76ers

A look back at Sixers' regular-season series with Heat

A look back at Sixers' regular-season series with Heat

The stage is set. The Sixers will face the Miami Heat in the first round of the postseason (see series details).

Let’s dive into the regular-season series and see exactly how we got here. 

Game 1: Feb. 2, Sixers win, 103-97
It was well into the season before the Sixers and Heat finally met, but this battle was anticipated for a long time.

That’s because Joel Embiid and nemesis Hassan Whiteside engaged in a social media beef after the preseason finale. Both centers lobbed barbs back and forth (see story). Ultimately it calmed down and it was realized that things would play out on the court.

When the Heat came to the Wells Fargo Center that Friday night, the building was already rocking with the Eagles’ Super Bowl appearance just hours away. The Sixers fed off that energy to build a 26-point lead after three quarters. However, they nearly blew it by being outscored 37-17 in the fourth quarter before holding on to claim the victory. 

In the end, Embiid had the upper hand in the big man battle (17 points, 11 rebounds to Whiteside’s four points, nine rebounds) and in the win column.

Game 2: Feb. 14, Sixers win, 104-102
The Sixers were on the opposite end of a big deficit in the final game, but they made their comeback stick.

With Embiid sidelined for ankle soreness, Ben Simmons took over in the second half to overcome a 24-point hole. Simmons notched a triple-double with 18 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. 

Marco Belinelli also made a strong first impression with 17 points in his Sixers debut as the team won for the fifth straight time.

"I remember yesterday saying the one thing I really love about this group," Belinelli said (see story), "they want to win so bad and that's why I think we won this game. It's not easy. Especially down [24] against a really good team in Miami, I'm really impressed." 

Game 3: Feb. 27, Heat win, 102-101
Don’t wake up Father Prime.

That’s the hard lesson the Sixers learned in a heartbreaking one-point loss. The Sixers held a lead coming down the stretch, but they couldn’t prevent Dwyane Wade from taking over. The veteran two-guard scored a season-high 27 points, including 15 of Miami’s final 17 points. The icing on the cake was a step-back jumper with 5.9 seconds left on the clock.

That was still enough time for the Sixers to work a play and find an open JJ Redick for a three-pointer only for it to clang off the rim.

“You can't ask for a better look,” Redick said (see story). “I don't know if I rushed it or not, but I would have liked to have set my feet a little different. But other than that, can't ask for a better look.”

Game 4: March 8, Heat win, 108-99
Things came full circle as the Embiid-Whiteside feud boiled over on this night.

Whiteside got the better end of the rivalry as he torched the Sixers for 26 points (9 of 12 shooting) and eight rebounds. Meanwhile, Embiid contributed 17 points (5 for 18) and seven boards.

However, the major takeaway in the game came in the third quarter when the two big men got tangled up and were called for double fouls.

“Looking at the replay, it looked like I didn’t touch him,” Embiid said (see story). “Then they called a double foul. [He] tried to hit me in the back, which is kind of dirty because of the fact that I’ve had back problems. So we’re going to see about that. I won’t forget about that.”

And now here we are with perhaps the tighest first-round series in the entire NBA postseason (the four games were decided by an average of 4.5 points). But with the way the Sixers are playing now, and particularly if they can get Embiid back in action sooner rather than later, they would have to be a big-time favorite to advance. Still, they know it won't be easy (see story).

Either way, buckle your seatbelts for playoff basketball in Philadelphia for the first time in six years.

This is the version of Wilson Chandler the Sixers need

This is the version of Wilson Chandler the Sixers need

When the Sixers acquired Wilson Chandler for “cash considerations” this offseason, it seemed like a great move.

The Nuggets, flush with young talent on the perimeter, were looking to get free of Chandler’s $12,800,562 cap hit. The Sixers, looking for a useful veteran, were happy to oblige.

Unfortunately, the Sixers hadn’t quite gotten the same player that they saw in New York and Denver through 29 games. 

There have been flashes — like the Christmas Day game against Boston — but no consistency. 

It’s been a tough transition for Chandler. Being traded from an organization you spent nearly a decade with isn’t easy. 

Nor is adjusting from being primarily used as a small forward for your career and now being asked to play more stretch four. Nor is getting used to playing alongside three All-Star caliber players.

“It’s been a tough process for me but I think I’m starting to figure it out,” Chandler said postgame Tuesday while sharing the podium with Joel Embiid. “Just playing off Jo and Ben [Simmons]. Knowing when to be aggressive and where to find my shots.”

There haven’t been many moments for postgame talks with the media for Chandler this season and Embiid made sure to bust his chops.

“You’re f------ trash,” you could hear Embiid jokingly whisper to Chandler while he attempted to answer a question about his fit. Chandler laughed before telling Embiid to “chill out.”

But all in all, it’s been a rough go for Chandler, who has missed 15 of the team’s 45 games. Every time it seems like Chandler might be able to start rolling, another health issue creeps up.

First, it was the hamstring strain that cost him the first nine games of the season. As he was recovering from that, he suffered a bruised quad that lingered. That was followed by the upper-respiratory infection that’s passed through the team.

He appeared to turn a corner in Boston, but in the seven games he played in following the overtime loss to the Celtics, Chandler averaged just 4.7 points and shot 31 percent from the field (23 percent from three).

In Tuesday night’s blowout win over the Timberwolves, the 31-year-old combo forward gave yet another glimpse of what he can provide this team. 

He scored 14 points, tied for his second-highest point total of the season. He shot 5 of 7 from the field and 4 of 6 from three. He also added five rebounds and four assists in 25 minutes, showing off the all-around game he can provide.

Even with Chandler struggling, the Sixers’ starting lineup was lethal. If he makes shots like Tuesday? Good luck.

A new wrinkle Brett Brown spoke about postgame was pairing Embiid and Jimmy Butler on the court more. An offshoot of that is that Chandler got to spend more time on the wing — something the 12th year veteran admitted he felt more comfortable with.

A healthy and comfortable Chandler could spell trouble for Sixers opponents. With a brutal stretch coming up, the Sixers will need this version of Wilson Chandler.

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What's wrong with Sixers' defense and how they can improve it

What's wrong with Sixers' defense and how they can improve it

The Sixers’ offense has been a popular topic of late, and that’s understandable as Brett Brown adjusts his offense to try to get the best out of three very different stars.

The defense shouldn’t fly under the radar, however, and it certainly hasn’t with the players and coaches. 

After the Sixers’ loss to the Hawks on Friday night, Brown said it was “disturbing watching our bench guard.”

Ben Simmons said, “I think we were just too soft. We’re not taking it personal enough when guys score on us.”

After finishing last season third in the NBA in defensive rating (103.8), the Sixers are 11th in that category this season with a 108.1 rating. 

The concern about the defense is warranted, likely more than the relative nitpicking about offensive fit (see story).

Let’s look at what’s wrong with the Sixers’ defense and some possible ways to improve it. 

Subpar personnel

In an earlier film review on the team’s pick-and-roll defense, we highlighted that, outside of Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid and Simmons, the Sixers are lacking above-average defensive players.

That hasn’t changed.

Derrick Rose blew by Landry Shamet on this play from Tuesday night.

Jeremy Lin toasted Furkan Korkmaz, easily driving to the middle for an and-one.

It’s worth mentioning (since it’s fundamental to many of the Sixers’ defensive issues), but there’s no use harping on this fact — the Sixers are a team of mostly below-average defenders. 

Miscommunication 

Besides screens involving Embiid, the Sixers switched on almost every pick at the beginning of the season. As a result, opponents could more easily target mismatches against players like Shamet, Korkmaz or T.J. McConnell.

The Sixers have become more selective about switching, leading to fewer of the blatant mismatches opponents desire, but perhaps more miscommunication now that there isn’t a near-automatic switch on screens involving non-centers.

Atlanta has Kevin Huerter set a ball screen for Trae Young on this play from Friday. Huerter’s man, JJ Redick, switches onto Young, but Korkmaz doesn’t realize Huerter is now his responsibility until it’s far too late, after Dewayne Dedmon sets a back screen to free Huerter for a lob.

Young got the easiest basket of his NBA career a little over a minute later. It’s unclear what McConnell and Wilson Chandler had in mind on their coverage of the pick-and-roll between Young and John Collins, but it wasn’t this. 

Our best guess, based on McConnell’s animated reaction, is that McConnell was expecting some sort of help from Chandler — perhaps he thought Chandler was going to hedge the screen, given the way the veteran initially slid up to Young’s right.

On a separate note, Simmons’ feint as if he was going to protect the rim and ultimate decision to hover in between the driving Young and Dedmon in the corner is perplexing.

The play is a strong contender for the Sixers’ worst defensive sequence of the season, and a good illustration of the team’s issues with communication in a scheme that no longer switches by near-default. 

Effort 

It’s unrealistic to expect perfect effort in the middle of the regular season. Still, a team with the Sixers’ deficiencies in terms of defensive personnel is likely going to struggle without consistent effort.

Simmons’ defensive effort was questionable on a few plays vs. Atlanta.

In the example below, his teammates recover well to pick up a man in transition. Simmons is late to identify Huerter as the player he should guard and he doesn’t bother to put a hand up on a half-hearted closeout. 

Jeff Teague beat Simmons down the floor after a dead-ball turnover by the Sixers and, despite Simmons’ request for help, nobody provided it, giving Teague a wide-open lane.

A new rotation? 

In the Sixers’ 42-point demolition of the Timberwolves on Tuesday, Brown might have found a way to get more out of the personnel he currently has.

Brown used rookie Jonah Bolden as a backup center, and he was encouraged by what he saw from Bolden anchoring the defense when Embiid was off the floor.

He’s got a bounce. … And he can do some things at the rim — he’s not afraid of making tough plays, and he’s able to make tough plays. Using him as a backup five and letting [Mike] Muscala play more of a four and then sliding Wilson [Chandler] down to a three, I think it’s a good look.

You can pencil Bolden in for a bad, overzealous foul or two just about every game, but his defensive tools jump out on tape. 

He can hang with players on the perimeter incredibly well for somebody who is 6-foot-10, and he has good instincts as a shot blocker.

His length and athleticism allow him to recover when he’s caught leaning in the wrong direction, like on the play below vs. Dario Saric.

And he protects the rim well even when he’s not blocking shots. Here, Bolden cleans up Shamet’s mistake, sliding with DeAndre’ Bembry and forcing him into a difficult attempt.

With Bolden, the stats — albeit in a small, 257-minute sample size — back up the eye test. His 99.1 defensive rating is the best on the Sixers. 

The Sixers’ defensive issues are deeper than their backup center, but tweaking the rotation to have Bolden at the five behind Embiid could alleviate some of the problems with the team’s defense when Embiid sits. 

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