April 17, 2018
Once the referee assignments were revealed for Game Two between the Heat and Sixers, you knew deep down it was going to be a rough and tumble game, filled with confusing whistles and a lot of free throws. Tony Brothers and Scott Foster have a way of inspiring anger in both teams (and neutrals at home) simultaneously, which is either a sign of good officiating or the mark of a crew that has no idea what it's doing.
But it was Philadelphia's shooters, and certainly not the officials, who signed the Sixers' death warrant on Monday night. Two days after they put on a shotmaking display for the ages against the Heat, the Sixers sputtered to a 7/36 performance from deep against the very same Miami team. Even that number feels generous — a Robert Covington three with the game wrapped up in the final 15 seconds did not mean much in the grand scheme of things.
If Saturday's game was about what Philadelphia's ceiling is, Monday's 113-103 loss to Miami was a reminder that they are young and mortal, and that this veteran Heat team is not just going to lay down and let Philadelphia waltz to a series win. For the Sixers to advance, they are going to have to absorb a few haymakers.
If Brett Brown turning to Ersan Ilyasova at the five was the turning point in Game One, it was Erik Spoelstra's defensive adjustments that won Miami the second game in the series. The game slowed to a crawl in the second quarter thanks to several tweaks in the Heat gameplan, and now it's up to Philadelphia to recenter themselves and come out swinging on Thursday.
The most noticeable shift from the Heat was just the manner in which they played, scratching, clawing, and hacking at every possible opportunity. Sometimes it got called, sometimes it didn't, and the Heat ended up benefitting from it in the same way physical NFL teams like the Seahawks have for years. Officials aren't going to blow the whistle on every play, so you figure out where the line is and you hover over it for 48 minutes. That's playoff basketball.
Beyond that, there were tweaks you should have been familiar with ahead of time if you've been keeping up with our previews. In the series preview last week, I highlighted Miami's willingness to pressure Ben Simmons from baseline to baseline, using the tactic in spurts to get him out of his game. But during those matchups, it was more of a pick-and-choose thing than it was a complete gameplan.
The Heat dusted that back off for Game Two in a big way. Simmons had some particularly spirited battles with Justise Winslow, who talked more trash than I've ever seen for a player contributing nothing on the offensive end.
He did deserve to crow a little bit, however. Winslow made life pretty miserable for Simmons at times, including on a possession in the first half where he hounded the rookie until he eventually got called for an offensive foul on a push-off.
We have seen some of this before when the Heat pressed Simmons in the regular season, with the rookie overcompensating as a result. It's human nature to push back when guys are leaning on you and grabbing at you, but unfortunately, that's not really an option for a basketball player.
Although Winslow was the guy who drew the ire of the crowd, the more important shift was Spoelstra leaning heavily on James Johnson to defend Simmons on Monday. He has been the most effective defender Miami has on the rookie all season, but what's more important for Miami is what that matchup allows the Heat to do away from the ball.
Using smaller wing defenders to chase around Philadelphia's shooters, as it turns out, is pretty effective. Josh Richardson may not have played well on Saturday, but he's an All-Defense caliber player on his day and versatile enough to hound guys across several positions. He had a much better night in Game Two, fighting through screens in order to deny basic entry passes the Sixers were throwing to hunt mismatches in the post.
Credit goes beyond Richardson here, of course. The rub from Tyler Johnson under the rim is enough to slow Saric down and give Richardson enough time to get to Saric and deny the post entry. It's technically a foul, but ticky-tack stuff away from the ball is never going to get called (nor should it, IMO).
The Heat collectively junked up the game with stuff like this all night. It's a credit to the coaches and the players for seeing what their path to a victory looked like and executing it to the letter, aesthetically pleasing or not.
"It's not easy, it's not supposed to be easy in the playoffs," Erik Spoelstra said after the game. "We were a little bit better with our force tonight and were able to make some shots down the stretch to be able to keep them away."
If there's anything positive to take from the game as a Sixers observer, it should be the response from the young guys in the latter portion of the evening. Missed shot after missed shot could have taken the wind from their sails or devolved into a game of finger-pointing.
Instead, they just kept coming and coming, eventually bringing the game within two points with 4:29 left to play in the game. It's what you've come to expect from this group of guys, but it should not be taken for granted by any stretch of the imagination.
On Simmons' part, he tried his best to turn Miami's pressing strategy against them by kicking his tempo up to plaid. Whether Philadelphia got the ball back because of a turnover, a rebound, or even a Miami made shot, Simmons appeared to sense that his best option was to get down the court before anything could get set up.
With his shooters and the team as a whole sputtering, it was a necessary act of assertion from the rookie, who hasn't always taken it upon himself to attack. Seven of his 10 field goals came in the second half, and though it will bring him no comfort in a loss, Simmons' final line of 24 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists was pretty darn good considering the framework of the game.
Philadelphia's late push, made from what seemed like out of nowhere, was orchestrated primarily by another of Simmons' peers in the young core. Dario Saric had a rough night from the outside, but he came up with a huge spark in the fourth quarter (10 points, four rebounds) to put the Sixers in a position to steal one late.
This didn't bring Saric any solace after the game, as he lamented the Sixers putting themselves in a position where they had to claw out of a hole to begin with.
"We were a little surprised in the first and second quarters and after that, it was time to play," said Saric. "It was too late if you ask me. For the next game, we need the same attitude as them. We have the talent we just have to show up and play defense."
"There is a way that you have to play in the NBA playoffs from a toughness standpoint that was shown tonight," his coach added after the game. "[Our team] responded as I knew they would. I go to the second quarter on this. It has nothing to do with the magic plays or the matchups, it's not that. There was a spirit in which they played with tonight that was desperate, and is what is most on my mind going to Miami for game three."
Sometimes, jokes are more important than cold, hard facts:
Wade is nowhere near the player he once was, but he damn near proved that tongue-in-cheek prediction true with a trip into the wayback machine on Monday. Wade was the best offensive player on the floor for either team, scoring 28 points on 11/16 shooting in massive minutes off the bench.
Philadelphia's defense certainly wasn't air-tight against Miami, and Wade got a few of his buckets by just putting Marco Belinelli in the torture chamber in one-on-one battles. Belinelli wasn't equipped to win that battle when Wade had functioning knees, and he still hasn't gotten much closer as Wade has faded into his twilight years.
He may not be able to reach into his bag of tricks on a consistent basis, but Wade is capable of killing off a game when the bright lights are on, as his coach waxed poetic about after the game.
"I saw moments. That's what defines Dwyane Wade," said Spoelstra. "In these compact minutes, he can settle the group with his experience and his level of experience just to add a little bit of calm for some of our young guys. It was meant to be this kind of game for every single minute tonight, he needed to reach back and have one of those games. He has a great maturity and great presence to understand that it might be different the next game and facilitate, he will do that as well. It was a very calming effect on the rest of our guys."
But there should be no one overreacting on Philadelphia's end to what Wade accomplished against the Sixers. He was certainly successful, but the majority of his work was done on well-covered shots from the areas of the court you'd want him to work from. 50 percent of Wade's points came on mid-range jumpers — he was a ridiculous 7/9 on two-pointers outside the paint, which he shot 33.5 percent on this season — and there's not really a whole lot you can do when he's hitting ridiculous fadeaways over the outstretched arms of your defenders.
There are occasions when you have to tip your cap to an all-time great, and this was one of them. Having been through the battles and championship runs he has, he understands better than these young Sixers when the moments arrive that warrant standing up and being counted.
"It's just in my DNA. I love this stage," said Wade after the game. "I play this game for these moments and last night sitting in your room, trying to think about what you can do, what you can bring to this group, those are the times that players that aren't playing this game anymore, those are moments that they miss ... To not always able to do it, but for the most part, to be able to come through for your team when they need you to, that feels good. The reason I was brought here was for a game like this."
If there's anything that should frustrate you as a Sixers fan, it should be that the Sixers don't have a guy who can consistently create (and make) a variety of shots for themselves on the perimeter when times get tough and the secondary players aren't coming through.
Hold that thought...
With the game on the verge of slipping away in the third quarter, Brown made another change to his substitution patterns that was surprising, if not sensible — Fultz was relegated to towel-waving duty following an ineffectual five minutes in the first half.
After the game, Brown offered a simple explanation for inserting T.J. McConnell back into the backup role behind Simmons.
"I felt that with the physicality of the game," said Brown, "going with the more experienced type of player, someone that has played the whole season, was what was on my mind when I made that decision."
Experienced doesn't necessarily mean good, and the Sixers were worse on the court with McConnell on it than they were with Fultz out there for a second straight playoff game. That said, those shooting woes for Fultz are not going away and are going to linger like a black cloud until they're resolved.
Again, the singular thing that stands out about Fultz right now is his total disinterest in even considering a long jumper, outside of heaves at the end of a shot clock. After barreling into Miami defenders early in the second quarter, Fultz stumbled into what could have been an opportunity on the perimeter either to shoot or to leverage into an open shot for a teammate. Instead, he dribbled himself right out of it and into a kicked ball that allowed Miami to reset their defense.
That these plays are instantly recognizable and consistent enough to point out in almost every single game is a problem. It's the exact opposite instinct you would look for in a guard, particularly one who you drafted specifically for his scorer's package and mindset.
The bigger question now is whether Fultz will continue to get opportunities to work out the kinks. The Sixers have sacrificed the home court advantage already, and with Joel Embiid's availability still a mystery they may not want to keep introducing chaos into the rotation.
Looking at such a poor shooting game and not changing a whole lot on offense may feel unsatisfying, but it might be the best thing for everyone involved.
There was a ton of talk during and after the game about how the Heat's three-point defense tightened up, and it's true to an extent. But the Sixers generated plenty of open looks for themselves throughout the course of the game, and they got them for the exact people you'd want to have open on the perimeter.
Just as unbelievable shooting nights happen like they did Saturday, you're going to have some clunkers, too. When asked about the approach after the game, Brown did not blink, and explained to the assembled media that their insistence on shooting in the face of failure is sort of who they are.
"I think that's kind of who we are. Some of our guys had a rough night," said Brown. "But to pivot out of it and just sort of point at that number [7/36], I'm not prepared to do that, it's been sort of who we are lately. Without Joel, it's really I think — I don't know I hope it's smart, to cater what you're doing to the team's strengths. You see that number, and the other night we broke a franchise record, you sort of give and take with that."
There's every reason to believe that is true. A solution in front of their noses, which we'll discuss in a bit more detail later today.
If Monday was gut check time for Miami, the same test now rests on the desk of Brown and Co. We'll see how they respond in Miami later this week.
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