Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid

The Sixers (24-17) visited the Miami Heat (27-15) on Saturday night. Philadelphia was looking to sweep both legs of a back-to-back. Miami had identical intentions. Joel Embiid scored 25 points in the second half to push the Sixers past the HEAT, 109-98.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without the services of Matisse Thybulle, who is nursing a sore right after a hard fall in the win over the Celtics on Friday, and Shake Milton, who is nursing a back contusion. Danny Green missed the game with pain in his right hip. 

Jaden Springer was on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was not with the team.

Ben Simmons is not mentally ready to play and did not play. (I’m getting tired of typing that every night.)

Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Furkan Korkmaz, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The HEAT were without the services of Bam Adebayo, who is recovering from UCL reconstruction in his right thumb. Although Adebayo is expected to return this upcoming week, according to Adrian Wojnarowski.

Markieff Morris is reconditioning for a return to competition and was unavailable. Victor Oladipo is still recovering from a right knee injury and did not play. KZ Okpala and Marcus Garrett missed the game with sprained right wrists.

Chris Silva and Kyle Guy were ineligible to play and were out. 

Erik Spoelstra started Kyle Lowry, Max Strus, Jimmy Butler, PJ Tucker, and Omer Yurtseven.

First Quarter

Part of what stalled Miami’s offense early on was the attention that Max Strus received navigating screens away from the ball. Miami’s offense has various layers because of the individual stardoms of Lowry and Butler working on one side of the floor, with off-ball activity on the other side of the floor to force defenses to pay attention. To the Sixers’ credit, they prevented an early hot spell from Strus by fighting through off-ball screens or switching them so that the shooter couldn’t spring loose. The HEAT eventually flowed into their natural identity of playing through Butler out of the post, but the strain of an early, growing deficit wasn’t there to get Philly against the wall early.

As good as they were in denying Strus openings away from the ball, the Sixers were crushed on the defensive glass in the opening frame. Rookie big Omer Yurtseven registered 10 points and 6 rebounds (3 offensive) in his first 8 minutes of play. It wasn’t like you could give him his flowers for being crafty. He deposited a few buckets by just running down the middle of the floor as a dive big and catching the Sixers asleep. If it wasn’t that, he was rushing to the rim to pick up the loose change his teammates left for him.

That’s not an Embiid problem, as he had to sell out to contest shots at the rim when Miami’s more athletic drivers blew past Philly’s perimeter defenders. That’s a problem of Embiid’s running mate at the proverbial big spot. Tobias Harris has to do a far better job of helping his teammate when enemies crash the offensive glass by simply boxing out. The Sixers are the league’s worst rebounding team, which underscores some of Ben Simmons’ value. But they can resolve some of that by making a concerted effort to keep opponents off of the secondary glass and preventing easy finishes on put-backs while Embiid is recovering from his contest.

Second Quarter

Much of Philadelphia’s offensive lethargy from the first quarter spilled into the second quarter. And it was largely self-inflicted wounds. Even with their defensive identity being zone, Miami is conditioned to play up on passing lanes. So with youngsters like Isaiah Joe in the game making mistakes, and more seasoned Sixers just not locked in, Philly left some loose passes out there for Miami to poke away. And the HEAT did just that.

The Sixers, as a team, don’t do the little things, like boxing out or making crisp passes, nearly well enough and it’s reflected in their record. 7 games above .500 is pretty good, but their point differential of plus-1.8 indicates there’s been an element of luck in their record. That isn’t to say that they’ve gotten lucky with COVID-stricken opponents. Rather, it’s in-game luck. They’ve taken COVID-stricken opponents lightly and have played up to like-or-superior competition. The Cleveland Cavaliers are also 7 games above the water. Their differential is plus-5.1. The Milwaukee Bucks are 9 games above .500, and their differential is plus-3.9. This is all to say that a team with a significant winning record should have a point differential reflective of their being a good team. So a team like the Sixers, with a significant winning record and a .500-level point differential, is likely getting by despite underperforming its own capacity.

Embiid is a crutch, but the rest of the team is not good enough to coast by on talent. They don’t have Ben Simmons for the foreseeable future, if not ever again. Tobias Harris has regressed. So, the Sixers need to operate like a team that is a superstar and a bunch of role players. That means making crisp passes as if the possession depends on it to avoid live-ball turnovers. That means boxing out and taking away second-chance points. They simply don’t do the little things. And so until they start to build better habits, the Sixers profile as a .500 team that has benefitted from enough in-game luck — and sat on the shoulders of Joel Embiid — to separate themselves from the grayness of mediocrity.

Charlie Brown Jr is like a Matisse Thybulle clone, in both the best and worst way. He made a handful of great defensive plays in his stint in the second frame, slapping the ball out of the firm grasps of Floridians as they attacked the cup to force wild shots or loose balls. If he can ever figure out that shot-put thing that serves as a jump shot, there’s a place for him in this league.

It was a great first half for Tobias Harris, who deposited 15 points on 8 field goal attempts. He kept the Sixers in it when they sorely needed scores to make their defensive stops meaningful. Perhaps most impactful of all, he connected on a trio of triples in the first half. It would compliment Embiid’s game wonderfully if Harris feels empowered to jack 4-6 threes per game. The only way he’s going to feel encouraged to do that — regardless of how much his team begs him to do it — is if he sees success when he steps outside his comfort zone at the midrange level.

Third Quarter

Miami never quite found a rhythm from deep through 2.5 quarters despite running some of their usual actions to get comfortable looks. And the Sixers got themselves back into the affair by cashing in on their triples. Seth Curry drained a handful of triples in the frame to keep the Sixers alive when Miami went on its run. To cap it off, the biological Splash Brother knocked one in at the buzzer to give the Sixers a two-point lead heading into the fourth frame.

The HEAT’s struggles from deep — within their regular offense — underscored just how fortunate the Sixers were to catch them on a cold night. There were a handful of occasions in which Miami got great looks, and just couldn’t knock them in. The Sixers are a horrific transition defense and that usually spells disaster against polished shooters. Even Duncan Robinson couldn’t get his shots to fall when peeling off DHOs. 

But to their credit, the Sixers executed some wonderful defensive rotations around the perimeter. They chased Miami off the three-point line a number of times and communicated tremendously around screens. Even if the HEAT had decent looks, the speed with which the Sixers recovered forced Miami to think long enough to hold its fire as the gaps closed.

Fourth Quarter

The Sixers and their viewers were treated to the full Andre Drummond experience early in the fourth quarter. He turned the ball over in traffic, nearly conceded a second-chance possession to Miami because of his poor hands under the HEAT’s basket, and then nearly turned the ball over on a dribble move before roping a gorgeous bounce pass to a cutting Charlie Brown Jr for a layup to put the Sixers up by 4 points. 

The Brown Jr cut was quite brilliant — largely because it’s something the Sixers do so rarely. The shameful part is that it occurred when Miami applied pressure when Drummond picked up his dribble. Imagine how many easy baskets the Sixers would get if players would just cut when defenses regularly throw double-teams at Embiid. Given how often the offense clogs when Embiid picks up the ball and looks to spell the pressure by rifling a pass to an open teammate. It’s criminal that the likes of Curry, Maxey, Harris, and Niang don’t cut around Embiid more consistently. It’s so simple, and yet serves as another “little thing” the Sixers don’t do well.

For as bad as Embiid played in the first half, he was nothing short of incredible in the second half. When the Sixers needed their leader to step up with the game hanging in the balance, Embiid answered the bell with 13 huge points in the fourth quarter to send the few HEAT fans that attended the game home with frowns on their faces. To cap off the 11-point victory, Tyrese Maxey converted a 4-point play on Kyle Lowry. Between that and a Thybulle-esque engulfing of a Lowry three-point attempt earlier in the second half, the youngster made sure the veteran knew who he was.

The duo of Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry combined to shoot 3-for-22 from the field. Don’t know how often that’ll happen, but the Sixers will surely take it and run.

I don’t know how the Sixers do it, but they keep beating excellent teams on their home floors. And they staved off the HEAT in Miami on the second night of a back-to-back. Up there with their most impressive victories of the season.

The Sixers (25-17) will visit the Washington Wizards (22-21) on Monday afternoon. Tip-off is set for 2 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.