The Philadelphia 76ers (47-22) visited the Miami Heat (38-31) on Thursday. The Sixers failed to put the East’s top seed in stone on Tuesday. They were looking to get back on track and finish up their business before starting a two-game home series with the Orlando Magic on Friday. The Heat were looking to push their current winning streak to four games and stay on pace for the East’s fifth seed. Philadelphia looked like a team that had spent the previous night on Collins Avenue, as they were dismantled by the Heat, 106-94.
Before we get to what I saw, some context is needed.
Matisse Thybulle remained out with a swollen left hand. If you recall, he dinged it up in a loose ball scrum during last Saturday’s victory over the Pistons. Joel Embiid, Shake Milton, and Furkan Korkmaz returned to the court for the Sixers. Doc Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Heat were without Victor Oladipo, who underwent right knee surgery on Thursday and was deemed out for the remainder of the season. Erik Spoelstra started Kendrick Nunn, Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, Trevor Ariza, and Bam Adebayo.
The Sixers were perturbed in their efforts to make passes to the weak side of the court early on. That’s a credit to Miami’s help rotations. They were anticipating where the passing lanes were going to be and stepping up to cut off those alleys. There were a number of early possessions in which either Simmons or Embiid were looking to facilitate from the post and couldn’t even make passes because of how well Miami was denying those lanes. Embiid and Simmons clearly did not feel they were in advantageous positions to score the ball, as they couldn’t get anything going out of those post touches. They forced passes out to the perimeter, and Miami’s zone produced a handful of deflections to ignite transition opportunities for themselves.
The natural concern is that this is how teams will play Philly in the playoffs. They’re going to try to cut off shooters and blitz Embiid when the ball is in his hands. The trouble is going to come if he panics against those doubles and passes to spaces that aren’t there. The Sixers are dreadful at defending transition. Playoff opponents are going to undoubtedly try to create as much transition offense for themselves as they can. Philly is going to have to slow themselves down to avoid making mistakes on offense, or dramatically improve in transition very quickly if they have plans to get out of the second round.
“But, our zone O was horrendous tonight. We didn’t really run it much.”
Interestingly, I think that discussion has more than one alley to investigate. Phrased another way, that same concern is creating scores when teams are blitzing Embiid and positioning in help very well. The offense has been run through Embiid all season, and Green and Curry aren’t versatile enough to manufacture copious amounts of points by themselves. Simmons is a mystery, and that isn’t an inspiring characterization come playoff time. Harris has been excellent all season, but can go through lulls at the sweet spots of zones. So, if Embiid cannot simply take the game over, then where is the other shot creation coming from?
Rivers doesn’t seem too worried. “I think we’ve been trapped all year, so it’s not a concern,” Rivers said after the loss. “It’s a concern if we’re going to take the ball out every time and have to play against a halfcourt defense every single time down the floor. That would probably be a big concern for me. But, our zone O was horrendous tonight. We didn’t really run it much. We didn’t change sides of the floor on offense tonight a lot. So yeah, if we play like tonight, yeah, it would be a concern. But, I really don’t think we’ll play that way.”
“It was easy for them to set up that zone every time.”
Philadelphia was far more concerned with officiating early in this game and they lost focus in the first few minutes of the quarter when calls didn’t go their way. The Sixers quickly buckled and played without really any level of physicality against Miami’s zone defense. Particularly disappointing was Philly’s lack of pride and fight on the offensive end. They were turning it over on the first pass, missing at the rim, and not making any effort to work the ball for open looks.
Tobias Harris certainly didn’t think his team was offering much resistance, either. “It was easy for them to set up that zone every time,” Harris said after the loss. “They were scoring, I mean, we didn’t do a good job of getting enough stops to be able to get out in transition, so it was easy for them to set up. On top of that, we just didn’t have enough movement out there. No ball movement, and being able to get downhill and just put pressure on the zone. That was the biggest thing for us. So, it was easy for them to set up the whole night.”
Joel Embiid, while perhaps battling a flu-like illness, set the tone for the worse with his play in the first half. He was not equal to Adebayo’s efforts on either end of the floor. Adebayo completely outworked him on the glass, beating him to offensive rebounds and tipping in put-backs at various points throughout the first half. The Sixers, as all teams do, follow their leader. It was pretty clear their leader wasn’t up to take control and elevate his team from tip-off.
The Sixers were involved in a couple jawing matches in the first half. Embiid fell into Trevor Ariza’s ankle in the first quarter. The two went back and forth while Ariza was being treated on the sideline. Ariza thought it was a dirty play. Embiid felt it was just an unfortunate byproduct of a basketball play. The two seemingly resolved their differences at halftime.
Udonis Haslem made his season debut in this affair. He was promptly ejected after getting into a scrum with Dwight Howard. I assure you it was as hilarious as the words make it seem. It happened that quickly. Howard pushed Haslem to the ground fighting for a rebound, and Haslem did not take too kindly to that. Seems pretty ironic, seeing as Haslem has forged an identity as a physical presence by engaging in similar activities throughout his career. Nonetheless, Haslem sent some R-rated words Howard’s way, gave a nice shove, and hit the showers.
“We’ll go back to the drawing board and we’ll go into tomorrow’s game with that focus and that energy that we need.”
I didn’t really see the point in flying Embiid down there just for the team to come out so flat. A more sensible move would’ve been to just let him get an extra day to recover from his illness. With that extra day, clinch the 1-seed at home on Friday. It was very evident early on that the Sixers were not mentally in this game. The Heat were on the exact opposite end of the spectrum. They were trying to send a message. The Sixers were all ears. Instead of playing Embiid in this game and giving the Heat confidence that they could win a series in the playoffs if facing the Sixers, it would’ve been logical to maintain their caveat by not playing Embiid. Instead, the Heat look like a legitimately challenging matchup for Philly in the playoffs.
According to Tobias Harris, the Heat aren’t the only team with a target on the Sixers’ backs. “I think every team we play against is trying to send a message to us,” Harris said after the game.
“I mean, we’re the number-one team in the East. So, any team that we have gone up against has tried to send a message to us. Every game that we’ve played, we’ve here come in there and said that we’re number-one for a reason, and you’re not going to send a message to us. Or, we’ve come into games and, like tonight, we didn’t come up to the challenge. That’s on us as a group, as a whole, and that’s where we are tonight. So, yeah, they definitely did send a message. We’ll go back to the drawing board and we’ll go into tomorrow’s game with that focus and that energy that we need. We have to be better and we have to get better. That’s always been our mentality through the year. Win or loss, it’s ‘what way can be get better’. We’ll adjust, and we’ll be better.”
This game was, for all intents and purposes, over before halftime. The only observation I would point to is that I don’t quite understand the purpose of acquiring George Hill if the ball is going to be in Milton’s hands whenever the two are on the court together. It certainly seems as though the veteran point guard is not being utilize in a way that plays to his strengths. By the same token, I don’t see much more value being derived out of Milton being used on-ball this season. It would seem that the most beneficial thing for the team would be to play him in the off-ball, catch-and-go role that Rivers has seared into Harris’ brain this season.
The Sixers will keep trying to clinch the 1-seed when they host the Orlando Magic (21-49) on Friday night. Tip-off is set for 8 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.