The Sixers (7-4) hosted the Miami HEAT (4-4) on Tuesday night. It was the first of a two-game home series against Miami. The Sixers, of course, were coming off a throttling at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks. Miami’s most recent game, which would’ve been against the Celtics, was postponed due to a COVID case limiting the number of players they had available. So, the HEAT had not played since January 9th, a victory over the Wizards. The Sixers, led by a sensational performance from Joel Embiid, held off the HEAT in overtime, 137-134.
Before we get to the game, some notes.
Ben Simmons returned to the lineup for the Sixers, who inched closer to normalcy little by little. Nonetheless, Tobias Harris (protocol), Seth Curry (protocol), Matisse Thybulle (protocol), Shake Milton (protocol), Vincent Poirier (protocol), Terrance Ferguson (personal), and Furkan Korkmaz (left adductor strain) were still out. Simmons, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Mike Scott, and Joel Embiid started for Philadelphia.
Before the game, the Sixers announced that Korkmaz was progressing in his rehabilitation and individual workouts. He is expected to increase on-court activities in the coming days and will be re-evaluated ahead of the team’s upcoming road trip.
Due mostly to COVID protocols, the HEAT only had Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Kelly Olynyk, Andre Iguodala, Precious Achiuwa, Gabe Vincent, Chris Silva, and Max Strus available. Erik Spoelstra started Herro, Vincent, Robinson, Achiuwa, and Olynyk.
The first quarter was yet another sloppy one for the Sixers. They built their lead as high as eleven points early on, but turnovers revived an energetic HEAT team. That is, to some extent, attributable to the team’s lead ball-handler being rusty after not having played since Thursday. But, it would also be naive to pretend that this hasn’t been a problem for the Sixers for years. It is, to a larger extent, attributable to them not being locked in from tip-off and not taking opponents seriously. That falls on the team’s on-court leaders to set the tone early on.
Simmons’ Ugly Return
Ben Simmons had just about the worst half he could’ve possibly had in his return from a knee injury. When he was able to get downhill with any sort of pace, he was stopping on a dime and kicking back to shooters on the perimeter instead of getting to the rim. Those perimeter kicks are fine when they’re progressing the basketball in transition. But, when Simmons is leading in transition, there’s no way he can justify spontaneously turning around and shuttling the ball outside when he has the downhill advantage.
Simmons’ horrendous half continued as the HEAT began to implement their zone defense. He finished the first half with 3 points (1-of-1 FG), 6 assists, 5 turnovers, and 3 fouls. To be fair to Ben, there is probably a touch of rust involved as he plays for the first time in five days. But, this has been the story of his NBA career. He gives the team very little in a half-court offense. It’s approaching the point of being untenable.
Defensively, the Sixers were particularly putrid, as well. Miami’s primary credible offensive weapons, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, were leaving their marks without much resistance. For a pair of wings who are athletically challenged in some respects, that they were able to get theirs was proof the Sixers were not mentally prepared for the defensive end of the floor.
There was one bright spot of the first half, and it was Dwight Howard’s shoes. His neon green footwear possessed a glare that shined for miles.
The Sixers trailed by 8 points at halftime. Mind you, the HEAT were without Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Goran Dragic, among others. Unless the HEAT had the 2K shooting sliders on 100 from everywhere on the court, that is an unacceptable first half effort.
Simmons’ struggles in the first half subsided a bit in the early stages of the second half. Nonetheless, the offense was still stuck in the mud with no real signs of life. Rivers elected to sit Simmons, and get Joel Embiid positioning towards the middle of the floor. The big fella delivered an iconic monologue. Embiid scored 20 points in the third frame, turning an 11-point deficit into a 4-point lead as the catalyst of a 15-0 Sixer run.
It’s become a difficult truth of their relationship, but Embiid’s level of engagement on the offensive end improves when Simmons isn’t on the floor. Part of it, of course, is that the spacing improves and the offense becomes much easier for Embiid to navigate. The other part could be mentality. When Simmons is on the court, Embiid has to juggle getting his star teammate involved and pass up some looks that he’d otherwise look to score on without hesitation.
When Simmons is off the court, Embiid is the only credible star the team has on offense. He obviously watches the NBA when he’s not playing, and he sees stars taking over games to will their teams to victory. So, when Simmons isn’t on the court, Embiid activates his version of a takeover, and, well, good luck defending that.
The Process was absolutely incredible in this game, netting 45 points on 23 field goal attempts. Embiid also got to the line thirteen times, converting all of his attempts. He ripped down 16 rebounds to go along with 4 assists, 5 steals, and a block. Embiid absolutely dominated the second half of this game, scoring 35 of his 45 points in the final 29 minutes of play. He also contributed 11 of the Sixers’ 17 points in overtime. After the game, Embiid said of his performance, “We get to the third quarter, we’re down by ten, and I was like, ‘when things get tough, who’s gonna show up?’ That’s my job.”
“Aggressive doesn’t mean score.”
Embiid is beginning to develop his dominance in other areas of the game, as well. Over the first two weeks of the season, we saw him try to tease teams into showing double-teams. In previous seasons, he would’ve shied away and held onto the ball long enough for defenses to engulf him. Now, he invites the extra attention and manipulates it to spark ball movement. “You know, just be aggressive. Aggressive doesn’t mean score,” Embiid said after the victory. “Especially the way other teams are guarding me. I can create shots for my teammates. I might not get the assists. But, the simple thing counts, so we’re gonna end up with easy shots.”
Rivers lauded Embiid’s performance, saying, “It’s who he is, and we tell him that every night. I thought just his will, he willed this game for us.”
Isaiah Joe built on his strong game against the Hawks on Monday with a 13-point performance against the HEAT. Joe connected on a quartet of threes, including one in the waning stages of regulation that ultimately set Embiid up for the game-tying shot. Joe’s minutes are coming at a time when the team has no other options, so his usage right now likely isn’t a credible indicator of where he stands when the roster is fully healthy. However, with the shooting he has displayed in the three games the team has been short-handed, it’s hard not to envision lineups in which Rivers can weaponize him.
The defensive side of the ball is problematic, and Herro’s ability to get virtually whatever he wanted against Joe on Tuesday did not help alleviate that concern. However, if giving him minutes improves spacing and helps make life easier for Embiid, it’s something for the coaching staff to consider.
The Ring Brothers
Danny Green, coming off of an 0-for-9 performance in the loss to the Hawks that featured a hilarious back-and-forth with a fan in attendance, nearly set a Sixers’ franchise-record for triples made in a single game. Green connected on 9 of his 21 attempts and pulled down 10 rebounds to go along with a season-high 29 points. While Green has battled with some pronounced ups-and-downs in the early stages of his Sixer career, he rebounded beautifully from his stinker on Monday.
After the game, Dwight Howard praised his teammate: “I always believe in Danny every time he shoots the ball. Obviously, if you look at his right arm when he shoots, he’s got a target on it. So, every time I see that, I feel like he’s gonna go in.” Doc Rivers joked about his veteran wing’s will in the victory: “Danny Green is a thousand years old and he played 49 minutes.”
“I will do a better job of not getting those dumb fouls and just saving those because rebounding on this team, getting stops is very important.”
Speaking of Dwight Howard, Superman was certainly in the building tonight. Howard’s play was hindered by foul trouble for a few weeks prior to this game. But, against the HEAT, he was able to avoid fouls and provided a source of offense when Embiid rested. It is quite comical to think about, but it holds true–the offense was so clogged at times in this game, that Howard pulling down offensive rebounds or randomly finding the ball in a crowd and slamming it home was actually a primary generator of points at different times throughout the affair. Certainly not ideal, but you’ll take Howard’s 10 points, 8 rebounds, and only 2 fouls in 14 minutes whenever you can get it.
After the victory, Howard spoke of his foul trouble in recent games: “At times, it is frustrating to pick up those ticky-tack fouls. But, I just have to continue to play through everything. The referees, missed calls, bad calls that I feel, or just fouls in general. Just be better for my teammates and they will allow me to be a presence out there on the court. I will do a better job of not getting those dumb fouls and just saving those because rebounding on this team, getting stops is very important. Being the oldest guy on this team, I can’t get into foul trouble every night.”
This team really isn’t in the business of feel-good moments now that the rebuilding years are over. However, this game did have one. Dakota Mathias, who has looked equal parts capable on offense and overwhelmed on defense, fouled Tyler Herro on a triple. Herro converted the four-point play to give the Heat a one-point lead late in overtime. But, he was not phased by his mistake. The very next play, Mathias drilled a triple of his own–his only score of the game–to give the Sixers a two-point lead, a lead that they would not relinquish.
The Sixers (8-4) split their back-to-back and are off on Wednesday. They will be back in action on Thursday, hosting the HEAT (4-5) on the tail-end of their two-game series. Tip-off is set for 7 PM. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.