The Sixers (2-2) visited the Heat (2-2) in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Tuesday. Philadelphia wanted to take a 3-2 lead before heading back home for Game 6. Miami intended to resume control of the series with a victory in Game 5 before the drama shifted back north. A disgraceful effort buried the Sixers, as they fell back into a series deficit with a 120-85 drubbing in Miami.
Before we get to what I saw, some context is due.
All Sixers were available.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Heat were without Kyle Lowry, who was put back on the shelf after struggling to overcome his strained left hamstring in the 2 games in Philadelphia.
Erik Spoelstra started Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Jimmy Butler, PJ Tucker, and Bam Adebayo.
Save for an early putback dunk from Bam Adebayo and a floater out of a short roll from PJ Tucker, the Sixers’ early cohesion on the defensive end of the floor kept Miami out of the paint in its halfcourt offense early in the first quarter. The Sixers fought through off-ball screens involving Max Strus. Tyrese Maxey proved to be up to the task as he met Strus at the point of attack upon curling into catches off those screens.
Beyond that, the Sixers were very connected in the first few minutes of the game. They switched off the ball to deny shooters and went under on Jimmy Butler to keep him on the perimeter. They forced Miami to make shots from the outside in a halfcourt setting. The Sixers took away the interior as much as they could. Unfortunately, the bet didn’t pay off the way it did in Philly. Butler, Strus, and Tucker knocked down 5 triples in the first frame.
Kudos to Doc Rivers for recognizing that he needed to shake the energy up and try something new when the Sixers fell behind double digits early in the second quarter. Conceding that Georges Niang was essentially useless without the threes falling, Rivers kept Paul Reed on the floor when Embiid checked in for his second stint of the game. Given the lack of athleticism at the forward spots, I’ve been curious to see how Embiid and Reed, together, would fare. It ultimately didn’t last very long at all, but I thought it a creative adjustment from the guy probing the sidelines.
As inspiring as Philadelphia’s early halfcourt defense was, they negated most of the good they did with their 9 first-half turnovers. Miami got shots at the rim in the open court all half, running up the number of fast break points the Sixers allowed. The turnovers have been a huge problem all series long. The difference has been that the shooting variance favoring Philly masked that issue in Games 3 and 4. Miami isn’t suddenly going to stop swarming the Sixers on defense. Philly simply has to be more aware and in sync on offense. They just have not valued the basketball and have given Miami extra possessions. By nature of live-ball turnovers, that means they’re giving up easy shots at the rim, too.
James Harden’s style is part of that. He commits a ton of turnovers on drives. He gets stripped as he navigates heavy traffic. Harden gets fouled without the benefit of the call. He loses the ball trying to sell contact that isn’t there. But, you’re not going to change him. He also only committed 4 of the team’s 15 turnovers. Perhaps it’s realistic to demand Harden limit some of his turnovers by heightening his awareness. But more than that, the Sixers have to not air-mail and telegraph passes. They have to keep their dribbles low to the court instead of keeping the ball high and leaving it susceptible to interference from the nearest defender. The general sloppiness has crushed the Sixers, win or lose. The difference is that their shooting or individual performances from stars has overcome the sloppiness. That just wasn’t going to happen in Miami on Tuesday.
Defensive rebounding has been a problem all season long. You just thought maybe the Sixers would show some pride in higher-leverage environments in the playoffs. But, they simply do not fight on the glass. I cannot tell you how many times this series PJ Tucker has beat multiple Sixers in the vicinity to offensive rebounds, generating additional possessions for the Heat. The danger of offensive rebounds, especially against playoff competition, is that they leave your defense vulnerable to surrendering threes and cuts to the basket. The only guy who really puts effort into chasing down rebounds is Paul Reed. Credit to him for recognizing that need and playing to it. But, that’s a very concerning trait for a team with title aspirations to have.
It is criminal that the Sixers did not find ways to get Embiid the ball in the post or on post-ups when the offense dried up elsewhere. Not necessarily because Embiid is arguably the most unstoppable scorer in the league. Rather, because the attention he garners opens things up for everyone else on the floor. He shouldn’t be forcing shots with multiple guys on him. Instead, Embiid should be viewed as a fulcrum of space-creation for his teammates when he’s battling that much pressure. Miami has fronted him and played him with extreme physicality all series long. But prior to Game 5, the Sixers found ways to get him touches on duck-ins, connector passes as he flashed around the post, and in the middle of the floor by way of Delay action.
On Tuesday, the effort towards getting Embiid the ball was flat-out inexcusable in the first half. Some of that was Embiid not being aggressive enough. He’s obviously still worried about his face to some degree. The more physical he is, the more likely he is to get hit in the face, inadvertently or intentionally. But, he hasn’t done enough to seal off Miami’s interior defenders and stretch out to present a target for the entry pass.
Some of that is on Rivers to notice Embiid’s lack of touches and get creative with the plays they run to get Embiid touches or get his team into Delay action so that Embiid can get the ball and see the whole floor. Embiid’s growth in beating applied pressure with passing makes the importance of his touches two-fold. Obviously, the scoring is a game-changer. But, his touches are how the Sixers’ shooters get space. Philadelphia simply did not make getting him the ball a priority in Game 5.
TNT had Doc mic’d up during a timeout, so the whole world got to see him beg his team to give effort as they fell down double digits. It’s an awful look that the coach has to ask his team to just be professional in a Game 5 with a playoff series tied at 2 games apiece.
Frankly, I’m not even sure you can blame Rivers for this game because his observation was wholly accurate. His team looked like they were suffering from a night at LIV on Collins Avenue. He can put them in spots to be more successful, adjust lineups and game plans, and give inspirational speeches. But, he cannot make his players step it up. They have to be adults and multi-millionaire professionals on the court.
It really was a disgusting effort from tip-off to the final buzzer. Everyone played soft. The Sixers had a chance to take a 3-2 lead on the road and close out the series in 6 games. Now, any chance to do that will run through Miami. You can put caveats on the series because Embiid missed the first 2 games if you’d like. But, no one outside of Philadelphia is going to listen to that gripe. Maybe the first 2 games play out differently if Embiid is available. Maybe he plays more aggressively after getting hit in the face in the first half (more on that in a moment). But, the Sixers put forth an effort wholly worthy of the ass-kicking they received on Tuesday night.
Embiid was hit in the face with the basketball while fighting with Dewayne Dedmon for a rebound. He fell to the floor, writhing in pain and holding his face. Rivers took some of the emotion of seeing his team’s best chance of winning anything writhing in pain out on an official and was called for a technical foul. The call had absolutely nothing to do with the outcome of the game. In fact, there was no foul to call for Embiid on the play. But, it’s weak to issue that tech. There should be some level of understanding that Rivers’ emotion is more in the heat of Embiid’s possible injury than it is in reaction to any call.
That hit seemed to have an impact on how Embiid played the rest of the game. Aside from a small individual run late in the third quarter, he was not nearly as aggressive as he usually is, and certainly not as aggressive as the Sixers needed him to be. Most humans would be guarded in how they assert themselves after getting hit directly where they have a known broken bone or other trauma.
Perhaps you want to grant Embiid less understanding because he’s supposed to be a superstar athlete making insane money and he failed to show up for his team in this game. But at the end of the day, he’s a human. I think coming down overly hard on a guy who got hit in the face as he heals from a fractured bone near his eye and a concussion is extremely hypocritical. You’re lying to yourself if you think you’d have come back more aggressive under those circumstances.
While we’re on the topic of Embiid getting hit in the face, shame on the TNT crew. They turned the conversation into “Embiid was soft in the game because he was distraught over losing out on the MVP award” instead of acknowledging that he was likely a bit rattled that he got hit in the face after the fracture and concussion.
At its core, the conversation between the Inside The NBA crew and the in-game broadcast is a microcosm of how the award-voting process is influenced by unjustified narratives. The reform needed around the seasonal voting is a conversation for another time. But, the way the broadcast dismissed the whole thing as Embiid sulking over the MVP feeds into and validates what those who have votes but aren’t informed think. The narratives are cyclical. That cycle of keeping influential people uninformed is a major problem that needs overhaul.
Georges Niang was horrendous again. It seems the knee issue at the end of the season has limited him as these playoffs have gone on. But, he’s totally unplayable amongst a bench of unplayables when his shot isn’t falling. That’s how athletically limited he is as a defender. That’s the nature of a guy who is purely a shooter with size and body mass. Save for the occasional slow-motion post move, Niang having to do anything beyond shoot is disastrous.
Given how consistent his shot was in the regular season, I typically view his glass as half full. But, his playoffs have unearthed just how wealthy you can become just by being an excellent shooter. Think about it, the guy’s one discernible NBA skill got him a $6.7 million payday this past offseason. Big picture, it’s hard to comprehend how little depth and athleticism the Sixers have outside of their starting 5, save for Paul Reed.
Facing elimination, the Sixers (2-3) will host the Heat (3-2) in Game 6 on Thursday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on ESPN.