The Sixers woke up from a poor start and stormed back from a 23-point deficit but couldn’t beat the Heat on Wednesday night at Wells Fargo Center.
They fell to a 101-96 loss, dropping to 15-14 on the season. Joel Embiid missed a contested three-pointer that could have tied the game on the Sixers' final meaningful possession.
Miami was without six players, including Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro. Georges Niang (health and safety protocols) and Furkan Korkmaz (non-COVID illness) were sidelined for the Sixers.
Tyrese Maxey scored a game-high 27 points. Embiid posted 17 points and 14 rebounds.
The Heat’s Gabe Vincent scored 26 points and Duncan Robinson added 21.
Embiid and Seth Curry returned after missing Monday’s loss to the Jazz with right rib soreness and right shoulder soreness, respectively.
Next up for the Sixers is a game Thursday night against the Nets in Brooklyn. Here are observations on the team's loss to Miami:
Furious comeback after zone woes
The Sixers had a productive first possession against the Heat’s zone defense as Embiid grabbed an offensive rebound and laid the ball in.
However, the team soon fell into a major offensive funk and fell behind by double digits. Isaiah Joe broke the Sixers’ 1-for-7 start from three-point range with a corner jumper, but there was little else to like.
Andre Drummond certainly did not help shake the Sixers from their slow start, fumbling a defensive rebound, fouling Vincent on a three-point shot with 5.3 seconds left in the first quarter and failing to command the paint in any way. Young Turkish big man Omer Yurtseven outplayed Drummond by a wide margin in the first half.
As was the case during their narrow win over the Magic on Nov. 29, the Sixers’ exasperation at their ineffective shooting seemed to seep into every aspect of their play. The team’s ball movement was deliberate and most of its offense skirted around the perimeter. When Shake Milton tried to hit Drummond with a pass at the foul line, it got picked off.
“We’ve been very good against zone and we prepared for it and then tonight, the ball just stayed on the outside," Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said. “You’ve got to get into the paint. … It was just disappointing. That was it. We got every shot we wanted in the second half running the same stuff.
“The difference is we didn’t settle, we didn’t hold the ball and we went downhill. And in the first half, I don’t know what that was. And you also have to post Joel more. I thought early on we were doing that and then we got away from it. Joel was more on the elbows than the post; we’ve got to get back in.”
Paul Reed, who was called up from the G League on Wednesday after Niang entered protocols, overshot the rim on a three-point try by, without exaggeration, about four feet. The Sixers sunk into a 41-22 hole.
Maxey began the process of lifting the team out by hitting back-to-back threes. An Embiid foul-line jumper made it an 8-0 run and led Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra to use a timeout.
The Sixers cut into the Heat's once-healthy advantage thanks in large part to their success running after Miami turnovers. Their ability to string together stop after stop was key, too.
An Embiid three cut Miami’s lead to 81-70 late in the third quarter and excited a crowd that had let loose boos a few minutes earlier. Two Maxey free throws made it 84-79 with 9:22 left and set up an interesting finish.
Despite big three-pointers from veterans P.J. Tucker and Kyle Lowry, the Sixers trimmed their deficit to 95-93 on a driving Tobias Harris layup with 2:40 to go.
Embiid got up gingerly after contesting a Lowry layup and hitting the floor with 1:32 left, a scene that briefly overshadowed the game itself. Fortunately for the Sixers, he remained in the action, although his grimace was noticeable. Embiid said he rolled his ankle on the play, which he called “pretty painful."
Vincent responded to a game-tying Harris three with a clutch jumper of his own and Miami survived.
Vincent, Robinson fire away
Matisse Thybulle started his third consecutive game over Danny Green and defended Robinson.
The Miami sharpshooter bested Thybulle early on, draining three first-quarter three-pointers. He also drew the second foul on Thybulle with 5:21 remaining in the first.
Vincent hurt the Sixers, too. After a Vincent triple that put the Heat up 63-49 early in the third quarter, Rivers called a quick timeout. That did not solve anything as Vincent soon capitalized on lax transition defense by the Sixers to make yet another three.
Meanwhile, Miami was glad to let Thybulle shoot. He missed one jumper in the third that he attempted with the body language of, “I’m so open, I guess I’ve got to shoot this.” Thybulle finished with zero points on 0-for-5 shooting. Though he’s a unique, sensational defender, the other side of the ball remains concerning with the 24-year-old when one thinks about playoff basketball. He did not play in the fourth quarter.
“On a night like tonight when Matisse is not giving us a great defensive night and they’re helping off of him, you’ve got to get him out," Rivers said. “And that’s what we did.”
Maxey, Harris (24 points) and Embiid were the Sixers' only double-figure scorers. Maxey frequently injected energy into the Sixers’ showing, but the team tended to look lifeless through the first 30 minutes or so when he wasn’t exploding toward the rim.
Of course, the rest of the team eventually managed to shift into a higher gear in its spirited push for a comeback win.
“We came out flat at the beginning of the game and again at the beginning of the second half," Maxey said. “But (we were) resilient. Everyone who stepped on the court had an extreme amount of fight and determination to get back in the game. It’s tough. When you exert all your energy like that to come back on a good team, it’s hard to win.”
What’s next for NBA, Sixers amid COVID spike?
The Nets have ruled seven players out because of health and safety protocols for Thursday’s game. They managed to beat the Raptors on Tuesday night with just eight healthy bodies.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday that the NBA and NBPA are considering revised health and safety protocols, including further testing, in light of the recent surge in positive COVID-19 cases around the league.
It’s a worrisome and uncertain situation. Things are trending in a troubling direction and we’ll see how the NBA balances its determination to plow forward and play scheduled games with common sense. As the Sixers know from experience both last season and last month, the physical toll on players pressed into heavier minutes is a significant element to weigh for teams dealing with COVID-19 problems.
And, as Embiid and Harris can attest, it is possible for young, healthy players to experience serious symptoms. A “health and safety protocols” appearance on the injury report is not necessarily as mild as a sprained ankle.
One of the few factors fully within a team’s control these days is effort. There’s no doubt the Sixers must be better on that front than they were in the first half against Miami.