The Sixers (0-2) hosted the Heat (2-0) on Friday as their Eastern Conference semifinal series shifted to Philadelphia for Games 3 and 4. Philadelphia wanted to avoid the historically insurmountable 3-0 series deficit. Miami wanted to take a stranglehold lead over the Sixers. Tyrese Maxey stole the show in the second half to power the Sixers to victory, 99-79.
Before we get to what I saw, some context is owed.
There were no injury absences for either team.
Erik Spoelstra started Kyle Lowry, Max Strus, Jimmy Butler, PJ Tucker, and Bam Adebayo.
Joel Embiid, with black plastic masking his fractured countenance, made his return for the Sixers.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
We talk endlessly about Joel Embiid’s impact. But, sometimes it’s easy to take for granted just how much one guy changes the complexion of a game. Embiid’s presence was felt from the second he stepped on the court for tip-off. Miami got anything and everything it wanted at the rim in the first 2 games of the series. At the core of that was Doc Rivers playing DeAndre Jordan at all and Paul Reed being over-exposed.
Sure, Rivers shouldn’t have played Jordan. Everyone in the world knew it was a disaster waiting to happen in Game 1 and it turned out as expected. To be fair to Jordan, he was way better in Game 2. But, the point is that Miami was completely unabated in nearly every facet of scoring the basketball without Embiid playing either of the first 2 games.
In checks Embiid, and Miami suddenly can’t get anything going at the rim. In Embiid’s first stint of the game, Miami only got 2 buckets at the rim. The Heat were limited to quick heaves from beyond the arc to beat a contest or the shot clock. That might’ve been dangerous if Miami had any luck from deep in the first half.
Much of that failure to hit from deep should be credited to Philly’s defense. With Embiid in the middle, the interior was no longer a focus point for the whole team. As such, perimeter rotations were far more connected and smooth than they were at any point in Miami. The Sixers created their first-half separation entirely on the defensive end of the floor. They forced Miami to lean into three-point shooting on a cold night and otherwise limiting any rhythm on the inside.
Mostly non-impact play in the first 2 games led to heavy chatter about his viability as a pillar of Philadelphia’s core. But on Friday, James Harden had a much easier time making his imprint on the offense with Embiid back. The attention Embiid garnered made it impossible for the Heat to swarm Harden with an on-ball stopper and 2 helpers in the driving lane. As such, Harden was able to get downhill because he only had to beat one Floridian in his way. It turns out the game is easier when you don’t have to teleport through the opposition to get in front of them. One notable possession featured Harden smoking Tyler Herro on a drive to his left that yielded points for the Sixers’ midseason acquisition.
Harden was Philadelphia’s leading scorer at intermission. Perhaps most reminiscent of his prime self was the efficiency with which he scored the ball. Harden’s 15 first-half points came at the expense of just 6 field goal attempts. He got to the free throw line 8 times.
After a putrid 2-for-14 effort from deep in the first 2 games of the series, Danny Green came alive in Game 3. He connected on 7 of his 9 three-point attempts in the game, capitalizing on brief moments of space in both corners of the Sixers’ half of the court. You could tell Green was really feeling it on a corner three in the fourth quarter in which he pivoted into the catch and had already released the ball before his shoulders were even squared.
Later in the fourth, he got a friendly bounce up and in on a triple that had initially fell short of the target. Green certainly isn’t the defensive player he was even just last season. He may border on unplayable on nights like Games 1 and 2 when the shots aren’t falling at all. But he keeps the Sixers calm when he’s on the floor, answering runs by the opposition with big-time threes when the proverbial lid appears to be on the basket.
Fresh off a 34-point night in Game 2, Tyrese Maxey had a pedestrian first half. But, he made sure he was heard from in the second half. Embiid struggled to find his rhythm. Harden was quiet in the second half after a big first half. The only offense seemingly coming from Danny Green. So, Maxey stepped up and cracked a home run.
Maxey scored all 21 of his points in the second half, with 14 of them coming in the fourth quarter. He answered seemingly each Heat bucket with a huge triple to electrify the crowd. When the three wasn’t there, he wasn’t donning a Superman cape with low-quality attempts from deep. Instead, he attacked the paint. He got to the rim for a layup to give Philadelphia a 5-point lead in the third quarter and got to his midrange game for a jumper to extend the Sixers’ lead in the fourth quarter.
I think the most important thing about Maxey’s growth this season is that he’s proven no stage is too big and no light is too bright. He has stepped up for the Sixers in both series, exploding in the second halves of multiple games after quiet first halves. You almost expect him to do something sensational in the latter 24 when he has a quiet first 24.
Nothing was as significant as Maxey’s defensive effort late in the fourth quarter. On a Harden live-ball turnover, Maxey beat Victor Oladipo to disrupt a long pass ahead in transition and save the ball from going out of bounds. To compound the energy of the play, Maxey threw it long over his head as he went into the first row to give his team a chance at recovery. The sensational effort got Embiid a free-throw-line jumper, plus the foul, to bring the roof down in Philly.
At this point, “is Tyrese Maxey the second star?” is perhaps a more interesting question than “is Tyrese Maxey one of the heads of a Big Three?”.
Even with Miami’s ultra-switchy defensive philosophies, Philadelphia faced significant struggles in entering the ball to Joel Embiid in the post. Miami fronted Embiid aggressively. They got up into his air space and arm-wrestled to stay on his chest and deny entry passes. Even when the Sixers eventually were able to get the ball to Embiid, PJ Tucker had him fronted so well that he smacked the MVP candidate in his wounded face trying to play the passing lane.
The Sixers earned every bit of their 11-point lead in the first quarter. But they were equally deserving of blowing the lead they created, too. Philadelphia committed 4 consecutive turnovers to close the first quarter and 1 to open the second quarter to give the Heat more bites at the apple.
Turnovers were really the story of the entire game for the Sixers. They defended quite well at times. But, the Sixers simply did not value the basketball. They dribbled into traffic and lost control of the ball. The Sixers miscalculated long passes against Miami’s zone and threw the ball out of bounds. Philadelphia also made miscalculations in judgment, dribbling into traps against the sidelines and turning the ball over in that regard.
To compound the extra possessions off turnovers, Miami beat Philadelphia to 9 offensive rebounds. So through 3 quarters, the Heat both created extra possessions and extra plays for themselves. Even with shots not falling for Miami on the first touch, they stayed well within reach despite it feeling like the Sixers were primed to pull away.
The Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll is usually a dynamite part of the Sixers’ offense. But, Philadelphia did not get good offense out of that 2-man game. The most alarming part was that the Heat didn’t do anything special to counter that attack. They stuck with their principles, switching everything. But instead of getting the ball to Embiid on the size mismatch, Harden struggled to forge enough space to see Embiid for a pass.
With no space to get the ball to Embiid, Harden was reduced to contested stepback threes over Adebayo’s outstretched arms. You have to derive better looks with Adebayo away from Embiid. Arguably the most versatile big out of the screen in the league, that pass has to be made when Embiid has the size mismatch.
Even if Harden doesn’t have the angle to Embiid, the other 3 Sixers on the court have to make themselves available so that a connecting pass can be made. Alternatively, Embiid can use his arms and body to make himself a bigger target. But, you could also argue that he shouldn’t get too physical at risk of errant limbs from the opposition hitting him in already-vulnerable spots.
Regardless, the point is that settling for stepback threes when the defense is switching on ball screens is simply malpractice and a waste of opportunity on offense.
In the first half, a fan was selected to participate in “Hot Shot”, an in-game entertainment game in which a fan has to make shots on the NBA hoop in order to win prizes. The chosen contestant responded with an overly-confident “Hell yeah!” when asked if he was ready to play. The contestant promptly airballed 4 shots right at the basket and made 1 shot total. You cannot give a “Hell yeah!” and give that performance. Just brutal.
The Sixers (1-2) will host the Heat (2-1) in Game 3 on Sunday. Tip-off is set for 8 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on TNT.