The Sixers entered Thursday night’s game in Miami hoping to secure the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed.
By the second quarter, they were trailing by 22 points and well on their way to a 106-94 loss worse than one Tobias Harris had called “terrible” Tuesday night against the Pacers.
The Sixers will conclude their regular season with a home mini-series on Friday and Sunday nights against the Magic. A win in one of those games would lock up the top seed.
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Heat star Jimmy Butler had 21 points, five rebounds and four assists. Harris led the Sixers with 21 points on 8-for-17 shooting.
Matisse Thybulle (left hand swelling) and Victor Oladipo (right quadriceps tendon surgery) were out. Joel Embiid, Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton returned for the Sixers.
Here are three observations on their dreadful defeat to the Heat:
Harris thought the Sixers lost their composure late in Tuesday's game. Their frustration level remained high early against Miami.
Embiid and Trevor Ariza were each assessed technical fouls after some squabbling when Embiid missed a runner and crumpled onto Ariza’s legs. Embiid was also unhappy when he was called for a moving screen with 1:59 left in the first, his second foul. Ben Simmons was whistled for his third foul late in the second period, though head coach Doc Rivers stuck with him.
Miami’s defense was very good from the opening tip-off, forcing the Sixers to work deep into the shot clock and sending aggressive help on Embiid and Harris post-ups. The Sixers’ ball and player movement was not nearly crisp enough in response to that defensive intensity. It didn’t help that the Sixers’ first made three-pointer was a Seth Curry shot with 4:15 to go in the second quarter.
“I just didn’t think we were ready to play the game tonight," Rivers said. “You could see it early. Everything hurt us. Their man hurt us, their zone hurt us, our defense hurt us. I don’t think they dipped below 50 percent shooting the entire night. They got everything they wanted. They moved faster, ran harder. South Beach is very tough.”
Another indication of the Heat’s superior effort: Miami held a 27-12 first-half rebounding advantage.
Just when it appeared things couldn’t get any better for the Heat, 40-year-old Udonis Haslem entered for his first action of the season and scored four quick points. His stint was short, though. Haslem was ejected following a face-to-face, finger-pointing confrontation with Dwight Howard.
Howard picked up his 16th technical foul. Unless it’s rescinded, he’ll be suspended for a game. The 35-year-old will have a clean slate once the playoffs begin.
Dewayne Dedmon and Howard had an altercation in the third quarter, too, with Dedmon earning a technical. Howard managed to avoid any trouble in that instance.
Rough night for Embiid, Sixers’ half-court defense
The Sixers started the game with Danny Green guarding Butler and Simmons defending Duncan Robinson.
The Green vs. Butler matchup didn’t begin well for them. A low-volume 21.4 percent three-point shooter on the season heading into Thursday’s game, Butler made three long-range jumpers in the first quarter. He scored 16 points on 5-for-5 shooting in the period and also drew two fouls on Green, which led to the insertion of George Hill.
Simmons’ versatility gives the Sixers options, and Rivers has often preferred having him open up on someone besides an opposing star ball handler. Robinson was scoreless until the third quarter, so that part of Rivers’ decision worked. It was one of very few things that broke the Sixers’ way Thursday. Tyler Herro picked up Robinson’s outside shooting slack, scoring 18 points off the bench.
“We just don’t like Danny chasing," Rivers said. “He tends to struggle in that. ... It didn’t matter one way or the other tonight, if you want me to be honest. I thought Ben actually did overall a pretty good job until he got the fouls. But Jimmy got everything he wanted. We’ll look at that.”
Embiid, who’d been a game-time decision with a non-COVID illness, never looked sharp or in rhythm. He had a season-low six points on 3-for-9 shooting and was decisively outplayed by Bam Adebayo (18 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists). The four-time All-Star looked like he was below his best in terms of health but aiming to do his part in wrapping up the No. 1 seed.
“I’m assuming everybody’s fine for tomorrow," Rivers said. “We wouldn’t play (Embiid) if he wasn’t 100 percent. Nobody played well. I would love to say it was Joel or Ben or Tobias. I thought we all were bad. We all looked like we were stuck in the mud tonight. No explanation for it, but that’s how it looked.”
In a departure from the norm, the Sixers’ transition defense was fine but their half-court defense was not, even when Embiid and Simmons shared the floor. Thybulle’s absence was a factor but no excuse.
Sixers struggle against zone
Miami turned to a zone defense late in the first quarter against the Sixers’ bench.
The Sixers’ decision-making against the zone was too deliberate. Besides Tyrese Maxey, who was a willing but ineffective driver in the first half, the Sixers looked unsure of how to attack the Heat. If the Sixers ultimately meet Miami in the second round of the playoffs, expect zone defense to be a key factor.
Overall, it would be a stretch to identify any aspect of the Sixers’ showing as positive. Harris having a decent scoring game might qualify.
Green gave a rather comprehensive summary of the team's issues.
“We let them get set," he said. “We didn’t push the pace, for one. They’re good when they’re set — any team is good when they’re set. We allowed them to double. We didn’t move the ball quickly; we didn’t make the quick decisions we should’ve and were supposed to. It was tough. It’s a tough opponent. They also played zone. It wasn’t just the man. They did a lot of stuff with mucking up the game. They got out in transition; we couldn’t.
“They made shots, also. Jimmy goes 4-for-4 from the three-point line. I don’t know how many he’s taken on the year or what his percentages are, but that’s something that you don’t expect to happen. They also got to the free throw line some early — 11-for-11 from the free throw line. They outrebounded us (by) a ton. That’s just passion, desire and want. We’ve got to get to the boards better, myself included. I think I set that tone with me missing a couple of early rebounds — that hurt us. But to get outrebounded by 17 is not good.”
Zooming out from Thursday night, the Sixers are still first in the Eastern Conference and about to play two games against a 21-win Magic team. This was a low-quality performance across the board, but it’s not an indication that the Sixers’ position in the standings is fraudulent or a sign that the playoffs will go poorly.
Still, the Sixers will need to play much better in the postseason. Before that, though, they must handle their business against Orlando.