76ers

Sixers blitz Heat in 2nd half of Game 5 win to advance

Sixers blitz Heat in 2nd half of Game 5 win to advance

BOX SCORE

What a night at the Wells Fargo Center. 

The Sixers are moving on to the second round, eliminating the Heat with a 104-91 Game 5 victory on their home court Tuesday. 

They will face the winner of the series between the No. 2 Celtics and No. 7 Bucks. The Celtics lead, 3-2. Sixers fans chanted “We Want Boston” in the fourth quarter. 

• With Meek Mill and Kevin Hart sitting courtside (see story), the Sixers took over the game in the third quarter and fended off a late Heat run. The teams were tied, 46-46, at halftime before the Sixers outscored the Heat 34-20 over the next 12 minutes. The Heat wouldn’t go away, though. They went on a 10-0 run and cut the Sixers’ lead to eight with just under six minutes to play, plenty of time for more physical basketball. James Johnson was called for a technical with 5:24 to go on a rough play against Marco Belinelli.

• Joel Embiid’s first playoff home game went just about as you would have thought: a 19-point, 12-rebound double-double. Embiid had a strong 8-for-14 shooting performance after struggling to go a combined 7 for 22 in his first two games back. The Sixers will have time before the next round for Embiid to continue to get adjusted to wearing his mask. 

• The Heat did not go easy on Ben Simmons. Early in the game, a running Josh Richardson took out Simmons by the legs as they intersected while Simmons drove the basket. Simmons tumbled and instantly bounced back up. In the third quarter, Goran Dragic swiped Simmons in the head and was called for a technical. Simmons shook all of it off, finishing with 14 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. 

• Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, Eagles running back Corey Clement, boxer Bernard Hopkins and former Sixer Nik Stauskas were among those in attendance. The game had the crowd on its feet, just watch the video below to see. 

• JJ Redick shot a perfect 10 for 10 from the line en route to a game-high 27 points. He was the only player to surpass 20 points. Kelly Olynyk led the Heat with 18 points off the bench. 

• The Sixers turned around that turnover problem from Game 4. They committed 15, compared to 27 on Saturday. Their three-point struggles continued (7 for 28), but they made up for them by outscoring the Heat, 46-40, in the paint. 

• Sixers fans fittingly wrapped up the game by chanting "Trust the Process."

Sixers seal spot in second round of NBA playoffs with elite, record-tying defensive performance in win over Nets

Sixers seal spot in second round of NBA playoffs with elite, record-tying defensive performance in win over Nets

Before his team took the floor, Brett Brown admitted the Sixers had “dodged some bullets” in their first four games against the Nets. He was especially wary of Joe Harris, the NBA leader in three-point percentage during the regular season, noting the open looks he’d missed.

The Sixers’ defense made sure Brooklyn didn’t have any more bullets in the chamber Tuesday night in a 122-100 win that sealed a spot in the second round (see observations).

Though aided by Brooklyn’s abysmal effort, the Sixers’ first-half defensive performance couldn’t have been much better.

Ben Simmons smothered D’Angelo Russell, who shot 1 for 9 in the half. Jimmy Butler hunted the ball, recording three steals and causing chaos. The rotations were sharp, the communication crisp, and the intensity only escalated as the Nets’ shoulders collectively slumped. 

Brooklyn at one stage had as many made field goals as turnovers (seven). It finished the half with 31 points, tied for the fewest the Sixers have ever allowed in a playoff game, per Basketball-Reference. 

“Maybe the best we’ve defended all season, given the problems they present for our team,” JJ Redick said. “The first half was as good as you can guard.”

Defense was a concern for the Sixers entering the playoffs. Third in defensive rating in 2017-18, they finished this year tied for 13th. Pick-and-roll defense was a familiar problem. The big-picture question Brown posed at the start of training camp about how to cope when teams went small and tried to pull Joel Embiid away from the rim remained open throughout the season. 

They seem to have hit on some solutions, though simply having superior individual perimeter defenders compared to last season’s team might be the most important one. 

“I’m not going to say anything about last year's guys,” Embiid said, “but it doesn't make a difference. We got to stick to the game plan and usually the game plan is to drive all these guys to me and let me do my job as the best defensive player in the league.”

An excellent fourth quarter in Game 4 and a record-tying half in Game 5 doesn’t indicate that the Sixers’ defense is flawless. They’ve yet to show they can defend this well on a consistent basis, and potential liabilities like Redick and Boban Marjanovic will likely be challenged more in the second round against the Raptors. 

The Sixers have demonstrated, however, that all the platitudes about defense fueling offense and being a priority in the playoffs are more than just words.

“I think [losing Game 1] immediately forced us into recognizing that we are vulnerable if we don't play like we got to play defense,” Brown said. “If I were to go to one specific thing, the first game was a reminder that we better guard the way that we said we wanted to defend them or it's going to be a long series and one that we could lose.”

Regardless of whether Redick is making shots or Simmons is effective in the half court or Embiid can dominate Marc Gasol and company, this level of defense should keep the Sixers in every game. 

If Butler is to be believed, the Sixers are capable.

He didn’t agree with Redick that this was the best the Sixers have defended all season.

“Nah,” he said, unmoved. “We’ve been locking up at practice.”

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Sixers embracing championship expectations after beating Nets in first round

Sixers embracing championship expectations after beating Nets in first round

The expectations were high for the Sixers coming into the season.

Two blockbuster trades later and those expectations have only grown.

After taking care of the Brooklyn Nets with a 122-100 beating in Game 5 Tuesday night (see observations), they’ve made it into the Eastern Conference’s final four where they’ll face a stiff test in the Toronto Raptors. 

Even Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, whose team was eliminated after being thoroughly dominated in Game 5, said the Sixers “can compete for a championship.”

“That’s what we think,” Joel Embiid said. “We think we can win it all. Obviously, it is going to take a lot. You’ve got some great teams in the league. We’re about to play one of them and I don’t know who the next one is going to be, either Milwaukee or Boston, and then you’ve got the West, which is pretty tough. We just got to take one game at a time, but we understand that we’ve got all the talent that we need, especially to win it all.”

The Sixers haven’t shied away from expectations since general manager Elton Brand pulled off deals for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. After losing Game 1, it put a bit of a damper to the start of a postseason filled with so much hope.

The uneasiness wasn’t cured after having a narrow halftime lead in Game 2, but a tongue lashing by Brett Brown led to a record-setting third quarter. They faced even more misfortune when they found out Embiid was going to miss Game 3, but Ben Simmons’ strong performance carried them to a win. They found themselves down for most of Game 4, but executed down the stretch to win a thriller.

Then, with a chance to end the series at home, they jumped all over the Nets on their way to a fourth straight win. It was an impressive response from a team that’s still working out the kinks of a sometimes-dominant starting five.

Sometimes a little adversity is good for a group still trying to come together.

“I think if you’re going through a very intense, pressure-filled series, it can bring you together, make you better and stronger as a team, or it can break you,” JJ Redick said. “This series brought us together and obviously from here it just gets tougher.”

It really does.

The Sixers’ struggles against the Raptors are well-documented. Toronto is not Brooklyn. It's playoff tested and features arguably the best two-way player in basketball in Kawhi Leonard.

But for the Sixers to get to where they want to go, they need to figure out a way to accelerate the development of their chemistry and beat one of the league’s best.

“We have a team that is slowly coming together,” Brown said. “They don’t have the luxury of lots of games and lots of context to share upon … this is good. Beating Brooklyn and advancing to the second round … this is good. It can’t be discredited as, ‘Oh, you should.’ On paper, we should, but you’re still playing against a team that was a team … 

“I will answer it like that and conclude with we still have more to do — a lot more to do.”

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