The Sixers were minus-30 in the first 2 games of their second-round series against the Heat. On the surface, that number represents a blowout. But the deeper you dug into the 2 games, the more you felt like there was valid reason for optimism.
The Sixers were only minus-30 over 2 games despite shooting 14-for-64 from deep and missing MVP finalist Joel Embiid. Given that context, you might project that number to look something like minus-50. Not losses of 14 and 16 points, both of which were competitive through 3 quarters.
At the heart of the damage against Philadelphia was versatile Heat big man Bam Adebayo. He shot 10-for-12 in the restricted area and 5-for-7 in the non-restricted area of the paint. Adebayo connected on 15 of 19 shots in the paint, and was only disrupted to the tune of 0-for-2 shooting on midrange jumpers.
We can bark about DeAndre Jordan’s role in all of it. Sure, Doc Rivers should’ve known better than to play Jordan. If every media member and fan knew it, he should’ve, too. But, he also tried out Paul Millsap. He gave Paul Reed more minutes than the second-year big was probably ready for. He didn’t give rookie big Charles Bassey a look, but he hadn’t played in weeks due to a sprained shoulder.
It is as simple as this — the Sixers had nothing resembling a road block for Adebayo. Neither an individual Sixer nor a combination of them was going to perturb the Kentucky product. The mismatches he had in the first 2 games in Miami were at the core of Philadelphia’s 2-0 hole in the series.
Back comes Embiid, his face hidden behind a piece of matte black plastic to protect his fractured orbital bone. And everything changed for Philadelphia on the defensive end of the floor.
Bam Adebayo was without a bucket, going 0-for-3, between the restricted area and non-restricted area of the paint in Philadelphia’s Game-3 victory. The Sixers kept him out of his comfort zone, forcing Adebayo into midrange jumpers to the tune of a 2-for-6 performance.
“We definitely showed more looks of packing the paint. Joel for sure always has his presence in the game offensively and defensively. So, I think it’s a combination of both,” Tobias Harris told reporters on Saturday when asked about whether Adebayo’s lack of impact was as simple as Embiid being on the floor.
Embiid is the fulcrum of the Sixers’ defensive punch, earning much of the credit for Miami’s lack of production at the rim in Game 3. But, Harris isn’t wrong in saying that a team effort played a role in stopping Adebayo. Embiid was only credited with 7 minutes and 31 seconds of matchup time with Adebayo on Friday night. The Floridian shot 1-for-5 en route to 3 points (1-of-2 at the free throw line) in that one-on-one matchup.
Adebayo was 1-for-4 in isolated matchups against all other Sixers in Game 3.
He wasn’t the only member of the Heat to struggle with Embiid in his way. Miami, as a team, shot 5-for-24 in individual matchups against the big fella.
“It literally is that simple,” Rivers said when posed with the same question Harris was asked above.
“I mean, he was matched up a lot of minutes against Joel. He did have a stretch without him. But just, when a guy is bigger than you and athletic with girth and whatever else, it helps. And Joel, I’ve said it all year, that he really has not gotten his due defensively. And I thought yesterday kind of showed that.”
It’s going to take a synergistic effort from the Sixers to stifle Miami long enough to get back into and take control of this series. And if Embiid’s return in Game 3 is any indicator of how viable that is, the series may have only just begun.