Miami Heat

Sixers' 2nd-half dominance emblematic of team's growth

Sixers' 2nd-half dominance emblematic of team's growth

Remember when the Sixers regularly stuttered out of the gates in second halves, coughing up leads?

That feels like a long, long time ago.

The ridiculously rapid growth of this team is hard to fathom. It's turning previous weaknesses into strengths, and its second-half performances are a perfect example.

The third quarter was pivotal in the Sixers’ 104-91 win Tuesday night (see observations), as they outscored the Heat 34-20 to take control of the game. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons provided the bulk of the Sixers’ offense in the first half, but that changed in the third quarter. Dario Saric scored eight points in the period, while Robert Covington made a pair of momentum-swinging three-pointers.

In total, out of 10 second-half quarters in the series, the Sixers lost just one — the fourth quarter Tuesday. 

That second-half dominance is turning into a big part of this team’s identity.

“It’s just the way we play — we play hard and we never let up,” Simmons said. “At the start of the season, we had a few letups where we just weren’t used to it, a few guys playing their first season, a new team. I think we’ve grown a lot.”

Erik Spoelstra experienced an unpleasant feeling of déjà vu during the second half of Game 5.

“In the second half, it felt like the majority of our fourth quarters vs. Philadelphia,” Spoelstra said. “Each of the games — except for Game 2 — they’ve stepped up their defense in the fourth quarter and it was tough to generate good, clean offense or at least getting the ball where we wanted it to go and executing with some level of coherency. You have to credit them.”

While the Sixers are developing at warp speed, this particular trend didn’t just start in the playoffs. As JJ Redick pointed out, the Sixers started taking over in the second half late in the regular season.

“I don’t think this is something we just started doing this series,” Redick said. “If you look at our winning streak, there were a lot of games that were close at halftime and the third and fourth quarters, especially defensively, were just terrific, and that’s what allowed us to have that winning streak.

“So this is something we’ve been doing now for a while. I know earlier in the year we certainly had blown a few double-digits leads in the second half. It’s something we were coached on and worked through as a group, so a lot of credit goes to Brett (Brown) and his staff for that.”

During the Sixers’ current stretch of 20 wins in 21 games, they’ve outscored their opponents in the third quarter by nine or more points 10 times. It’s a staggering reversal of their early-season issues coming out of halftime.

While we’re talking about the Sixers’ growth, we could delve into their newfound ability to take care of the ball (with the glaring exception of Game 4), or the massive improvements in their bench play, or Simmons hitting free throws under pressure.

However, the second-half dominance speaks volumes about the ways this precocious team has grown, and how it continues to develop.

“I think we’ve stayed on to something and we haven’t pivoted out of it,” Brown said. “This is how we want to play offense, this how we want to play defense, this is how we substitute, these are our crunch-time plays. This is just what we do. 

“We’ve been able to just incrementally get better as the season has unfolded. That’s always the thing that makes coaches most proud: the fact that your teams get better. And this team really is getting better. The pieces within the team are getting better and so it all adds up.”

Plenty of Philly celebrities take in Sixers' series-clinching victory

Plenty of Philly celebrities take in Sixers' series-clinching victory

Meek Mill and Kevin Hart sat together courtside (see story), but they weren’t the only Philadelphia notables taking in Game 5 of the Sixers-Heat series at the Wells Fargo Center. 

Take a look at others in the crowd as the Sixers bounced the Heat from the playoffs Tuesday (see game recap)

Eagles owner Jeff Lurie had fun with Hart and Meek Mill. 

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf was in the building.

Corey Clement was joined by fellow Eagles Jalen Mills, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson, Derek Barnett and Wendell Smallwood. New York Jets wide receiver and Temple product, Robby Anderson, was also in attendance. 

Former Sixers Jumaine Jones, Nik Stauskas, Marc Iavaroni, Billy Owens and Tim Perry watched the game. The NCAA champion Villanova Wildcats, with NBA-level talents of their own, were honored at half court. 

Boxers Bernard Hopkins, Bryant Jennings and Jessie Hart watched the Sixers throw a knockout punch.

Musical artists Biz Markie, Beanie Sigel, Chill Moody and Lil Dicky also were among the 21,171 sellout crowd. 

Sixers' drastic transformation continues with series win over Heat

Sixers' drastic transformation continues with series win over Heat

BOX SCORE

For years, the notion of winning four out of five games was a reach for the Sixers. Getting four wins could take weeks at a time, not just over one week. 

That was then, this is now. And how different now is. 

The Sixers eliminated the Heat with a 104-91 win in Game 5 Tuesday to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the first time since 2012 (see observations). They had not won a best-of-seven series in five games or less since 1985. 

The team that started the season with a goal of making the playoffs and transformed into aspirations of 50 wins, home-court advantage and the third seed has proved to be a true contender in the East (see highlights)

Quite a dramatic turnaround from finishing 10-72 only two seasons ago. 

“I'm just thankful to be here because it goes back to three or four years ago when it all started for me here,” Joel Embiid said. “Two years ago, we won 10 games, so to be in this position, I'm just excited.”

The Sixers won 75 games in Brett Brown’s first four seasons as head coach. Reaching .500 would have been a significant accomplishment. The Sixers blew past that mark with 52 wins, including 16 straight to end the regular season. 

The organization envisioned this level of success years ago when it began thinking of its current “Phila Unite” playoff campaign. The Sixers had the pieces; it was a matter of everything coming together. From Ben Simmons’ standout rookie year after injury to Embiid’s dominant sophomore season to the compilation of a roster deep with veterans, this relatively newly-constructed squad clicked … quickly. 

“I was hired in 2013 and I sat with Josh Harris and David Blitzer and a few of the other owners, and we talked about the vision, what we hoped to build,” Brown reflected. “Through rough times, through adversity, we didn’t blink. We stayed strong in what we were trying to do. 

“We’ve got more to do. We’ve got more to give. We’re excited for sure and there was a sense of just gratitude and I’m proud of all of us for just staying together — owners, team, direction that we’re heading — we didn’t blink. We didn’t pivot out of what we said we were going to do and I think slowly we’re reaping the benefit of that.”

Instead of looking ahead to the NBA draft lottery in May as the key to the Sixers’ future, they are eyeing a deep playoff run during that time. The Sixers will find out their second-round opponent possibly as soon as Thursday night. They will face the winner of the series between the Celtics (No. 2) and Bucks (No. 7), which Boston leads, 3-2. 

The Sixers have high expectations for success. For as many years as they were a losing team, many of the current players were not part of it. They know winning, an unwavering standard they’ve set for themselves they will carry throughout the playoffs. 

“On to the next series,” Simmons said. “We've got to focus on that. But for me, this is my first season playing so this is what I'm going to expect now. Going into it, we've got to lock in and focus on that next team we play."