The Sixers opened their Eastern Conference Semifinal series against the Heat in Miami on Monday night. Philadelphia wanted to steal homecourt advantage with a victory in Game 1. Miami planned to set the tone for the series with a victory in Game 1. Between poor coaching decisions and team-wide effort-based miscues, the Sixers wasted opportunities in a 106-92 loss to the Heat.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without the services of Joel Embiid, who will miss at least the first 2 games of the series with a fractured right orbital bone and mild concussion suffered in Game 6 of Philadelphia’s first-round series against the Raptors.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and DeAndre Jordan.
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.
As bad a decision as it was to start DeAndre Jordan, Rivers yanked him out of the game before it became a complete laugher. So, he rightfully had him on a short leash. Rivers then immediately went to Paul Reed, who had a good series against the Raptors for a guy who had barely gotten any minutes at all in the regular season.
Rivers also injected a zone defense into the game upon Reed’s entry. It was a heady adjustment from the coach, as it mitigated the dribble penetration the Heat got at will in the first 4 minutes of the game. It also reduced Paul Reed’s responsibilities on the interior, and thus theoretically protected him from committing recovery fouls if he made the wrong decisions and moved out of position. Beyond just going zone, Rivers inserted Matisse Thybulle and Shake Milton at the top of the zone to get length on the perimeter. That length works to
Everything the Sixers did immediately upon going Reed-or-smaller at center was good. They were active and swarming defensively, with Reed and his teammates compensating for the lack of traditional size by pressuring passing lanes and simply mucking everything up for Miami. The Sixers trailed by 14 points after a Jimmy Butler triple in the middle of the first quarter. Philadelphia took a 1-point lead at intermission.
You can largely thank Tobias Harris for the turnaround. The team’s public punching bag was everything for Philadelphia in the first half. He kept them calm and alive on offense, drilling elbow jumpers all half so that there was never any illusion that scoring was all that hard when things were nose-diving early.
Defensively, Harris was everything the Sixers needed. He played up on Jimmy Butler, fighting through screens and taking away any driving angles or spaces his former teammate had to attack. Harris stayed low in his stance and moved with choppy steps. He limited Butler’s imprint on the game, delivering the latest in a string of impressive defensive displays these playoffs.
It is pretty embarrassing that you can see a lot of seat backs at tip-off from the television angle. It’s 7:30 on Monday night and the event is a second-round playoff game with the home team favored to get to at least the conference finals. What could you possibly have to do besides get to the game on time if you have tickets?
I can’t say Doc Rivers had an obvious solution to the center position without Joel Embiid available. But, we can all confidently say that we knew that DeAndre Jordan lacks both the physical aptitude and the credibility as a decision-maker to be the first man up. If fans and media knew it, Rivers either didn’t know it or knew it and still went with it. I’m not sure which scenario is worse.
It went exactly as everyone thought it would go, with the Heat getting anything they wanted within the arc. The pain point is that Jordan’s poor positioning within the defense forces helpers to cover his mistakes. That means they’re being pulled away from shooters. So even if the likes of Butler or Adebayo didn’t get all the way to the rim, they were able to get to the paint and find shooters throughout the first 4 minutes of the game.
It’s not a coincidence that the Sixers gave up 15 points in 4 minutes. It starts with the fact that an already-suspect defense had DeAndre Jordan as its defensive anchor. The Sixers essentially spotted the Heat an early 9-point lead. It was entirely predictable, entirely preventable, and, without Joel Embiid, entirely unacceptable decision-making from the head coach.
It ultimately wasn’t all on Rivers, though. The Sixers held a 1-point lead at halftime largely because they got enough stops out of their zone defense and Reed-and-smaller lineups. But, Philadelphia completely lost control of the game in the third quarter. It wasn’t that the Heat just flexed their talent and ran them over after a tired first half. The Sixers just shot themselves in the foot on the defensive end of the floor. They did enough to get stops on the first Heat shot, but Miami just outworked the Sixers on the glass throughout the quarter. The Sixers simply gave the Heat far too many extra possessions, and an opponent that out-executes its talent is bound to capitalize eventually if you make enough mistakes.
Rivers comes into play to a degree there. Insanity is seeing the first half and sticking with Jordan in the second half. He gave the ill-equipped big man far too long of a leash. Jordan has a very simple role. Get rebounds, disrupt shots at the rim, set legal screens, and catch lobs. Not too complicated. He was nowhere to be found on the glass, with the likes of Adebayo beating him to the rim for extra possessions. But, I can’t put it all on Jordan. It’s Rivers’ fault that he was even in the game. However, I can’t blame the rebounding issue entirely on Rivers, either. It’s a weakness everyone is aware of, and it’s not going to get any better with Embiid out. The other 4 on the court, collectively, failed to give any effort towards gang-rebounding.
The Sixers gave up 6 offensive rebounds in the third quarter. That’s a self-inflicted wound. That means it’s fixable, to some extent. But, that’s also simply disgusting effort. Wholly unacceptable. The players on the court need to be much better.
Georges Niang was absolutely horrendous all game long. He couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn if he fell out of a boat. When his shot isn’t falling, he’s essentially unplayable. But he also killed the Sixers on the defensive end, getting caught on screens and losing shooters away from the ball. I wrote this in my series preview, and I still fully believe it — he can be a secret weapon in this series. Going 5-out with him is at least a more worthwhile experiment than trotting Jordan out and expecting a different result. But, the Sixers aren’t winning squat if he’s going to have negative shooting variance all series.
Tyrese Maxey got an appropriate shot diet, but I didn’t love his shot selection. He settled for a number of long threes, especially opting for pull-ups in transition. There should be a balance between his diet of shots. But, he’s too fast and crafty around the rim to be living outside the arc. I would bet he can beat pretty much any singular defender Miami throws his way, too.
The back-breaker may have been authored by Rivers. He opted for a lineup of Maxey, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Harris, and Jordan early in the fourth quarter. That is 2 non-shooters and one guy who hasn’t hit a meaningful shot in a month for Miami to bet against and help off or clog the lane. Predictably, that lineup produced zilch and that was basically where the Heat put the game away.
While we’re hitting the Rivers piñata, I didn’t see his offense make any effort to abuse Miami’s switches by going small-small on pick-and-rolls and other screening actions. Wasted opportunity at an obvious counter to what Miami likes to do.
Pointing fingers at the head coach is always the easy answer. In this case, it’s often justified. But, the Sixers are going to spot the Heat a 2-0 lead in this series if James Harden is going to continue playing the way he played in Game 1. After Rivers told reporters that Harden was going to be the fulcrum of the offense in Embiid’s absence, he was third on the team in field goal attempts. He only had 5 assists. Harden has to be far more aggressive as a scorer. He settled for a fistful of stepback threes, and did not hunt switches nearly as often as he should’ve. There’s probably some conditioning in play — Harden gets fouled quite often and does not get nearly as many calls as he should. So, he might see little value in attacking the rim if he feels he’s disadvantaged in doing so.
I can’t say that I believe the Sixers targeted Harden thinking he would be the commander when Embiid fractured his face on an unlikely injury. But, he has not been the second option they need him to be with Embiid on the court. In a moment when Philadelphia needed him to be that number-one option and unleash some of the scoring that he’s barely showed since joining the Sixers, Harden simply wasn’t to the task.
It’s a damn shame the Sixers wasted what was essentially a pristine night from Tobias Harris on both ends with effort-based miscues. Harris scored an efficient 27 points, grabbed 6 boards, and defended Jimmy Butler as well as you could’ve asked.
Both teams experienced highly-negative shooting variance in this game. Who knows when Miami will experience it again? But, another wasted opportunity in this game for Philadelphia.
The Sixers (0-1) will try to steal homecourt advantage against the Heat (1-0) on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 PM, Eastern time in Miami. You can catch the action on TNT.