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May 02, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers' ugly shooting night leads to Game 1 loss to Heat

Sixers NBA
Sixers-Heat-Harden-Herro_050222_USAT Sam Navarro/USA Today Sports

The Sixers couldn't keep it together for four quarters without Joel Embiid in Game 1.

The Sixers shot the basketball like they were mad at the rim, clanging three after three in a 106-92 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 1.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• A lot of the talk over the past weekend was about how the Sixers would lean on James Harden and Tyrese Maxey to pick up the slack for Joel Embiid. Tobias Harris was considered the third man in, perhaps because this city has been on a roller coaster with him over the last few years, but he was the guy coming off of the most consistent Round 1 performance. As it turns out, he carried that right into Game 1 of the second round, and he looks like a guy who may have finally found his calling in Philadelphia.

Harris' effort and physicality on both ends of the floor was terrific in the early stages of this game, Philadelphia's starting forward forcing Jimmy Butler to work damn hard to separate. Taking on top defensive assignments is something Harris has outright asked to do down the stretch of this season, and even with some rough moments sprinkled in, he has proven capable of hanging with a wide variety of guys up and down lineups, at least making guys work even if the shot eventually goes down.

You would not have expected this sentence to be a real thing at basically any other point in Harris' career — with chances to attack Harris one-on-one in the first half, there were more than a couple of possessions where he meekly passed out of the opportunity and decided it'd be better for someone else to try to beat their man. That speaks to the growth Harris has undergone on that end of the floor, showing how serious he takes this job. He ran Tyler Herro off of the line on a second-quarter possession that he punctuated by blocking Herro from midrange, an absurd sequence I genuinely never thought he was capable of. And in fairness, he may not have been before! 

His toughness was just as important, if not more important on the other end of the floor. Though Harris probably stepped out of a few catch-and-shoot looks that he could have pulled, he was tucking the ball and getting to his spots with purpose, sizing up smaller Miami players to work from the mid-post. With Harden and Maxey both starting a bit slow, Harris was tasked with propping this group up mostly by himself, and he rose to the occasion, hitting some tough shots through contact, in halfcourt and in transition.

A key plank in Philadelphia's game plan in this series comes down to a very simply concept — hunting Tyler Herro whenever that guy is on the floor. He can hurt you at the other end, but he deserves to be targeted on basically every possession if you can manage to force a switch without too much extra work. Miami gave Philadelphia that switch quite frequently on Monday night, which helped them hang around in a game where they didn't play all that well. Harden was probably their main practitioner on that front, but Harris was a critical component there as well, adding another feather to his cap.

They would have been drawing dead far earlier in this game if not for Harris, put it that way.  

• Paul Reed is going to foul guys. Paul Reed is going to look insane half of the time he is on the floor. But when he exits the game, you don't tend to feel like it was ever a total disaster, which is more than you can say about the other guys who they're running out at the five right now. I'm not sure you can even justify pulling him out of the game when he's in foul trouble, because the other options are so horrid that the Sixers sink and sink and sink when they turn to them.

For whatever his flaws are, Reed is the only big man besides Embiid who can consistently make positive plays. They just look a lot different than what we see from the other bigs, Reed flashing into space on the perimeter to break up passes and send the Sixers running the other way.

I understand more than most why they have reservations about playing him. He's a spaz, and he can't help himself from getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar, but he's the best option they have.

• The Sixers' defense in the first half of this game was better than it probably had any right to be. Guys up and down the rotation played above their heads — or at least where we think their level is at — and came together to stifle Miami in the halfcourt. One of the big keys? Zone defense, a longtime Heat hallmark that the Sixers used more effectively than Miami did.

If nothing else, the Sixers played on a string together, save for a few ugly possessions here and there. Butler ran into walls in several spots, the Sixers timing ball pressure well enough to keep him off-balance. 

There were some plays in this game where I had to rub my eyes and make sure I was actually seeing what had just transpired in front of me. Georges Niang stonewalling Butler at the rim by getting vertical in space was probably the most shocking play of the half, a stop earned in the dying moments of the half that clinched Philly going into the break with a lead. Those are the type of contributions you need from the collective in order to overcome the absence of your best player. 

The Bad

• We can talk about the positives from the Harden-Maxey backcourt in Game 1, like their combined ability to get to the free-throw line against a team that loves to put you there. But you can't tell the story of this game without acknowledging that they needed to offer more in order to push the Sixers toward victory.

Harden had the worse game of the two, and the story was largely the same as it has been for the last few months (and really, the last year of Harden's basketball life). When he was able to get a favorable matchup in front of him, Harden had some moments where he looked good as both a scorer and playmaker, dicing up Herro in space. But the game was a slog for him otherwise, PJ Tucker stopping him from turning corners or generating basically any forward momentum.

This has long been the concern with Harden — can he beat high-level defenses when he can't find a soft spot to attack over and over? The answer, at least in this game, was no. But this is who he is at this point. Harden still managed to create a ton of open threes for teammates, and the Sixers built a house of bricks. 

It was a different sort of down night for Maxey, who managed to get to some favorable spots and simply couldn't get shots to fall. He skewed toward aggressive, which is the mode you'd rather see him in, but the early-clock threes ended up being self-defeating, Maxey struggling to find the range all night long.

Maxey can definitely take solace in the fact that he was able to get to the rim and earn rewards for putting pressure on Miami's interior. But silver linings in playoff losses are hard to come by. Maxey won't be comforted by what he did well. 

• Let's stick with the "house of bricks" comment for a second — the Sixers have no path to winning games in this series if their shooters are this bad. Go right down the list and just about everybody who they need to make shots was horrible. Danny Green, Georges Niang, Tyrese Maxey, James Harden, and so on and so on. It wasn't like they had poor shot quality all night, either.

Make or miss league and all of that, but some guys have to get more shots up in the first place if they're going to get on the floor. Shake Milton had one three-point attempt during meaningful minutes. Harris shot four threes and probably could have taken at least 6-8. They're against a team with a much better defense than theirs, so they're going to have to out-math them to some extent. They got off to a bad start there.

• You will be shocked to learn that the Sixers suffered consequences on the glass from sitting in a zone defense for long stretches of Game 1. It's not out of the question that they would have been punished regardless of the look they chose to use on defense, but they were especially susceptible to giving up rebounds sitting back in the 2-3.

One guys stands out in a bad way above all the rest. Niang isn't the smallest guy on the roster, but he may be the single worst rebounder on the team. There's not a single thing you could say he offers there that's positive. His footwork is awful, he doesn't box out, he can't jump, he gets the ball snatched right out of his hands, it's the perfect storm of crappiness on the glass. Miami punished his area of the zone almost every single time he was in the game.

Nobody should be shocked that this moment came, because we've been openly speculating that Niang would be screwed in the playoffs for basically the entire season. But Niang was bad enough that other guys were collateral damage as he gifted the Heat extra possession after extra possession. Paul Reed was subbed out midway through the fourth for DeAndre Jordan, who was considerably worse than him throughout the night, in response to a possession where Miami collected three offensive rebounds in a row, finally bringing the Heat crowd to life.

Niang falls in the category that a lot of people think Thybulle falls in — he basically cannot play if he isn't hitting shots, not against tough, athletic teams in the playoffs who are going to punish you for having him on the floor. Ride the hot hand if he has it, go away from him if he doesn't.

• There are 82-game players, and there are 16-game players. It seems abundantly clear that Matisse Thybulle does not fall in the latter category, and you could make a good case he's not exactly in the former category either. The Sixers have had to relegate him to bench-warming duty in a lot of big spots this season, and Rivers telegraphed how valuable he thinks he is in the postseason with how he chose to use him on Monday night. Which is to say, not very much.

Was he hard done on a foul he got called for on Herro in the first half? I would say yes. That doesn't change the fact that Thybulle has no real purpose on the floor half of the time, and the less he plays, the more out of sync he looks with the guys who have to set him up on offense. He's obviously not providing any value as a floor spacer, and even his cuts were basically useless in Game 1, Harris airmailing a pass intended for Thybulle when No. 22 left his spot at a time that Harris wasn't anticipating.

He has to be an absolute demon on defense in order to make up the difference, and he was nowhere close in this game. He hasn't been close in the playoffs this year, full stop. 

The Ugly

• Regular readers of this column are well aware of my thoughts on DeAndre Jordan and his place on a basketball team in the year 2022. Doc Rivers opted to start him in Game 1 of the second round, and I tried my best to give him the benefit of the doubt because I don't think there are great options overall. Paul Reed might foul out in 15 minutes or less if he's the guy going to battle with Bam Adebayo.

But if the concern with Reed is that he might foul out, then the issue with Jordan is whether he's going to show up to play at all. At least you know Reed is going to go out there, mix it up, and meet the intensity level of the moment. Jordan didn't show you he was prepared for the moment in a series of regular-season performances where he loafed around the floor, so there was no reason to expect anything different in this setting.

Even judging by the recent track record, though, Jordan was comically bad on both ends, save for a lob finish that would have been borderline impossible for him to miss. Miami entry passes went floating over his head, with Jordan never jumping or even moving in an effort to break up some of these plays. 

I have said this probably every time he has played over the last two months: I don't blame Jordan for this. He has been bad and cooked for years, and the Sixers bringing him in was fruitless enough that I mocked it the second they did it. Continuing to put him on the floor at all, let alone in high-leverage minutes in the playoffs, is just malpractice, and it's something Rivers is wholly responsible for.

• This was Game 1 of the second round of the playoffs, and for probably 3/4 of the game (and certainly the first half), it had all the juice of a non-conference Villanova game that the Wildcats win by 30+ points against a terrible program. Brutal stuff.


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