Heat's increased physicality bothers Sixers in Game 2

Heat's increased physicality bothers Sixers in Game 2

Game 1 was just a little too easy for the Sixers. Too much free space in transition, too many open threes, too many offensive rebounds. The Heat were determined to make Game 2 different.

An hour before tipoff, 15-year veteran Udonis Haslem’s focus was clear. “We gotta get into the physical part of the game,” Haslem said. “Make everything tough, make everything physical, raise our level of intensity as their level of intensity has raised. And then secondly, we’ll get into the X’s and O’s. But first of all, just pure competition.”

Miami’s physicality was on another level in Monday’s night 113-103 win (see observations). The Heat picked up Ben Simmons full court, chased Marco Belinelli and JJ Redick tight around every screen, and issued their fair share of “playoff fouls” whenever a Sixer found an inch of free space in the paint. It was a stark contrast to Game 1, when they gave Simmons plenty of room to operate, saw the Sixers make 18 of their 28 three-point attempts and conceded numerous open dunks.

“They were more physical, and I think that was the expectation,” JJ Redick said. “In terms of their schemes, they didn’t change a whole lot. I think the biggest thing was just how they approached their defense on Ben. Instead of sagging off in the paint, they were pressuring full court. Other than that, it was just being more physical all around with our bigs. We had trouble just getting to our plays sometimes.”

The Heat held the Sixers to 7-for-36 shooting from three-point range, their fourth-worst long-range shooting percentage of the season. While a few of those misses were open looks, a big part of the Sixers’ struggles from long range Monday were due to how closely the Heat tailed shooters off the ball, and how often they denied the initial action and made the Sixers take a worse shot.

“I just think we made it tough on them,” Heat guard Josh Richardson said. “They were able to get wherever they wanted last time and if you let them do that then they're just going to punish you. We took it upon ourselves in those last two days to come out tougher and make things harder on them.”

After a dismal second quarter in which they were outscored 34-13 the Sixers responded in the second half. Their shots still weren’t falling from deep, but the Sixers didn’t shy away from the physical challenge. Simmons, who scored 15 of his 24 points in the second half, was involved in plenty of pushing and shoving off the ball with Justise Winslow.

“They were a little bit more physical, but at the same time, our guys can throw bodies around,” Simmons said. “I think that was one of the biggest things.”

This series is going to be a fight, and Redick thinks it’s not the worst thing in the world that the Sixers absorbed a few blows Monday night.

“For the guys who haven’t been through the fire of the playoffs, this will sharpen you and strengthen you as a player, as a man, as a group,” Redick said. “Games like this are good for you, but it doesn’t feel good to lose.”

If Ben Simmons is sidelined for an extended period, how will Sixers adapt?

If Ben Simmons is sidelined for an extended period, how will Sixers adapt?

We don’t need to spend much time explaining how and why Ben Simmons is very valuable for the Sixers. 

The two-time All-Star leads the NBA in steals and, before irritating a lower back injury Saturday night in Milwaukee, was averaging 16.9 points, 8.3 assists and 7.9 rebounds.

Of course, the Sixers will hope the injury doesn’t keep Simmons out for long. The question of how the Sixers will manage if Simmons’ injury does sideline him for an extended period of time, however, deserves attention.

Who’d be in the starting lineup? 

Though Raul Neto started in Simmons’ place Thursday against the Nets, he didn’t play against the Bucks until the game was well out of hand.

Shake Milton handled much of the point guard duties after Simmons left and was solid, making 5 of 7 three-point shots and scoring 17 points.

Josh Richardson and Alec Burks are other ball handling options, with Brett Brown seeming to prefer Burks’ “scoring punch” off the bench.

In his second NBA season, Milton has posted 6.7 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game, shooting 36.9 percent from three. The 23-year-old was on a two-way contract with the Sixers as a rookie and starred with the Delaware Blue Coats, scoring 24.9 points per game in the G League.

Who else would be impacted? 

Between Jan. 25 and Feb. 9, Milton started eight straight games for the Sixers because of Richardson’s hamstring injury. Brown didn’t play him as much as a typical starter during that stretch, giving him 25.4 minutes per game. He only exceeded 30 minutes once, when he scored a career-high 27 points on Jan. 30 in Atlanta.

Milton again would not likely be assuming full-on starters minutes. Perhaps Richardson and Burks would combine for a greater sum of backup point guard minutes than usual. If Richardson were to handle backup point guard duties, that would presumably mean Glenn Robinson III, Furkan Korkmaz and Matisse Thybulle would have more minutes to take on the wing. 

Simmons was averaging a team-high 36.3 minutes entering Saturday’s game, so there is simply a lot of playing time that would need to be allocated among multiple players. 

Where would the Sixers suffer the most? 

The defense would take a big hit. The on-off stats mysteriously indicate that the Sixers have been a better defensive team with Simmons not on the floor, but they’d clearly be losing one of the best defenders in the game. 

Along with being first in steals, Simmons has the most total deflections and the most defensive loose balls recovered. He can defend opposing stars and, in general, most point guards, wings and power forwards. The Sixers would not be able to replace that defensive versatility or overall quality.

They’d obviously gain something in terms of outside shooting but would lose a lot in other offensive areas. Simmons has assisted on more threes than any player this season.

How much would it hurt overall? 

Because Simmons has played in 214 of a possible 221 regular-season games over the last three seasons, we don’t have any meaningful track record of how the Sixers tend to fare without him.

Joel Embiid would be the focus of a Simmons-less team, and it would make sense for the offense to involve more Embiid post-ups than ever.

The most basic formula for success without Simmons would be an elite Embiid on both ends of the floor, Milton and other guards succeeding in expanded roles, and Tobias Harris and Al Horford being better across the board, especially as three-point shooters. It’s not impossible that all those pieces would come together, but it would be a lot to ask. 

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons to undergo further testing for back injury reaggrevated vs. Bucks

Sixers injury update: Ben Simmons to undergo further testing for back injury reaggrevated vs. Bucks

The Sixers took a beat down from the Bucks Saturday night, but that seems secondary to what else took place in Milwaukee.

Ben Simmons, who missed the first game after the All-Star break Thursday with lower back soreness, left Saturday’s game not even five minutes in and did not return. Simmons will undergo further testing in Philadelphia Sunday, per NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters.

A report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski provided concerning info:

Sources described Simmons as emotional upon leaving the X-ray room at the Fiserv Forum late Saturday.

"There is some level of concern surrounding the possible nature of the injury, league sources tell ESPN.

The All-Star point guard appeared to reaggravate the injury on a drive against Brook Lopez. After a foul was called on Lopez, Simmons could be seen attempting to stretch his back out. After Simmons made 1 of 2 from the line, Matisse Thybulle fouled Khris Middleton to get a stoppage so Simmons could go back to the locker room.

At first, the ABC broadcast said the plan was for Simmons to go to the locker room to receive treatment throughout the night. A few minutes later, Simmons was ruled out for the rest of the game.

A broken foot cost Simmons a season the year he was drafted, but he’s been one of the Sixers’ most durable players since. The 23-year-old has played 214 of a possible 221 games during his three-year career.

Sitting in fifth in the Eastern Conference with 25 games remaining, the Sixers can ill afford to miss Simmons for an extended period of time.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers