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May 13, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers get punked by Heat as quest for No. 1 seed continues

The No. 1 seed continues to elude the Sixers in the final week of the season, with a 106-94 loss to the Heat keeping them one game away from clinching the top spot in the Eastern Conference. They still have wiggle room, and they played like they knew that in Miami.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Tobias Harris is just about the only good thing from Thursday night's game. Even he wasn't immune to bad decisions or awful, forced shots from tough spots on the floor. But he did enough to avoid getting crushed for his efforts. 

The Bad

• It was not much of an issue for the Sixers early in the season (perhaps because they didn't face it all that much), but their impotence against zone defenses might officially be A Problem. They have been flustered when teams have thrown it at them lately, and though the Heat have historically been a zone-heavy and zone-proficient team, it was downright shocking how long the Sixers enabled them to sit in the zone and not consider any other plan.

Remember when this was blamed completely on the coach last season? The worst part is, the overall personnel excuses are not there this time around. Philadelphia has three good or even elite shooters on the floor with their two main guys, and they suffer from the same stagnant offense against the zone anyway. At a certain point, you have to look at how Simmons and Embiid react to (or are the cause of) this sort of coverage and point the finger in their direction.

Forget Embiid's success (or lack thereof) in the post for a second and consider that they were rarely able to even get him the ball in the first place. Miami had success fronting the post before the ball could get to him, sending a second off-ball defender his way to discourage the entry, and when those things didn't happen, the automatic doubles were enough to fluster him. A star player dealing with doubles is obviously nothing new, especially for Embiid, but the pressure teams feel safe throwing at him before he touches the ball is frightening.

Loading up the paint to stop Philly is not exactly a new or inventive gameplan, which is why it should be a bit worrying. Some will point to their lack of motivation in this game as an excuse for why they looked so bad, but when you consider that this is a style of defense they should have been overprepared for, they shouldn't have needed even a B-level effort to manage better offense against the zone.

It all added up to a lot of side-to-side basketball, the guards unable or unwilling to try to get downhill with their usual entry feeds walled off. The Sixers did not put any stress on Miami at the rim or even around the free-throw line, so Miami barely had to move to play successful zone defense.

It was a pitiful effort. Speaking of pitiful efforts...

• If this was the Joel Embiid the Sixers were going to get, there was no point in playing him at all. This was a callback to seasons past where you could tell he was not engaged from the jump, and the rest of the team basically fell in line.

Rebounding is always one of the big tells for Embiid, and he got absolutely destroyed on the glass by Bam Adebayo for a lot of this game. Adebayo is a great player who gives a lot of guys problems with his combination of athleticism, toughness, and effort, but an engaged Embiid is more than capable of sealing him off and ending possessions when the Sixers get stops. That version of Embiid was left home in Philadelphia.

In an ironic twist, a story about Embiid and his increased maturity was the frontpage leader on ESPN on Thursday night, and it featured a lot of discussion about how Rivers drilled into him that he had to show up for the year in elite shape to set the tone for the team. Embiid somehow lost track of his season-long quest to set the tone in a game that could have sealed the No. 1 seed for Philly, and unless you buy that illness was the sole reason for this, it was a bad and maddening game for their best player.

Here's the kicker — now they have to decide whether to play him tomorrow night in a back-to-back scenario after he looked like crap against a team he ostensibly would have been more motivated to show out against. The Sixers should beat the Magic regardless, but woof.

• I was not one of the many media members to write a standalone story on the topic, but the Sixers have played basically nothing but banged-up opponents for months, and they haven't looked especially dominant in spite of that fact. This was their first real test in a while, and the Sixers failed it in spectacular fashion. How much you want to read into that is up to you, but it's certainly not a good thing.

Really, the only reason you would suit everybody up for this game of the three you have left is that you want a stiff test from a potential playoff opponent and/or to send a bit of a message to said opponent. Instead, Miami absolutely took it to them as they went through the motions, and the Heat will certainly use this as a reason to walk into a Philadelphia matchup down the road with no fear. Would you blame them?

Whenever there have been weird or shortened seasons in recent NBA history, there have been strange results in the playoffs for various reasons. The last two NBA lockouts both featured No. 8 over No. 1 seed upsets in the opening round of the playoffs, and while I'm certainly not predicting the Sixers will go down in the opening round (they're far better than anyone in the play-in clutter), there are reasons to be skeptical they're as good as their record and spot in the standings tells us they are. Maybe they turn it back up in the playoffs, and maybe their few signature wins of the year showed us who they were all along, but they're mostly untested and have real concerns heading into the playoffs.

• I mean this with all due respect to the people who believe this, but if you think posting up Ben Simmons more is the solution to what went wrong on Thursday night — and a lot of people on Twitter seemed to during the game — I'm not sure what Ben Simmons you have been watching over the last four years. He's either shooting a righty hook or kicking the ball out to somebody else. There's no mystery and no danger posed.

"There's no mystery and no danger posed," is basically the story of Ben Simmons in year four. He's a steady performer, but he's steady to the point of madness. Unlike most max contract guards (and he has to be evaluated as a guard for various reasons), he has no ability or urgency to take the game into his hands and change it when it's going south. I'm not even sure what it would look like if he tried to, not that we need to worry about that happening. If he can't make up the difference with passing and defense, it's not being made up.

There were no problematic lineup combinations to blame in this one. And the subtext of the conversations about the Simmons-Thybulle-Howard lineups, mind you, is that those problems stem from what Simmons can't do. If you put a normal high-level guard in his place — let's just say Kyle Lowry, since they went after him at the deadline — the Sixers would revel in trying to pick-and-roll teams to death with the Lowry-Howard 1-5 pairing. 

This team is going to have high-level expectations coming into the playoffs as the (likely) No. 1 seed. If it all crashes and burns, the phones in the executive suite are going to be mighty busy in the offseason, and there's one guy who figures to be at the heart of many of those conversations. 

• The starters got the absolute piss beaten out of them on Thursday, so I'm not particularly inclined to crush the bench for their role in this disaster class. There was one play that made me roll my eyes — Shake Milton overhelped off of Tyler Herro in the corner on a first-half possession, a move that appeared to be an attempt to help Joel Embiid with Bam Adebayo at the rim. He didn't close the space to crowd Adebayo, so all he did was provide Herro a wide-open three in the corner with his negligence.

He's going to continue to have a big role in the playoffs, and it should be made clear that these sort of plays lose playoff games. Tyrese Maxey isn't exactly Gary Payton out there, but at least he's actively improving on the defensive end as his rookie year wears on.

The Ugly

• Things could not have gone worse for the Sixers in the opening quarter. They were on the wrong end of a Jimmy Butler shooting barrage from deep, which is something you'd basically never bet on happening this season, so you can't get too mad about that part of it. The concern, though, is that so many of their issues were manifestations of fears you have about a lot of their key guys in the playoffs.

Ben Simmons started out the game with a matchup against Duncan Robinson. He did almost nothing with the opportunity to take it to a smaller and slower player, and the Heat were overplaying passing lanes with the expectation that he would not go into attack mode. They were proven right.

Seth Curry had a nice deflection on an off-ball possession early on, but he had real trouble stopping dribble penetration from Miami's guards. Kendrick Nunn got basically anywhere he wanted with Curry guarding him, and that had a lot of negative consequences for the Sixers at the rim and beyond the arc.

Then there was the coverage played against Joel Embiid — the Heat were basically auto-doubling Embiid when he had his back to the basket in the post, and though he wasn't a turnover machine, his passes weren't crisp and he settled for some off-balance jumpers as a result, which contributed to a putrid offensive start.

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