Photo by Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

The Sixers (2-3) hosted the Heat (3-2) in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. Philadelphia intended to push the matchup to a decisive Game 7. Miami hoped to put the series away without any of the risks that come with a Game 7. The Sixers offered zero resistance to Miami’s punches in the second half, falling 99-90 and meeting a second-round demise yet again. 

Before we get to what I saw, some context is due.

Contextual Notes

The Heat were without the services of Kyle Lowry, who is nursing a strained left hamstring.

Erik Spoelstra started Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Jimmy Butler, PJ Tucker, and Bam Adebayo.

There were no injuries to report for the Sixers.

Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.


After heavy criticism about his lack of aggressiveness in Game 5, Joel Embiid came out on something of a mission in Game 6. Efficiency certainly wasn’t on his side in the game. But, Embiid put himself in position to clean up the offensive glass and get some easy scores that way. If he found himself with the ball on the perimeter, Embiid aggressively attacked the baseline and got to the rim. Defensively, he made an effort to alter shots at the rim and did his part to keep Miami away from offensive rebounds. As the game wore on, fatigue kicked in and he began to settle for outside jumpers instead of battling for position in the paint. Even though he wasn’t his best self, Embiid stayed on the court for all but 4 minutes of the game despite clearly operating well below full health. 

Doc Rivers elected to apply extended pressure in the backcourt once Danny Green went out (more on that later). It was a heady adjustment, countering a downgrade in his halfcourt defense by forcing some time off the shot clock by making Miami work a bit to get the ball up the court.


Danny Green needed to be carried to the locker room following a collision with Embiid in which the big man fell onto Green’s leg. The impact caused Green’s leg to bend inwards, sending him to the ground writhing in pain. He missed the remainder of the game. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, there’s concern that the injury is quite severe. An MRI will be done to make an official diagnosis. 

On the surface, the loss of a 34-year-old spot-up shooter whose best defensive days are behind him doesn’t seem like that gutting of a subtraction. But, it is when he’s your best 3-and-D wing and your best spot-up shooter in these playoffs. Green’s departure materially changes things for the worse for his teammates.

The deficit with him gone speaks to both how under-rated his value is and how barren the Sixers are in their roster depth. Their best resorts in Green’s absence are Matisse Thybulle and Shake Milton. Even if the Sixers aren’t all that impacted on defense, they’re severely compromised on offense. Miami can rightfully sell out on either of Thybulle and Milton and pack the paint to prevent dribble penetration or crowd Embiid’s space with extra bodies. 

With Green’s exit, the energy was sucked out of the building for a few minutes and the Sixers were reeling. Miami capitalized, building a lead as big as 8 points before the Sixers snapped out of it. But as the game went on and the Sixers found themselves getting nowhere as the Heat teased a takeover, it was clear they missed Green’s calming presence on the court. Even if he’s not making shots, Green is their coach on the court. He’s their veteran who has forgotten more about what goes into NBA championships than the rest of the Sixers will ever know about them. You could tell that the Sixers were missing someone capable of both keeping a calm head and providing a tangible basketball skill that the team simply did not possess elsewhere on the roster. 

Without that sage guidance, the Heat essentially toyed with Philadelphia until the second half started. 

Embiid clearly observed the commentary about his motivations following a very disappointing effort in Game 5. He heightened his physicality, battling for offensive rebounds and attempting to take multiple Floridians to the rim when he saw angles to attack. He expensed quite a bit of energy in response, falling to the ground after one particular play. Once he got up, he collapsed to his knees on the court, gathered himself, and ran to the bench to avoid any help from staffers.

The Sixers certainly need Embiid to exert himself more than he did in Game 5. But, going too hard burns fuel and can cause an athlete to lose control. He’s of no use to the Sixers if he’s out of the game with injury or so spent trying to do too much that he’s out of gas while the game is still hanging in the balance. There’s nothing to gain in trying to prove national audiences wrong. He should play his game and play it intelligently. 

James Harden had a fine first half on offense, but boy was he checked out on defense. He let Tyler Herro sneak into the paint for an offensive rebound and putback layup. In the situation the Sixers are in, that’s simply unacceptable effort. Harden may as well have put his mug on a milk carton because he was totally missing in the second half.

It wasn’t an ugly game for him by any means. In fact, he shot the ball fine. It was that he just didn’t do anything besides dribble and move. He didn’t aggressively hunt his shot. Harden didn’t try to get downhill all the way to the rim or crack the paint and try to make plays. He simply existed and got his cardio in. It wasn’t that he proved or reinforced his playoff reputation by playing terribly; it was that his lack of meaningful contributions across Games 5 and 6 did nothing to disprove the reputation. Aside from a couple of games in the Raptors series and Game 4 of this series, it has largely been a disappointing playoffs for the Sixers’ return in the Ben Simmons trade.

Sensing that Embiid was exhausted, Doc Rivers resorted to drop coverage on defense to lessen his workload and conserve energy. Given Miami’s toughness in attacking the rim upon turning the corner and prowess as shooters in the midrange, that schematic adjustment basically authorized the Heat to get their offense just as they like. Worse than that, drop coverage empowers dribble hand-offs because the dropped big isn’t there to contest a shooter curling around the hand-off. The Sixers quickly fell apart in that scheme, surrendering the momentum going to the rim, open midrange jumpers, and triples peeling off screens.

Speaking of coaching decisions that raised eyebrows, no idea what the value in starting Thybulle in the second half was. He showed not a single sign of life in the first half, missing everything but a dunk on an inbound play and committing silly fouls. If you’re going to go down as the Sixers appeared ready to do, go down with a spaced floor. Put Milton in the Green spot and give yourself a chance on offense to start the second half.

You felt the team’s pulse quickly begin to fade in the third quarter. They simply gave in. Miami forced them into extremely difficult shots, giving multiple clean contests at the rim, denying anything within the three-point arc. The Sixers were forced into heavily contested shots on the perimeter, and that isn’t a passable offense. Meanwhile, Miami completely outworked them on the other end. The Heat beat the Sixers to loose balls and offensive rebounds all second half. The extra shots, of course, turned into points. 

At the end of the day, Rivers can try to inspire with speeches all he wants. The adults on the court have to come out and play. For the second game in a row, though, the Sixers came out unprepared to match Miami’s energy and physicality. Beyond that, they were completely listless in 2 consecutive critical games. It’s not like they were down 2-0. The series was tied 2-2. The Sixers had completely new life. And they were simply too soft to punch back.

The damning part isn’t that it happened once. It’s that the Sixers got crushed, had a day to think about it and rest, and then came out and played with only slightly better energy. I don’t know if you can justly fire Rivers under the context of Embiid clearly not being himself with various serious injuries and the team’s calming presence leaving the game early with a significant leg injury. But the lack of effort indicates that Rivers’ players perhaps tuned him out, and that might not be something you can look past in evaluating his future with the franchise.

Perhaps the most painful part for Embiid, Elton Brand, and ownership is that they got to watch as the one who got away thoroughly torched them for 5 of the 6 games. At the time, choosing Ben Simmons over Jimmy Butler was the right decision if a choice had to be made. But the right move was to retain both and try to make the relationship work.

Sometimes breakups feel wrong, but factors beyond the desires of the parties involved force the separation. You just hope that that isn’t the one that got away.

Now, the Sixers head into an offseason wondering “what if”, regarding both the past and the present, as they head back to the drawing board to figure out how to break through their perpetual second-round ceiling.