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April 21, 2018

Sixers pull out miraculous win, take 3-1 series lead over Miami Heat

Ben Simmons became the first rookie with a postseason triple-double since Magic Johnson in 1980.

Up by just four points with 6:47 left to play in a pivotal Game 4, the Sixers were killing off a few seconds of dead time in the team huddle during a timeout. With a decisive blow within their reach, JJ Redick stared at Robert Covington and Ben Simmons on the outskirts of Philadelphia's bench and started shadow shooting in their faces with a big grin on his face.

Asked about what exactly he was doing after the game, Redick just laughed: "That was just a little joke we have. It wasn't like a [motivational thing], more like a hype session, a little inside joke, hype session."

It says a lot about where Philadelphia is as a team right now that the Sixers are spending parts of end-game timeouts laughing about inside jokes, rather than worrying about the challenge posed by the Miami Heat. And despite offering one of their worst halves of the season in Game 4, the Sixers somehow emerged from that huddle and that game with a 106-102 victory, and a commanding 3-1 lead in their first-round series.

The Sixers can win pretty, the Sixers can win ugly, and often times it takes both. Despite engaging in a series that has often been played on Miami's terms, they are emerging at the end of the battles with victories.

Winning the games you're not supposed to

"I am shocked that we won this game," said Brett Brown after the game. "We didn't really have a right. Defensively in the first three periods was a C-minus. Our turnovers were an F. Yet we came out with a win against an amazing organization. To win two games on the road in the playoffs in Miami, it is a real statement."

Brown did not say anything that the people in the stands, at home, or on press row weren't already thinking. The Sixers were horrendous at taking care of the basketball, coughing the ball up 17 times in the first half en route to 26 total for the game. They became the first team to win a game with at least 26 turnovers since the Utah Jazz in 1988, led by the dynamic duo of Karl Malone and John Stockton.

Some of Philadelphia's mistakes in the first half were borderline criminal. The Sixers had a five-on-three opportunity in transition within the first two minutes of the game after Goran Dragic and James Johnson got wiped out on the play. Instead of cashing in on an easy scoring opportunity, Simmons threw the ball away and gave Miami the easy two points on their end.

Their one saving grace in the first half was Miami failing to punish them for their own mistakes. Philadelphia had more than double the turnovers (17 vs. 8), but the Heat only turned those into 20 points, while the Sixers used those eight cough-ups to produce 19 points. Following hot shooting from Miami in each of the last couple games, Miami's regression came at a time when the Sixers desperately needed it.

"We were kicking ourselves all game," Redick said in the locker room. "Some of them was their gameplan and their pressure and their physicality, and some of it was just us putting our head down and driving into no man's land ... we got lucky with the amount of turnovers that we had."

More than they have throughout this long winning run, the Sixers were able to keep it in reach and eventually land a killing blow thanks to contributions from the bench. Ersan Ilyasova did not have the greatest game in the world on offense, shooting just 4/10 from the field on Saturday afternoon. But the Sixers were a massive +16 with him on the floor, and after lineups with Amir Johnson at center were ineffective in the first half, sliding Ilyasova back to the five spot opened up the game for the Sixers.

The value of that signing was on complete display in the second half on Saturday. Ilyasova forced Heat bigs to guard the perimeter more, which opened up the paint for guys like Simmons to slash and kick to shooters. When he wasn't camped out on the perimeter, Ilyasova was dashing into the paint, creating second-chance opportunities or drawing fouls in the process of grabbing offensive rebounds.

Those plays along the margins don't seem big as they're happening, but when you do them consistently in big spots, they add up to a whole greater than the sum of their parts. The Sixers have killed Miami on the offensive glass all series, and they came out ahead again on Saturday afternoon. Some of that is just about personnel — the Sixers just send size at you in waves on the frontline — but it is also about this team's resilience and desire. Guys like Ilyasova fly through the trees, elbows out, knowing they're going to take a beating going up for the ball.

If there's a major takeaway from what we've seen so far this series, it's the resilience that already seems to have formed within this young group. They have not cowered in the face of physical play, they have not let themselves become too wrapped up in the antics after whistles, and they just keep coming whether they're down 10 or up 10. If pressure bursts pipes, the Sixers are taking a blowtorch to Miami's plumbing.

An iron man effort from Ben Simmons

It seems pretty fitting that an extraordinary, sometimes hyperbolic rookie season for Ben Simmons would feature some signature playoff moments. Four games into his playoff career, Simmons has his first triple-double, the first rookie player to come up with one of those since the great Magic Johnson pulled off the feat in 1980.

What was more significant for Simmons in that game — aside from the seven gruesome turnovers — was simply staying on the floor as long as he did. He ended up clocking 39:02 on the court after playing the entire second half, and what was staggering about it was his boundless tank of energy even as the game wore on.

Nearing the end of the road and with Miami staring down the barrel at them, Simmons saved one last use of turbo for the final minute. And when Redick hit James Johnson with a beautiful screen to open up the paint, there was only ever going to be one result:

The numbers and the highlights are great and are the main reason Simmons has already become beloved among basketball fans worldwide. His teammates see something different, however, and it's the command of the team he has taken as a leader that impresses those around him.

"It's almost become expected now that he's got to go average a triple-double," said Redick. "He's very tough physically, but he's even tougher I think mentally. The last four games have been as vocal and demonstrative as I've seen him all season. He's been fantastic, he's coming out of his shell in regards to leadership, and that's huge for us."

Simmons isn't all that focused on the numbers either.

“I figure it just means that I’m doing my job," he said of joining Magic Johnson in the record books. "I think the stats I have averaged all season have been up there so I don’t think it is anything new for the team or myself. As long as we are winning, I’m happy. All those accolades will come if we’re all doing the right things.”

The "right things" includes playing with the edge a playoff series requires. He ended up getting called for this third foul on the play, but Simmons unleashed what may have been the hardest screen Dwyane Wade has ever been hit by in the first half, making sure the future Hall of Famer knew he was going to keep coming.

With Embiid still working his way back and into the flow of things, the Sixers have to lean on their rookie more than ever. It's a good thing he seems up to the task.

The officials have zero control over this series

Let's keep this section fairly short: the officials have not been good through four games so far. And it's not a matter of favoring one team or another, but rather a complete absence of coherence within the games they're officiating.

Even their attempts to police the overtly physical nature of the games have been weak. During a first-half transition sequence, it was almost impossible to hear the first whistle inside the American Airlines Arena, which led to Robert Covington wrapping up Goran Dragic after Simmons had already been whistled for a foul, which was clear on the broadcast. This inspired quite a reaction out of James Johnson, who went over and shoved Covington into the stanchion, only to have Simmons hop into the mix and just sort of stand there.

As the NBA's tweet above indicates, this ended up being a double technical, which is how the NBA tends to rule in these situations. It's also a total coward's way out, with one player reacting to a defensive sequence and another trying to start a fracas after the play had been settled.

They did the exact same thing in a different way later in the game. After Johnson hit Simmons in mid-air following a whistle, Whiteside gave the Sixers rookie a light push over Johnson as he was finding his footing. Dario Saric, ever the attentive teammate, waltzed toward the action and began jawing with Whiteside.

Somehow, the officials ruled these actions equivalent, offering up a double tech once again.

These actions are ostensibly made to settle things down, but they have the opposite effect. When players are punished equally for actions that aren't such, guys are going to cross the line and dare you to make calls. People will call Miami goons and label them with all sorts of pejorative terms, but they are simply responding to the framework the officials are presenting them with. Given the top-end talent gap, this is the smart way to play against the Sixers and a route they should continue to pursue.

That said, the officials have to do a hell of a lot better than this.

Joel Embiid is still a defensive wizard, even when his shot isn't dropping

There was nothing pretty about Embiid's night on the offensive side of the ball. His 2/11 night from the field was saved only by his force of will, as he once again lived at the free-throw line against the Heat.How much or how little his mask is impacting his performance is up for debate, but the big man can't seem to get easy buckets on offense.

What's nice for the Sixers, on the other hand, is that he's a top-two defensive player in the league regardless of whether his shot is dropping. Embiid is a defense unto himself, capable of tilting the court and eating possessions alive when the game gets tight.

"He was awesome. Before I started playing here and after I signed, Brett told me there are certain sequences of a game where Jo will just say, 'No, you're not scoring at the rim.' It's like a switch goes off and he's everywhere. I don't know how he covers as much ground as he does," said Redick. "He has great timing, he knows for the most part when not to jump on shots, it's incredible."

Embiid's defense has so blown away his teammates that some of his foreign pals have run up against the language barrier in their attempts to hype him up.

"I told you, he's not just our superstar, we are so much better defensively [with him]," said Saric. "When you got him, it's easy. I don't know which kind of word I can use for him. It's unbelievable."

Those guys aren't lying. When Miami players have attacked the rim against Embiid in this series, they might as well try to score over a gigantic octopus. Embiid's length and recovery speed is frightening, allowing him to show on ballhandlers who beat Sixers players on the perimeter and then flash back toward the rim for blocks after the ball is dumped off.

Embiid is not as refined as some of his peers in superstar territory on the offensive end, but when you play defense the way he does it almost doesn't matter. The Sixers key around this, and often when Embiid snatches points out of thin air it keys Sixers breaks the other way. That was the case on several occasions Saturday afternoon:

Brown stared greatness in the face on a daily basis during his time in San Antonio. He saw what it's like to observe Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, and he appreciates special talent when it's in front of him. And though you need more than just talent to make deep playoff runs, the coach is more excited than ever to dream about what his dynamic duo can one day become.

I think that those two players have the chance to be great and they are ours. Joel Embiid has no right to be doing some of those things he is doing. He did struggle offensively but he was massive defensively. I think Ben Simmons is one of those players who rarely gets tired. He doesn’t seem to fatigue. I’m told he was the first rookie since Erving Magic Johnson to post a playoff triple-double. There is greatness in both of those players. They coexist well. Those two guys were exceptional tonight.

The series now shifts back to Philadelphia, where a rabid home crowd awaits them at the Wells Fargo Center. The masked man will finally get his chance to play in front of a home playoff crowd, and regardless of if his shot is dropping, the defense will be special.

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