The Sixers (1-2) hosted the Heat (2-1) in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. Philadelphia intended to tie the series at 2 before heading back on the road. Miami wanted to take a commanding 3-1 series lead with the intention of closing it out at home in Game 5. James Harden scored 31 points, 16 of which came in the fourth quarter, to power the Sixers to a 116-108 victory.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
Miami was without the services of Dewayne Dedmon, who missed the game with a head cold.
Erik Spoelstra started Kyle Lowry, Max Strus, Jimmy Butler, PJ Tucker, and Bam Adebayo.
Philadelphia was without Isaiah Joe, who missed the game with a sprained right ankle.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The legendary Ron Brooks made his return to The Center, performing the national anthem for the first time since before the pandemic. Few things are more consistent than his passion for bellowing into the microphone. Everyone loved it.
The Sixers did an excellent job of toggling through screeners to force Miami to rotate into their secondary switches on defense. If the first look wasn’t there, no panic. They moved the ball to the other side of the floor and brought up a screener. That patience paid off, with Max Strus eventually being brought into the action to switch onto Joel Embiid. From there, the Sixers had what they wanted. It wasn’t a “mouse-in-the-house” bullying in the post. But, entry passes became infinitely easier to execute. As such, Embiid registered 6 quick points before the first timeout of the game.
Harden’s jumper seemed to find the mark a bit in the first half. Few plays electrify the crowd more than Harden sinking a triple.
Even with a 15-point first quarter, Embiid’s impact was perhaps most felt on the defensive end of the floor. There were multiple occasions in the half in which Miami lost control of the ball when approaching him. They seemingly couldn’t figure out what to do quickly with a human wall blocking the road. Embiid’s defensive prowess on the perimeter was even better. There were at least 3 plays in the first half in which Embiid took the likes of Victor Oladipo, Tyler Herro, and Kyle Lowry out of transition or on switches. They tried their best to shake him, veering into different directions and changing speeds. The 7-foot bulldozer had no problem staying low in a stance and shuffling his feet. He denied driving lanes and leveraged his size to make passes very difficult. Embiid forced shots that had no chance of going in or errant passes into nothingness.
Of course, there’s no box score metric to capture that impact. But, Embiid’s ability to pulverize a shot attempt by Markieff Morris in the lane with enough power that it bounced up with the force of an actual dribble and then step outside and completely shut creative guards down is the exact essence of his value as a defensive player.
The individual storyline of former teammates Embiid and Jimmy Butler duking it out in this series didn’t live up to the height in Game 3. But, they both made some incredible shots throughout Game 4. Butler used his brute force and keen sense for contact in attacking the basket for an array of tough finishes and fouls. On the other end, Embiid knocked in a handful of tough fading jumpers over multiple contests.
Butler ultimately won the battle, scoring 40 on 13-for-20 shooting to Embiid’s 24 on 7-for-13 shooting. At the end of the day, whether you’re a fan or a reporter, you’re drawn to sport for matchups like that one. The back-and-forth greatness was an incredible display. All that matters is the victory, and the Sixers survived 2 sensational games from Jimmy Butler.
The Sixers adjusted quite well to Miami’s attempts at targeting mismatches by scram-switching their weaker defenders off of Butler in the first half. It denied Butler opportunities to weaponize his size and savvy when the ball eventually swung his way from the other side of the court. But really the scram-switching was a testament to Philadelphia’s defensive execution and focus.
In order to successfully scram-switch, the new defender needs to rush to the offensive player while the ball is in air on a pass elsewhere on the court. Meanwhile, the mismatched defender has to find his new assignment. The communication needs to be pristine, and the decision to scram needs to be timed to perfection. If one of those two things fails, you’re surrendering a wide-open three or a cut to the rim. Philadelphia was prepared to do it, and the scram-switches at least took away Miami’s ability to target vulnerabilities with ease.
You don’t have to dig very deep to find (rightful) criticism of Harden’s playoff resume. He has a number of 2-for-11 misfirings compounded by obscene turnover numbers. It hasn’t been to the tune of 2-for-11 in these playoffs, but he’s had a handful of games trending towards disappointing with the Sixers, too. But, none of the past mattered on Sunday. Zooming into the here and now, nothing mattered from just a week ago.
With the Sixers battling to avoid a 3-1 hole heading back to Miami, Harden stepped up to both add some weight to the positive side of his resume and neutralize the deficit created from the first 2 games of the series. With the building begging for air as the Heat punched back, Harden pumped oxygen into 40,000-odd lungs with a fourth-quarter barrage.
For the first time in weeks, Harden was able to overcome his own shortcomings as a separation-creator. He drained 4 triples over outstretched arms in the fourth frame, electrifying those in attendance with each back-breaking shot. Harden had only scored more than 29 points once in his Sixers tenure prior to Sunday — a home loss to the Bucks near the end of the regular season. With Miami on death’s doorstep in the final 2 minutes of play, Harden’s final money ball of the night — a contested triple somewhere between the top of the arc and the right wing — sent him over the line to a 31-point night and effectively wiped away the equity Miami had built in the first 2 games of the series.
It feels like the last time the Sixers had any urgency on the defensive glass was in the Toronto series. Through the first 3-and-a-quarter games of this series, the Sixers have totally failed to finish possessions. They’ve done enough to make Miami work for shots. They’ve seen the favorable result on those first looks, too. But, they’ve been blind-sided by PJ Tucker and Jimmy Butler along the baseline a number of times. And if they’re not sneaking to the rim for rebounds right around the basket, Adebayo is there to volley the basketball back out to the perimeter to reset the possession.
To compound the extra possessions they gave Miami, the Sixers committed 5 turnovers in the first quarter. So, they continue to give Miami an exorbitant number of possessions and, thus, tax their own defense. It’s been a theme throughout the series thus far, with and without Embiid available. The only thing left to do is correct it and hope that those prior miscues don’t contribute to their elimination if the Sixers meet their demise in this series.
To their credit, the Sixers were world’s better on the defensive glass after the first quarter. Miami had 3 offensive rebounds in the first quarter. They recorded 2 over the remaining 3 quarters of the game. But, they didn’t figure out the turnover issue. Much of that has to do with Harden. He committed 6 in the game, many of which came as he drove through heavy traffic and was stripped as he approached the basket. At this point in his career, you’re not going to change him. He’s a turnover-prone facilitator trying to retain the remaining explosiveness he has as a scorer at 32 years of age. You have to take the good with the bad with a guy sporting his regular-season resume.
I know this is a tall task, but it would be beneficial if the Sixers could figure out how to make an entry pass to Embiid’s leading hand in the post. The likes of Harden and other entry-passers missed Embiid’s hand as he fended off mismatches and stretched out towards the rim. The result, of course, was turnovers. When that happens, Rivers needs to help his team out by getting them into Delay action so that Embiid can catch the ball more in the middle of the floor where he can see and the Heat helpers have a longer distance to recover.
There were 2 bad rarities in the building on Sunday night. First, a fight broke out in the second half near the media section. No clue who won. But, the surrounding crowd reacted as if they’d never seen a fight before. But, c’mon people. On Mother’s Day, no less?
The other was the Sixers Flight Squad. They missed something like 4 or 5 dunks during their routine in the second half. That’s the first time I’ve ever witnessed that, and they’re usually flawless in execution. But, not on Sunday. Just brutal.
The Sixers (2-2) will head back to Miami to visit the Heat (2-2) in Game 5. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on TNT.