April 06, 2023
The Sixers gave an effort worthy of a Sunday men's league at the YMCA, and the Miami Heat destroyed them accordingly, running to a 129-101 win.
Here's what I saw.
• Joel Embiid seemed to be the only person in the starting lineup who was aware that he was going to be playing in a professional basketball game on Thursday night. The bar was on the floor, admittedly, but he was a shining ray of light in the endless pit of darkness that was the first half of this game.
For some reason I can't quite figure out, the Heat decided they were going to auto-switch possessions on the Embiid/James Harden pick-and-roll, leaving Bam Adebayo on Harden and Jimmy Butler on Embiid. Butler can cause a lot of havoc in those situations — he loves to slither around you on an entry pass and solo the other way in transition — but Embiid didn't allow him to bother him in basically any way. He held the seal long enough to ward Butler off when he cheated, leading to a few easy buckets or fouls at the hoop. Embid and Butler were jawing back and forth for long stretches of this game, with Embiid clearly sending the message that his old pal couldn't guard him. Right he was.
The Heat seemed to agree with that assessment, as they sent more and more double teams to help in that matchup as the game wore on. Save for some spotty hero ball moments, I thought Embiid's decision-making was pretty good, even if the eventual results of the possessions were not. But he can only find the shooters, he can't force them to make shots, too.
Defensively, it was a bit more spotty, and I do think you see there are limitations to having him switch frequently compared to having him back in drop. As an occasional switch defender, he holds up fairly well and can lock up some very good players. Asking him to check guys like Jimmy Butler (or Jayson Tatum, and so on) ends up overextending him and taking him away from what/where he's good at. Butler was able to create enough scramble situations out of that matchup that it almost certainly tilted in Miami's favor, and coming up to the level is probably the way to defend those actions.
• Jalen McDaniels was pretty good. That's the end of the positives.
• At some point tomorrow, we will likely get into the idea of Miami being a tough (or relatively tough) matchup for the Sixers in the first round. And while there are some reasons to show a little fear at the thought of playing the Heat, this game was about nothing other than effort. Philadelphia had nothing to play for. Miami had something to play for. It was that simple.
In every way the Heat could have outplayed the Sixers, they did. They were quicker in transition, quicker to rotate, quicker to double, quicker to rise up to shoot, quicker to pressure in the backcourt, and on and on and on. Miami's sense of urgency might not have been anything special for a a regular season game, but it was a stark contrast to Philadelphia's, and that was all that really mattered.
On one possession late in the third quarter, the Sixers forced a Heat miss from three, and then four Sixers players stood around the paint and watched the ball float through the air, eventually losing out on the rebound to the lone Heat player who crashed the glass. A moment later, Kevin Love's three-point attempt from the trail spot clanged off the rim, and Georges Niang flailed at the opportunity like the wacky inflatable guys they use to draw attention to used car lots. Miami got a third crack at it, and Max Strus would cash in a three.
Every player on the roster was responsible for this nonsense, from Embiid right on down.
• We can write off a lot of things from this game entirely, though I'm not sure we should take the stance with James Harden's recent run of form. He looked pretty good after returning from a brief injury absence, and moved extremely well in a win over the Toronto Raptors. It has been ugly otherwise.
Miami switching most ball screens with Harden as the handler had something to do with it, because Bam Adebayo is on a short list of bigs in the league that Harden is in a disadvantage when trying to attack them. There wasn't much of an attempt for Harden to go after him, and in fairness, Embiid was working Butler well enough that going to the other half of that switch was a fine decision. It was the other guys he struggled to beat up on — Max Strus, Tyler Herro, and so on — that gives me pause with a little over a week until the postseason begins.
The success of Philadelphia's offense so often comes down to Embiid, but the success of Embiid often comes down to Harden drawing in pressure and then releasing the ball, giving him space to operate at the elbows. Miami was able to crowd Embiid through multiple methods, certainly leaning on their tried-and-true zone and some off-ball doubles, but also because Harden didn't show much of an ability to put pressure on the paint.
Harden ended up hitting enough shots to make his line look respectable, but so many of their issues felt like they started with him. There was a whole lot of standing around, no real urgency in transition — when they could actually get a stop, mind you — and a muted scoring presence for him on a night when they were missing Tyrese Maxey.
(In fairness to Harden — without Maxey on the second side as a credible scoring threat, the Heat were able to pressure Harden in Embiid-less lineups without fear of being hurt by another perimeter player. It's not all his fault that the Heat loaded up against him because everyone else stunk.)
It would be nice to see the Sixers play some decent minutes with the Embiid-less groups prior to the playoffs starting, because they have been somewhat of a trainwreck lately. Harden is the guy who is tasked with leading those minutes, so if he gets right, presumably they will get right. Unfortunately, he is going to have to show that this is end-of-season malaise and shrug off concerns about his health.
• Georges Niang missing shots is bad enough, as his one real job on the team is to hit open shots when he gets the opportunities. Watching him try to dribble out of an open look in the first quarter, only to travel in the process, was another level of crappiness.
Tyrese Maxey missing this game removed a big-minute player from the rotation, but it's not like Niang was eating any of Maxey's minutes. You could have easily sat Niang for a night, and arguably should have with the miserable run he is on right now.
• I understand that you can't really know what your team is going to give before the game starts, but it seems like perhaps the Sixers should have spoken to a few of their top players before this game.
• Even before the Sixers were getting waxed, this might have been the deadest crowd of the entire season. Maybe it was a bunch of people who had hoped to go to the Phillies home opener instead and settled for a meaningless end-of-season Sixers game, but there was absolutely no juice for this game. We were able to hear Erik Spoelstra yelling from the sideline for most of the night. That's a bad sign for the ol' atmosphere.
• The Sixers had three players who were questionable to appear in this game — Tyrese Maxey sat out entirely, P.J. Tucker got some brief cardio, and De'Anthony Melton was pulled from the game due to "mild right calf tightness" in the second half.
The last one is obviously the most relevant to playoff hopes and concerns, so we'll see if it's a real problem or simply a precautionary measure after the game. Not the best, in any case.
Worth noting here: Doc Rivers said recently that Melton is one of the guys they hoped to be able to get a game or two off for down the stretch, as he has had to work through bumps and bruises all season without missing basically any time. Perhaps this would have been a good time to do so!
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