The Sixers (39-21) were in Miami for a matchup with the Heat (33-29) on Wednesday. Philadelphia wanted to snap a two-game losing streak. Miami wanted to sweep the home-and-home set with the Sixers. The Embiid-less Sixers switched on defense all night long, cooling the Heat in a 119-96 victory.
Before we get to the game, allow me to set the scene.
The Sixers were without the services of Joel Embiid, who has a sore left foot.
Dewayne Dedmon has a sore left hip and was unavailable.
Jaden Springer is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable. Louis King and Mac McClung are on Two-Way assignments with the Blue Coats and were out.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, and PJ Tucker.
Miami was without the services of Kyle Lowry, who has a sore left knee. Omer Yurtseven is on an assignment with Miami’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.
Nikola Jovic has a stress reaction in his lower back and did not play. Jamal Cain is on a Two-Way G-League assignment and was out.
Erik Spoelstra started Gabe Vincent, Tyler Herro, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Love, and Bam Adebayo.
With Embiid unavailable, Rivers whisked Maxey into the starting lineup. Higher in the pecking order on offense, Maxey got touches early and often. But, it’s not just about touching the basketball with him. It’s about using him the correct way. Maxey fades into the background when he’s treated like a cog in the wheel or a station in the assembly line as Embiid and Harden eat up possessions.
He needs to be used as part of the product, featured as part of the three-headed core. Some of that fall out of the central focus happens naturally from being the sixth man. But, whether or not his name is called with the other four starters shouldn’t matter. What does matter is the context in which the ball comes his way and the players with which he’s grouped. He doesn’t have a self-creative package to his offensive arsenal yet, so asking him to do everything with four bench players is too much regardless of whether or not Rivers puts him back in the starting lineup.
The third-year guard needs two things to be effective. One, he needs to play with teammates who can create leverage for him. That means playing next to Embiid, Harden, or both. He only had one of those teammates on Wednesday. But, the other way to create leverage is anyone swinging the ball his way when the defense is in rotation. Two, he needs to receive the ball in positions to score. That means squared to the rim to shoot jumpers or with an immediate angle to get downhill. Harden and the Sixers put him in those exact spots all night.
The avalanche began with a pair of catch-and-shoot threes from the right corner in the first quarter, and a driving layup over a Butler contest sandwiched in between. Philadelphia stoked his fire with a couple of easy transition finishes throughout the rest of the game. But, Maxey found comfort very early by getting the rock in positions to score and was unstoppable the rest of night.
The memory of coming up a bit long on a would-be game-winning three against this same Heat team still fresh, Harden was on the attack early. He used his upper body strength to navigate a pair of converging white jerseys for a short floater to get the Sixers’ first bucket of the night.
No. 1 bombed away from deep for most of the rest of the night, sticking triples on four of his last five makes. He hit a pair of threes off the catch, floating to the weak side of the floor for a hit off of a drive-and-kick and later punishing Miami for not playing up on a DHO early in the third quarter. He stepped behind a screen to knock one down and danced in isolation before stepping back for another. It certainly wasn’t a night of grandiose playmaking for the bearded guy, but the game called for him to score more with Embiid absent. And he had no difficulty doing that against the fourth best defense in the league.
As Rivers starts to sharpie in his playoff rotation, I think it’s important to give Danuel House Jr. another look after racking up DNP – Coaching Decisions for the majority of this season. He has the size to be a legitimate wing and the athleticism for positional versatility. Sure, he can be a bit scatter-brained on offense. But, this team’s weaknesses call for a player of his profile to get minutes. Rivers called on no. 25 for this game.
The perimeter shooting was a bit off, as is expected from a non-sniper who doesn’t get many regular minutes. But, he used his body and athleticism well on defense. House stayed in front of whichever Heat ball-handler came his way, using his muscle mass to give resistance and his length to crowd the ball. I will continue to posit that House is one of the two or three best Sixers at pushing the pace in transition, he’ll run into dunks or shooting fouls just by doing that.
I thought it was the right call from Rivers to go with him and give Georges Niang the night off as the Sixers embraced switching everything on defense in Embiid’s absence. Not only do the Heat like to go small, but switching isn’t a good use of Niang’s defensive qualities. Philadelphia wanted to guard in space all night long, and House fits the bill. Good adjustment from the head coach.
There were two big stories in this game. First is a continuation on one of the points from the previous discussion. Philadelphia’s defense was a machine because of the switching scheme. The Sixers usually sit in drop coverage when Embiid is on the floor, affording ball-handlers space to get downhill and forcing the big man to make decisions as a rim-protector. But without Embiid and his interior defense, the Sixers leaned all the way into switching everything on the perimeter. After lacking spirit on defense in the first few minutes of the game, Philadelphia turned it all the way on.
The Sixers smothered the ball on the perimeter, taking away any edges to get downhill on pick-and-rolls. Even when the Heat did get into the paint, Philadelphia swarmed the ball. Switching screens on the perimeter as a primary principle and pressuring the ball when Miami did get inside as a secondary principle totally junked up the Heat offense. After trailing 43-39 early in the second quarter, Philadelphia went on a 12-0 run in large part due to the pressure the five men on the court applied to the basketball on defense. Aside from a couple of slaps back from Miami in the second half, it was smooth sailing from there for the Sixers.
The other big story was none other than Paul Reed. He was a force inside in this game. He played big on defense, using his length to bother shots around the rim all game long. Reed stayed disciplined, keeping his arms straight up and moving his feet instead of leaning with his body. His positioning when shots went up was tremendous, recording 14 rebounds with five coming on the offensive glass. Reed maneuvered around boxing-out Heat player for offensive rebounds and putbacks. He crashed from the weak side for defensive boards to end Miami possessions. Reed even registered a pair of blocks, guiding the ball into traffic before rejecting a baseline floater from Herro as a helper. He dismissed a Caleb Martin layup on a rotation to the ball when Melton fell behind the Heat wing on a crossover.
On offense, it was all about inside positioning for Reed. He sprinkled in a pair of baseline jumpers and a drive in space, but he did most of his scoring at the rim. Reed finished the job himself on the offensive glass, using his body to clear out space after securing the rebound before kissing the rock off the backboard for scores or timing his jumps perfectly so that no one could catch him going up for the putback.
16 points, 14 rebounds, and two blocks for Reed in this one. As important as any of it, only three fouls in nearly 29 minutes of play. Surely the best meaningful game of his career. Dare I say the best game for a backup big man in the Embiid era?
Totally understand that the small-ball lineup is inherently going to bleed on defense unless all five players are very strong switch defenders. If they’re not — which is the case for the Sixers — it leaves you vulnerable in a number of ways. Opposing teams will pull the worst defender’s man into the action to draw a switch on that defender and go to work in isolation. Or, the opposition will dribble penetrate against vulnerable point-of-attack defenders, getting the entire five-man unit into rotation.
Those are unavoidable flaws in the Sixers’ roster when they elect to go small. But, the Sixers know that. They’re going to give up some points. What you have to demand from the small-ball lineups is that they work hard on defense and leverage the lack of a big man inside on offense to attack the paint more.
Philadelphia didn’t offer much of either objective in the first couple minutes of the game. There was no digging into stances and matching physicality with the body. The contests weren’t sincere. The Sixers were not close enough to the shooters or quick enough to get hands up to affect shots.
On offense, the early ball movement wasn’t nearly clean enough. Philadelphia tried to move the ball diligently, cognizant that it would have to be a team effort for them to keep pace with the Heat. But, the Sixers’ passes weren’t crisp in the game’s first few minutes. There the Heat were, getting out in transition for easy offense from both the perimeter and in the paint. For a team that had lost two close games in a row in painful fashion, the early spirit and intensity was lacking. And Miami jumped out to an early seven-point lead. But, none of that early sleep-walking mattered. It was all Sixers for the rest of the night.
The Sixers (40-21) will visit the Dallas Mavericks (32-31) on Thursday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on TNT.