The Sixers (39-20) hosted the Miami Heat (32-29) on Monday. Philadelphia wanted to rebound from Saturday’s heartbreaking loss to the Celtics. Miami wanted to snap a four-game losing streak. The Sixers showed urgency late, but the coasting habits proved fatal in a 101-99 loss to the Heat.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
Miami was without the services of Kyle Lowry, who has a sore left knee. Omer Yurtseven is recovering from surgery on his left ankle and was unavailable.
Nikola Jovic has a stress reaction in his lower back and did not play. Jamal Cain is on a Two-Way assignment with Miami’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.
Erik Spoelstra started Gabe Vincent, Tyler Herro, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Love, and Bam Adebayo.
The Sixers were without the services of Dewayne Dedmon, who has a sore left hip.
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, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
You can see Harden is not only buying into being a true point guard, but he’s having fun with it, too. Obviously, Harden controls the pace. Some of the Sixers’ east offense comes with him leading Embiid up the floor, incentivizing the big man to run in transition for easy buckets. That pace also incentivizes the three other teammates on the court to stay with the play, too.
If Harden pressures the opponent with favorable numbers, he forces the commit before kicking to a shooter running with him or applies his strength to get to the rim for a finish. But, there are also times when he’ll slow down, waiting for a drag screen or something else to develop. He’ll slow it down just as easily as he’ll up the tempo. It’s the way he plays when Harden slows it down that makes me believe he’s not just being diplomatic for the sake of a bigger goal.
He maneuvered actions with a bit of spice on Monday, loosening his dribble to split Miami traps and get downhill. There were times when he caught the Heat in no man’s land on pick-and-rolls, teasing with a sped-up dribble move before threading a pass to Embiid or to a shooter elsewhere on the court. He also showed a bit of what he couldn’t do last season against the Heat.
Harden played chicken with interior defenders, daring them to let him go all the way to the rim unabated as no. 1 dribbled right at them on his drive. If they lifted at the last second, no panic. He tossed up a floater. I thought Harden struggled breaking down Adebayo; he won’t blow by every defender every night. But, those one-on-one battles at least got Harden within the three-point arc. In the 2022 playoffs, Harden couldn’t even get by the Heat big man on the perimeter.
Harden has also sneakily stopped playing to the whistle. He no longer tries to sell the contact so dramatically, barking at the official to acquiesce as the opposition gets out on the run. The eye test says Harden has gotten a much better whistle this season than he did in his time with the Sixers last season. I don’t really know what to make of that, but I think there are two possibilities. One, he’s not trying to finish until he gets deeper into the paint. Officials usually aren’t giving you calls on shots that have no chance of going in anyway. Perhaps that was the problem last season. Two, he’s bringing the ball up higher when he picks up his dribble for layups, making sure the nearest official sees the contact.
Whatever the case, it’s been a much more efficient run for him this campaign. If he plays the way he has all season in the playoffs and Embiid is healthy when it matters most, skeptics might have to eat some words.
If anyone needed to have a good game, it was Tyrese Maxey. Not just because the Sixers need him to be himself to have any shot of reaching new heights in the playoffs. But, because he is clearly struggling. Maxey was Philadelphia’s second-highest scorer in 27 minutes off the bench. The difference between the Boston game and this game, to me, was the way the Sixers got him the ball.
One miraculous triple in the first half notwithstanding, every one of Maxey’s scores came with his body squared to the basket or on the move towards the basket. He caught passes with the baseline angle open, speeding to the rim for finishes. He caught the rock in transition, already moving towards gaps on the floor that he could get to for crafty layups. Once Maxey saw the ball go in a few times on shots at the rim, he opened up his game on the perimeter. His teammates fed him catch-and-shoot threes with his shoulders squared to the rim. And once he found the range, Maxey created a couple triples for himself off the dribble.
In my eyes, the key is getting him the ball when he’s actually in positions to score. At this stage of his career, Maxey doesn’t have the self-creative package to be an isolation guy. In other words, if aligned with the other guys the Sixers have on their bench, he’s not ready to carry an all-bench lineup by himself. Rivers, Harden, and Embiid all have to do a better job of treating him as an actual weapon when they play together.
Too often this season Maxey has been treated like another cog in the wheel spinning the ball around the floor to eventually get back to Embiid or Harden. That means they’re not getting him the ball in positions to be aggressive and score in the halfcourt. Even featuring him more in actions to get downhill would be just what the doctor ordered. In fact, the Sixers ran a simple middle pick-and-roll between him and Embiid. It opened the paint up for Maxey, and he dropped a tough floater.
All of his minutes should come in lineups featuring Harden, Embiid, or both. And Philadelphia needs to do a much better job of looking Maxey’s way when he has his shoulders squared on the perimeter or has an immediate angle to the basket. Gone should be the days of using him as a member of an assembly line, there to catch and move the ball to the next person or action. No more tossing it to him when he’s actively moving away from the basket with nowhere to go. There’s a very distinct theme to his hot stretches, and the biggest pillars of what the Sixers do need to follow it if this team is going to do anything meaningful this season.
If the Sixers find themselves hosting the Heat in a first-round series, I’m not convinced Georges Niang is playable unless he’s shooting the lights out from deep. It’s only one game, but Miami used his lateral quickness against him. There was no need for the Heat to line up looks from deep against a Niang close-out in his first stint of the game. They were patient, waiting for the forward to get just close enough to leverage the imbalance on his close-outs against him. Numerous white jerseys blew right by Niang, compromising Philadelphia’s interior defense.
One of them was Love, who some might argue the Sixers had no need for as a buyout candidate when he was released during the All-Star break. Skeptics of adding Love might say that he isn’t giving Philadelphia anything that they don’t already have in Niang. But, he was clearly a leg above no. 20 on Monday. Other than the fact that Love is bigger and can shoot over guys that Niang can’t, I’m none too interested in comparing shooting percentages, although Niang has been in a slump recently. But, what is indisputable is that Love took him to town. One-on-one in the post, attacking close-outs, or just shooting from the perimeter, Love got whatever he wanted against Niang.
The broader point here isn’t to compare Niang to Love. Rather, it’s to say that if people thought Love was “washed”, the fact that he thoroughly handled his business against Niang draws concern upon the viability of one of Philadelphia’s few offensive weapons off the bench when the games really start to matter.
Of the many gripes Sixers fans have with Rivers, one of the few that I fully agree with and place in the category of “utterly inexcusable” is that this team still has no idea how to score against a zone. There were long stretches in the first half in which the Sixers looked as though they were staring at a foreign language as Miami aligned into its zone defense. There Harden and Maxey were, toggling through different decisions as the shot clock drew towards zero, without a paddle as to whether to pass, shoot, or attack the gaps. It’s not like they can excuse themselves on the basis of three-point shooting, either — they’re fourth in three-point percentage in the league!
Simply put, it is the end of February and the Sixers still don’t know how to crack a zone with any sort of consistency. Any explanation about not having the right players to crack a zone would earn my eye roll, too. They’ve brought different guys in, they’ve sent different guys out. No matter who is out there, they still look totally lost when teams — especially Miami — go away from man coverages. It’s inexcusable.
The buyout market has a reputation for being the island of near corpses, so any good performance can appear greater than it actually was. Nonetheless, 30-year-old Cody Zeller has played a total of 30 NBA minutes since last January. I will say that he has some good shot-blocking instincts. But, it should’ve been a revolving door of pick-and-rolls to get him fending for himself in space. It felt like the Sixers didn’t go at the guy who was a free agent until last week nearly enough in this game.
This is the first game the Sixers have played against the Heat since Butler could be heard yelling “Tobias Harris over me?!” after Miami ended Philadelphia’s season in the 2022 playoffs. One would think Harris took that personally and might feel some extra motivation to assert himself in these teams’ first meeting of the season. Try two points on 1-for-4 shooting. Extremely disappointing stuff, plain and simple. With the backdrop that the Sixers are starved for any semblance of offensive juice off the bench, it’s impossible not to wonder who would be staffing the reserves if Harris was due something less than $37.6 million this season.
As much leadership growth as Embiid showed in the Memphis and Boston games, he reverted to some of the immature habits in this one. He knows Butler and the Heat know his instincts, and yet Embiid carried on with bad decisions. When you have the ball in your hands as much as he does — and, more importantly, attract the attention he does — a couple turnovers per game are inevitable. Embiid had those three, and then threw three bad passes that the Heat feasted on. A six-turnover night in a game the Sixers lost by two points. That won’t cut it.
Embiid taking jumpers at his sweet spots will never be a problem for me. But, there were possessions in the second half in which he didn’t make Miami’s defense work. Adebayo is quite physical and is one of the few bigs in the league that can guard in space. But, Embiid is bigger than him. The big guy had no problem dominating crunch time against Boston with physicality, forcing his way to the free throw line throughout the fourth quarter.
There was too much settling from him in the fourth quarter on Monday, and one of those settles came when the Sixers had a chance to take the lead with less than a minute to go in regulation. Instead, Adebayo blocked his baseline jumper to give Philadelphia a zero on one of its final possessions of the game. Embiid still went for 27 points on 17 field goal attempts and 12 rebounds in what I would characterize as a bad game. It would’ve been 30-plus and a win if he had been more aggressive and assertive in the game’s final quarter.
Embiid’s turnovers are a compartment of the problem, but his play wasn’t why the Sixers lost this game. Ultimately, it comes down to two things. First, the Sixers were far too sloppy with the ball all night long. If it wasn’t ball-handlers being too loose with the ball and turning it over out of bounds, it was telegraphed or miscommunicated passes. Passing wasn’t all of it, though. There were possessions in which the Sixers spent too long deciding what they wanted to do, ending in a rushed shot that might as well have been a turnover.
The sloppiness and lack of focus extended into their defense, as well. Unnecessary contact away from the ball, mind-boggling contests, and blatant mental errors at times when there was no need for contact put Philadelphia in foul trouble. Miami lived at the line for stretches of this game. Maxey fouled out contesting a Butler jumper, and Harden fouled no. 22 on a baseline jumper in the final 20 seconds of the game.
It wasn’t just the turnovers and fouls. One of the biggest concerns for Philadelphia has to be transition defense. There was a brief time earlier in the season that saw improvement in that department. But, they’ve largely been terrible at stopping quick scores in transition all season. They say it will get better and that they continue to work at it, but it never gets any better.
Miami hit 15 triples in this game. Some of them came within the confines of a halfcourt environment. But, a significant portion of those makes hit when Philadelphia wasn’t set. The Heat were one or two passes away from open threes throughout the game. There were times when it didn’t even require one pass. Love knocked one down off a long pass up the court in the third quarter because the Sixers didn’t get back quick enough after a made basket of their own. Miami even got open looks in transition moving the ball across the court. Just simple dribble penetration and then kick to the shooter in the weak-side corner.
Rivers’ philosophy is to just get someone in transition. It doesn’t have to be their specific would-be assignments in a set defense. Just get to the guy closest to you. You’d think the players are being asked to solve a Rubik’s cube whilst being blind-folded. It’s mind-boggling that they either don’t care enough to get back in transition or are perplexed by just finding the nearest guy and sticking with them. The only way I’m pointing that at Rivers is if the players simply have tuned him out, which I don’t believe to be the case as they jockey for position around the top of the Eastern Conference. If I’m selling that, then the blame has to go to the players. Pretty simple. Get back, find the nearest enemy jersey, and stick with that guy until you’ve weathered the storm and can set your defense.
Philadelphia does not get the benefit of pardon here because it has made a habit of coasting for three quarters before taking it up a notch, and that finally bit the Sixers on the rear. But, the officiating in this game was absolutely atrocious. The would-be flagrant foul on Maxey’s three to end of the third quarter, no call. Multiple of Embiid’s fouls were questionable at best. There were others that I thought were debatable, but you lose count when there are so many. I have less and less patience for the in-game judicial system with each passing day.
The Sixers (39-21) will visit the Miami Heat (33-29) on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.