The Sixers (0-1) and Heat (1-0) faced off in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series on Wednesday night. Philadelphia hoped to take back homecourt advantage with a victory. Miami intended to take a commanding 2-0 series lead with a win. James Harden’s 20 points and 9 assists weren’t enough, as another horrendous shooting night doomed the Sixers, 119-103.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
The Sixers were without Joel Embiid, who is trying to make a rapid recovery from a fractured right orbital bone and mild concussion.
According to NBC Sports Philadelphia’s John Clark, there is optimism Embiid will return for Game 3 on Friday night.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and DeAndre Jordan.
The Heat were without Kyle Lowry, who remained out with a strained left hamstring.
Erik Spoelstra started Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Jimmy Butler, PJ Tucker, and Bam Adebayo.
After a flat-out horrendous first stint in Game 1, DeAndre Jordan was at least a net positive in the first 6 minutes of Game 2. Offensively, Jordan was a jolt of electricity. He took his frustrations out on the basket with a pair of powerful lob dunks. Defensively, there were some hiccups. Namely, a misstep that surrendered a thunderous dunk to Bam Adebayo. He later sent the younger big to the line for a 3-point play on a silly foul later in the quarter. Beyond that, Jordan vacuumed up a pair of defensive rebounds and stretched out his size to encourage Miami into settling for long twos out of drop coverage in the pick-and-roll.
After a brutal first quarter, James Harden showed up in a big way in the second frame. He powered his way to the rim for a couple of finishes, got to his floater, knocked in a stepback triple, and drew 3 free throws. It wasn’t that he was able to create tremendous space. It was more that he was able to burst in small spurts to beat defenders to spots and then get all the way to the rim. He can think his machine-gun dribble package. Some nights, the dribbling dances are effective creation separation. Other games, it’s a waste of shot clock. On Wednesday, it was particularly effective in lulling the man in Harden’s way long enough for him to pop forward and get the assignment on his hip.
Tobias Harris has been nothing short of sensational these playoffs. It’s been particularly surprising given that he had more downs than ups in the regular season. Perhaps he’s figured out he’s most comfortable in the simplified role he plays next Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, and Harden. But whatever it is, his consistent play continued on Wednesday. Jimmy Butler’s presence was certainly felt more than it was in Game 1. But, the guy who is arguably Miami’s best player has not taken either game over.
You can thank Harris for that. He’s drawing better than just a positive on defense, taking various assignments of wide-ranging player profiles and handling all of them well. On offense, Harris’ touch at the rim has been much better than it was in the regular season. He’s shown better vertical pop at the rim, too. And the jumper has been a source of offense at times when the Sixers are otherwise drawing dead on that end of the floor.
Once the Sixers started playing through Maxey in the halfcourt and getting the ball ahead to him in transition, the young guard kept the Sixers alive far longer than they should’ve been. The jumper has not been the prolific weapon it was in the first round. Much of that is attributable to Miami daring him to take deeper threes and his drawing a higher defensive priority for Miami in Embiid’s absence. But, his craft and touch around the rim were as sensational as ever in Game 2. If he was taking on multiple defenders in transition, Maxey leveraged Euro-steps and changes in speed to overcome the obstacles. If the Sixers were in the halfcourt, he was attacking driving lanes early in the shot clock and aggressively went at the chests of Tyler Herro or any other Heat defender in his way.
Furkan Korkmaz showed life with a pair of threes and 6 rebounds in 18 minutes. He and Harris were the only Sixers to make multiple threes in the game. His defensive liability will rightfully limit how long he can play. But, the Sixers are so desperate for anything from the bench that Korkmaz might’ve bought himself some equity with a couple buckets on Wednesday.
Paul Reed only committed 2 fouls in 25 minutes. Progress!
Speaking of backup bigs, Charles Bassey checked into the game for the final minutes and promptly served up a volleyball rejection out of a rotation from the weak side of the rim. I wonder how many more regular-season games the Sixers would’ve won by 5 instead of losing by 4 because the opposition went on a run in the early fourth quarter when Jordan was on the floor. At the end of the day, the Sixers probably get devoured by the Celtics in the second round if they end up getting either of the 2- or 3-seeds. The 1-seed would’ve certainly been nice, though. It was totally in play, too.
There’s no point in worrying about the regular season now, especially since the 1- and 4-seeds were more favorable than the 2- and 3-seeds were this year. But, who knows how Game 1 turns out if Bassey played backup minutes in the regular season and was entrusted with the starting minutes on Monday. Might be 1-1 heading back to Philly.
Aside from a couple strokes of brilliance on feeds to his diving bigs, James Harden was basically a no-show in the first quarter. I can’t say that without contextualizing that he was often met with two or three defenders as soon as he moved in any direction. It’s hard for 99% of 32-year-olds to be effective when they have to navigate 3 defenders on the ball. But, Harden had absolutely nothing going in the first quarter. His passes went into tight spaces and resulted in turnovers. Harden dribbled into heavy traffic and lost the ball. He couldn’t create separation on his jumper. After an uninspiring Game 1, it was a brutal start to Game 2.
What Harden can do right now and in the future cannot be accurately portrayed without talking about who is on the court with him. Right now, he’s being asked to take a time machine back 3 or 4 years and win a game against an elite defense without his running mate in Joel Embiid. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Harden appears unable to push the wagon by himself when the ancillary pieces lack athleticism and shot-creation skills. None of what he does matters without Joel Embiid playing. This team is going to go as far as Embiid can take them. James Harden’s job is to balance the workload and set up the offense when Embiid is available. Without Embiid, it has to be a team effort.
Having said that, Harden had 4 points and 4 assists after halftime. That absolutely will not cut it.
Last thing on the Harden one-man show — you can live with him being only pretty good on offense if he’s fine on defense. You can live with him being sensational on offense and barely awake on defense. It can’t be that he’s only pretty good on offense and barely showing a pulse on defense. He has his patented last-second strip as the driver gets to the rim. But, Harden could make an effort to not lose corner three-point shooters. There was at least one Miami possession in which he checked out on defense and Miami pinned him down with a screen as the ball found the corner shooter. Those are back-breakers.
If Matisse Thybulle is going to be non-existent on offense, his defense has to be pristine and impenetrable at all times. Instead, he was jumping from Miami-Dade to Broward County on Jimmy Butler’s shot fake. That fake has to be on the front page of the scouting report. So, did Thybulle read the scouting report and still fall for the trick? Did he just not read the report and show up ill-prepared? You choose which scenario is worse. Beyond that, Thybulle got beat to the basket by Tyler Herro for a layup.
It’s getting quite simple. Thybulle’s defense is probably overrated at this point. It can be made up for by a well-executed game plan by the collective. If his defensive impact is absent, he has no place in a playoff rotation due to the shallowness of his offensive game.
It’s inverted, but the same largely holds for Georges Niang. He needs to check in and promptly drop threes. Otherwise, his defensive liability makes him basically unplayable. To put it into context, Niang fouled out in 10 minutes of play. That’s less than 2 minutes between his fouls.
They’re so painfully thin on the bench that it probably does more harm than good to banish them both from the rotation entirely. But, the leash needs to be quite short because the margin of error is so slim on both ends of the floor.
Maxey ultimately had a great game, but Harden could’ve done a much better job of setting him up. Once Harden realized he had nothing going, he would kick to Maxey in the dying moments of the shot clock. He tasked his teammate with creating something from nothing. Miami packs the driving lanes around Harden. So when he’s getting the ball to Maxey on the same side of the floor with 5 seconds left on the shot clock, he’s not putting his teammate in a good position to make something happen. Harden’s the point guard. He can make better decisions in that regard.
Danny Green only had 3 points in the game. But, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. 1-for-9 from three, and almost all from the corner office. That won’t work.
It’s a damn shame that Pascal Siakam delivered that blow to Joel Embiid’s face in Game 6. Save for stretches in Game 1, the Heat have not looked head and shoulders better than an Embiid-led Sixers team. There’s no question in my mind that this series looks much different right now if the big fella is available. Heat fans can whine about “you’re sleeping on #HeatCulture” all they want. The reality is Miami is only +30 so far with the Sixers shooting like hot garbage and Embiid not playing. They should have a pair of wins exceeding 25 points each right now.
But hey, you get what you deserve. Right, Jack Armstrong?
The series will shift to Philadelphia on Friday. The Sixers’ (0-2) season is essentially on the line. If Miami (2-0) goes up 3-0, we all know what history says. Game 3 tips off at 7 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on ESPN.