May 10, 2022
The Sixers saved one of their worst performances of the year for a critical second round playoff game, faceplanting on the road in a miserable 120-85 defeat that puts them one loss away from elimination.
Here's what I saw.
• Paul Reed was just about the only good thing about this game for the Sixers. His first shift on Tuesday night came at a time where the Heat easily could have pushed this game into blowout territory, and even some of his effort plays went unrewarded. A nice steal from Reed early in the second quarter led to yet another missed three from Georges Niang in transition, but that was no fault of Reed's, whose arms and legs were active every minute he was on the floor.
Rivers briefly considered keeping him on the floor with Embiid in the second quarter, but that experiment lasted for all of one possession before they abandoned it. It probably would have been a better idea than most of the other junk they put out there.
• The Sixers looked like a team unprepared for an early haymaker from a desperate team, which the Heat certainly were coming off of two consecutive losses in Philadelphia. The contrast between the two teams was striking in the first quarter — Philadelphia's level of execution in the halfcourt was befitting a midseason game, and the Heat took advantage of their sloppiness, getting out and running to build some early momentum.
There were some decent moments of halfcourt defense for the Sixers, forcing Miami into shots and shot locations you'd probably take if you had your choice. Actually being able to live within their halfcourt defense has been a big key to this series — when the Heat have been forced to pull the ball out of their own basket and attack a set defense, the Sixers have done a nice job of taking away options and dictating the terms of engagement. Unfortunately, the Sixers did a terrible job of taking care of the basketball, and four first-quarter turnovers turned into eight Miami points in the opening period. Not a recipe for success, especially when you compound the turnover problem with unorganized transition defense.
Even in the halfcourt, though, the Sixers undid their good work by continuing their season-long struggle on the glass. Getting a Dewayne Dedmon corner three is only valuable if the group is ready to rebound the ball afterward, and Jimmy Butler was the only guy remotely close to coming down with the ball after that miss. Max Strus hoisted up a panicked three late in the shot clock in the final 10 seconds of the first, and two Sixers players failed to stop P.J. Tucker from coming down with the rebound in their air space. Over and over again, they get beat to the ball and beat to spots, and it undermines the good work they put in.
• Part of the problem early, at least in this writer's opinion, is that the Sixers spent far too much time trying to force-feed the ball into Joel Embiid for post-ups. I completely understand his value in that spot, but the Heat are playing a style of defense that is basically daring you to try to get him the ball in those spots. Even though I would concede that their entry passing is and has been pretty bad, you're also asking a group of suspect entry passers to beat a defense that is designed to make life tough for them. That's a flaw in strategy as much as it is a flaw in execution.
But yeah, the execution also sucked. There were some passes that made my head hurt watching. You have a seven-foot target and are either overshooting him by several feet or throw it into his ankles? How is that possible?
• Here's the most important part of why Philadelphia sucked to start this game — Joel Embiid was not good in basically any way. After hitting a pull-up jumper on the first offensive possession, it looked like he might be in the mood to go out and dominate. It was all downhill from there, Embiid struggling to find the range and struggling to do much of anything, for that matter.
It's hard to look at Philadelphia's rebounding problems and not look directly at No. 21 as the starting point. Sure, there were times when he got pulled out to the three-point line to contest and vacated the paint, but there were far more possessions where he just sort of drifted through space and did nothing to help their fight on the glass. There were no box outs, no attempts to get to where the ball was headed, just a whole lot of nothing being offered.
Beyond that, his decision-making was simply all over the place, Embiid failing in some spots that should have been hard to mess up from. Rather than taking a transition attempt against a reeling Max Strus in transition, he waited far too long to drop the ball off to Tyrese Maxey by his side, ultimately leaving him in a spot where he could not score from. On a play later in the half, Embiid passed a ball to the space Maxey used to be in a second or two earlier, the ball harmlessly bouncing out of bounds.
For the moments that immediately followed him getting smacked in the face, I'm okay with Embiid getting somewhat of a pass. He is not even close to healthy right now. The idea that he even has the capacity to turn it up because he lost out on the MVP trophy seemed farcical on its face — the man has a busted up face and a damaged thumb on his shooting hand. But Embiid was able to put together a flurry toward the end of the third quarter, looking very much like the guy who competed for the MVP award all year. That makes it hard to just shove all the poor play to the side, and he had plenty of poor play before taking that shot.
As the best player goes, so goes the team, and Embiid did nothing to stop the bleeding when they struggled early. By the time he got going, it was too late.
• The other guys in the starting lineup (non-James Harden edition) did not fare any better than Embiid did, even if they looked a little more engaged in the outing than Embiid did. Tobias Harris picked a pretty terrible game to come crashing back down to Earth, and though he had some success as a catch-and-shoot option, his in-between scoring left a lot to be desired. It did probably highlight that the Sixers have been fortunate to have Harris on the roll he has been on — Harris has bailed them out of some tough possessions this series with good midrange shotmaking.
His bad night pales in comparison to Tyrese Maxey's, though. There have been very few games where Maxey has been a total non-factor for the whole game, the second-year pro either digging himself out with excellent second-half play or starting strong out of the gate. You never felt like he was really in this game, Maxey looking unsure of himself and unable to impact the game. Catch-and-shoot looks that have become second nature to him were either looked off or never really entertained, Maxey even fumbling a pass or two when the ball swung his way in the corner. His ability to hurt Miami as a closeout attacker also wasn't there, with Maxey tossing some absolute junk up at the rim from midrange.
It was arguably worse at the other end, where Miami built up some of their early lead by picking on Maxey throughout the first half. The Sixers continue to hand the Heat some fairly easy switches, and he is just drawing dead if he has to try to stop someone with Jimmy Butler's size and athleticism from scoring inside the arc. As we move deeper into his career, the stakes are going to be higher for him — once you're counted as a high-level guy and get the contract to match, issues on either end of the floor are cared about a whole lot more.
• It was probably fair to expect a comedown for Harden after he lit up the Heat in a sensational Game 4 performance, but I thought he was the lone Sixers starter to drape himself in some glory in the first half. While the rest of his buddies were tossing up bricks and frankly going through the motions, he was the guy whose engagement level matched the moment on both ends — in fact, I think Harden has been locked in by his standards on defense, helping at appropriate times and keeping his head up to try to be there for his running mates.
He was also the only consistent source of offense for Philadelphia in a game where they could not stop vomiting all over themselves. Harden had a strong night getting to and attacking in the paint, putting up some soft runners from moderate distance to pick up some easy ones in the first half. At this point in the series, he clearly knows who he wants to try to attack if he can get a switch or a good early matchup, and he's not taking all that long to size those guys up and make his move.
Unfortunately, the second half also happened, and Harden did this:
Since this tweet:— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) May 11, 2022
—A Harden turnover while guarded by Vincent
—Missed catch and shoot three for Harden
—Harden TO off of his own foot
pack it up! https://t.co/9J7UVp63aZ
Not going to get it done.
• What is the point of playing Georges Niang if he can't make threes? I'll answer the rhetorical myself — there isn't one. He does not offer value in this series if shots are not going down for him.
What is the point of playing Matisse Thybulle if he has no defensive impact? I'll answer the rhetorical myself — there isn't one. He does not offer value if he can't create turnovers or slow down opposing perimeter players.
What is the po—alright, you get what I'm saying here. Their depth is bad, and the "most trusted" depth options are only marginally better/more trustworthy. Easy to blame the coach for playing certain guys, but this is not a roster overflowing with talent.
• As if the Sixers could afford to have Joel Embiid dealing with any more health-related issues, he went into the stands to try to save an errant entry pass in the middle of a brutal Sixers stretch on offense. When he got back into play, Embiid was in noticeable pain, grabbing at a spot on his lower back and bending over to stretch after Max Strus hit a transition three on the ensuing possession.
The scarier moment came later on in the first half, when Embiid got hit in the face and was down on the baseline in what appeared to be a good deal of pain, the arena eventually getting fairly quiet while Embiid was looked over by head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson. Though he would eventually rise to his feet and feel well enough to give Kane Fitzgerald an earful on his way back to the huddle, it's simply not what you want to see happen at any point during this run.
• Here's the real concern coming out of this game — what reason do you have to be confident about this Sixers group standing tall in a backs-to-the-wall situation? Their best player, whose track record in do-or-die games is spotty up to this point, is playing through multiple injuries just to be on their floor. Their coach is most well known at this point for being the all-time leader in blown 3-1 series leads. The second star, who admittedly just turned in a gem in Game 4, has one of the worst reputations in must-have games of any high-level player in this era. Their hope otherwise has to come from a second-year guy, Harris, or a collection of unreliable role players.
Fully healthy Embiid on their side, you could talk yourself into a gut-check win in Game 6 and a shot to finish the job in Miami for Game 7. But they don't have that guy. They need a lot to go their way in the days to come.
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