floor. A two-man game with Embiid would’ve been nice. Nope — back to hot-potatoing the rock around the perimeter looking for a mismatch. By the way, part of the reason that such a two-man game with Embiid wasn’t the go-to was because Embiid was visibly gassed from fighting for positioning all night.
You can’t let Embiid get cold out there and then decide to go to him in crunch time. But that certainly doesn’t mean you just feed Maxey to the point of predictability. It’s on the coach to figure out that dynamic and mix in some different screening actions to throw the defense off. That didn’t happen in crunch time.
For as much criticism as Tobias Harris gets (and he gets a ton with Simmons mostly out of the picture), he made some massive shots in the fourth quarter. A tough layup that came with a foul (Harris botched the free throw) to pull the Sixers within two points and a corner triple to tie the game with less than two minutes to play were both redeeming moments for the forward.
But, the Sixers tried to feed Embiid when he had no rhythm. Or rather, he forced shots when he couldn’t find a rhythm all game. And those shots didn’t fall when the Sixers had chances to complete the comeback.
The Sixers (15-14) will visit the Brooklyn Nets (20-8) on Thursday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBA TV.