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April 19, 2018

Sixers vs. Heat Game 3 preview: Sixers will combat physicality in their own unique way

Look at any post-mortem from Philadelphia's Game 2 loss to the Miami Heat, and you'll notice one overarching theme. In the search for a root cause, most people landed on Miami's physical, stifling defense, crediting the stylistic adjustment for the turnaround after a Game One beatdown.

The Sixers themselves have acknowledged this, with everyone from Brett Brown to Ben Simmons pointing out that Miami's defense sped them up, leading to the 113-103 loss we ended up witnessing on Monday night. Brown specifically harped on the second quarter in the days that followed, explaining that the team spent almost all of their Tuesday morning film session going over their issues.

"I didn't think we handled the second period well," said Brown. "They sped up Ben, we learned and saw a different look on Ben Simmons tonight, and in those moments when there are struggles and you speed [Ben] up, that's when you want to post Joel Embiid and settle the gym. I thought tonight was a really strong example for me of when you wished you had him."

As of Thursday a.m., we still don't have a concrete answer to the day's most pivotal question: will Embiid suit up for Game Three? In the meantime, however, we have already been given an indication of how Philadelphia will attack the problems presented by the Heat.

The Sixers won't fight fire with fire

Whenever one team imposes their will physically on a game, the fan reaction is naturally to expect their team to play with the exact same physical presence. A call for finesse doesn't sell well, and it gives off the impression that one team is "soft" in comparison to their opponent.

Sports are never that binary. Every team should play with an edge, no doubt, but it wouldn't make sense for a team with superior talent and skill to resort to gooning it up if it can be avoided. The Sixers at their best can execute on offense at a level the Heat simply can't — there's a reason Miami finished 20th in offensive efficiency this year, while the Sixers finished just outside the top-10.

That was essentially the message from Brown before practice on Wednesday, as reporters prodded about how Philadelphia would counter the shift from Miami. And though he sounded like a man ready for his team to impose their will, it may not be in the way many would expect:

It doesn’t have to be macho vs. macho, that’s not how we want to play. We want to have an actual response to physicality, and it can mean speed, it can mean space, it can mean the technique of just creating a lead and getting open… you know, a simple jab step and putting your arm in somebody’s chest or throwing out a lead hand as an example, stuff you’d learn in eighth grade. It all equals fundamentals, poise, technique, that stuff to combat physicality.

It’s not they punch you, you punch them, they punch you, it’s not that at all. In fact, that’s the last side of it I want to get into. There’s some of that, but it’s not all that. How we respond to that is going to be important, there’s not one thing going on the other night that we didn’t sort of anticipate. Words are cheap, actions are real.

There will be exceptions to this rule, certainly. Simmons is built for a physical game in a way some of the role players and shooters off the bench are not, and he came out in the second half and played with a level of intensity befitting the circumstances. 

"Nothing really bothers me on the floor," Simmons said prior to Wednesday's practice of the confrontational approach. "I might get frustrated but I never let it take away from what I do on the court."

The Sixers are going to run what they always run, and Simmons is going to play how he always plays, with minor tweaks. Monday's second half serves as a good representation of what you should probably expect, with Simmons putting an even greater emphasis on the tempo of getting up the floor than ever. 

Expect that strategy to stick against Miami in Game Three.

The Embiid uncertainty

If you were judging Embiid's potential availability strictly based on how he looked before shootaround on Thursday, you'd find it hard to believe he's not playing in Game Three. The big man, mask off, was unleashing some shots from way downtown as the assembled media tried to get a read on what the plan is tonight.

His head coach remained coy, leaving the door open for a return while stressing that his status had not changed after the team listed him as doubtful in their Wednesday night injury report.

"He still remains doubtful. He went through stuff yesterday that was decent, he had a little bit of contact, trying to get used to the mask, felt some bodies, but at this stage this morning we are listing him as doubtful," said Brown. "It's a collaborative thing with Joel, and doctors, and me, it's all this stuff that revolves around comfort and we feel like we're responsible with his health, those types of things."

As was reported in PhillyVoice on Wednesday night, Embiid's availability rests almost exclusively on getting the final clearance from the surgeons responsible for his recent facial surgery. If he gets the go ahead from that team, it's wildly unlikely the Sixers, Embiid himself, or any other interested parties would prevent him from playing on Thursday night.

"He's getting there," said Brown at the conclusion of his availability on Thursday. "To just let him go out there right now, it's still all on the table. You guys know what I know. He did some contact yesterday. It's progressing, I don't feel like I can really share anything new, I'm just making stuff up. Really."

Will Markelle Fultz retain his backup role?

One of the big changes in Philadelphia's rotation during Game Two was Brown's decision to go away from his rookie point guard in the second half, leaning instead on backup T.J. McConnell to spell Simmons for the brief window of action he was on the bench for. Fultz may have shown he deserves consideration during the final regular season stretch, but he doesn't have a limitless rope.

Nor should he, because Fultz definitely struggled to keep up during his five minutes of action on Monday. His shot has been the major point of concern for obvious reasons, but it was on the defensive end where Fultz ended up struggling the hardest against the Heat in Game Two. The rookie got lost on screens a few separate times, and it was part of the reason Dwyane Wade was able to get off to a hot start and ultimately land the killing blows on Philadelphia.

"I will go back to Markelle," Brown said at Thursday's shootaround, "because he deserves the opportunity to play basketball in that role again. Like everybody, we judge it after the event, and my belief is he will learn from the last situation, the physicality of the game got raised. We're going to go back to him again."

"So much of it is gut feel for me, basic stuff. Getting us into our offense, how successful is he getting into the paint and handling their pressure, those types of things."

A more interesting proposal, however, is the idea that Fultz should spend some time alongside Simmons if the Heat are going to play aggressive, physical defense. The Sixers had problems creating any sort of penetration outside of Simmons and a few jaunts into the paint from Dario Saric, with Miami crowding their shooters early and often.

Some of those issues would be offset by Embiid's presence — you can't crowd shooters on the perimeter if you're in constant need of sending help defense into the post — but in theory, it would be helpful to get another ballhandler on the floor with Simmons.

Unless you're asking the head coach, who acknowledges the luxury of another ballhandler but ultimately leans toward the spacing the team has strived for in the season's second half.

"You need to have spacing and shooting on the floor," Brown said at Wednesday's practice. "And so if those other secondary ball carriers are also credible shooters, then you’ve got a good formula. And so the balance of that is a challenge with our group at the moment, but I think that shooting rules the day."

Road warriors

One thing that has perhaps been undersold in the build-up to Thursday's Game Three: Philadelphia has yet to win a road game against the Heat this season. In fact, Miami's win in Philadelphia on Monday was the first road win for either team in the season series to date, putting a ton of pressure on a young Sixers team to return the favor.

If that concerns anybody on the team, they sure haven't shown it, as Brown explained the togetherness of the team is only amplified when they have to leave the friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center.

"You’re not in your own bedroom, you’re not in your own sort of comfort zone, your own routine moving through your day. It’s a huge part of young players figuring out life on the road, and it certainly gets exacerbated in the playoffs," said Brown. "But I like it. I like the mentality and the spirit of being together. I think we have a very close team, and it forces you to become even closer when you’re not at home."

"I am not intimidated by the road. Our guys, and I speak as the coach of the team, we are not intimidated by the road. I think that it's going to bring even a higher level of sort of togetherness to this group."

The key to bucking the trend in Miami may be as simple as taking care of the basketball. In the two road games they've played in Miami to date, the Sixers have averaged 20.5 turnovers per game, which is certainly not going to get it done in the playoffs.

That is one area where Embiid returning might not help, but if you can get the big man back in the fold, you do it and you don't think twice.

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