Neither the Sixers nor the Heat had anything close to a full-strength team for Tuesday night’s game at Wells Fargo Center.
For the first time in their last three contests, though, the Sixers had a manpower advantage. They managed to capitalize in dramatic fashion, beating an eight-man Heat team in overtime by a 137-134 score and improving to 8-4 on the season.
Two-way player Dakota Mathias nailed the go-ahead three-pointer with 26.1 seconds left in overtime, his only points of the game. He then guarded Tyler Herro well, forcing the Heat guard to miss a tough three from the right wing.
Eight Miami players were sidelined for health and safety reasons. The Sixers had 10 players available, including Ben Simmons, who returned after missing the last two games with left knee swelling. However, Tony Bradley and Paul Reed didn’t play, meaning it was effectively an 8-on-8 game.
Here are observations on the Sixers’ wild win over the Heat:
Embiid's huge second half (and OT), Simmons' struggles
Veterans Danny Green and Mike Scott, who combined to shoot 0 for 12 from long distance in Atlanta, were actually the Sixers’ most productive offensive players in the opening half, totaling 25 of the team’s 55 points. Green kept it going after halftime, scoring 29 points and making 9 of 21 threes in the game. He’s been doing this long enough not to be discouraged by a bad shooting night or two.
Simmons created three-point opportunities for his teammates, as he usually does, but was poor otherwise offensively in the first half. He only attempted one field goal, turned it over five times and picked up three fouls, including two charges. We can’t glean much from a single game in which 18 total players were active. Still, even with his recent injury in mind, it’s obviously fair to say Simmons wasn’t near his best on this particular night. He fouled out with 3:29 remaining in regulation and finished with five points, six rebounds and 12 assists.
Joel Embiid took over in the third quarter, scoring 20 points in the period. The big man finished inside, drained turnaround jumpers, drew fouls and did just about anything else he wanted. Matchups against rookie Precious Achiuwa and Chris Silva were clearly favorable for Embiid, but he was still highly impressive, especially on the second night of a back-to-back.
During a chaotic sequence at the end of regulation, Green missed a potential go-ahead three and Embiid was fouled after grabbing the offensive rebound. Head coach Doc Rivers then drew up an isolation at the top of the key for Embiid against Achiuwa on the ensuing out-of-bounds play, and he came through with a pull-up jumper from the left elbow to tie the game.
In overtime, Embiid again played at the superstar level he'd reached in the third quarter, hitting tightly contested jumpers and carrying the Sixers' offense. His final stat line: 45 points, 16 rebounds, five steals, four assists.
Rivers said the Sixers focused on using Embiid in the middle of the floor to make trapping more difficult for the Heat. They benefited from a very recently installed play after Simmons and Tyrese Maxey fouled out.
“Sometimes life is luck," Rivers said. "We worked on this play today before shootaround — it’s called “Delay" — where we throw it to the middle, which is Joel, and he becomes your point guard on the plays. I didn’t know we were going to run it entirely for the fourth quarter and overtime, because we had no choice but to run it. It’s funny, we were laughing on the bench — it’s amazing. We work on it today and then it ends up being a savior for us.”
Embiid has always had lofty aspirations in mind, both for himself and the Sixers, and they look attainable when he's playing like this.
"The main goal is to win a championship and when it comes to individual awards, it can’t happen unless you’re winning games," he said. "The main thing I’m worried about is winning, because at the end of the day if we win and we get the first seed, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be MVP, in Defensive Player of the Year conversations, All-NBA First Team and all that stuff.
"It all goes back to the same thing — winning. The main goal is winning a championship."
We assumed the Sixers would stifle the Heat’s offense with both Simmons and Embiid in the lineup. The team had a strong 102.7 defensive rating when its two stars were on the floor this season, per Cleaning the Glass, and Miami was missing important playmakers in Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic. Surely, against a depleted opponent, the Sixers would resemble the team that led the league in defensive rating early this season. We were wrong.
The Sixers allowed Miami’s sharpshooters too many open looks, struggling to track players around screens, helping excessively or simply not closing out with sufficient urgency. They also committed several costly fouls on jump shooters. Embiid and Simmons being on the court doesn't guarantee defensive success; the Sixers still need to pay attention to the details on that end of the court.
The team's effort was a bit better in the second half, although Herro, Duncan Robinson and two-way player Gabe Vincent all scored over 20 points and helped Miami come close to an improbable win.
Rivers isn't concerned by the Sixers' recent defensive problems given the context.
“We’ve got one stinker defensively, in my opinion, and that was the Brooklyn game," he said. "Other than that, I don’t know what we can ask from our guys right now. Before that, we were one of the better defensive teams in this league, and I think we’ll return to that once everybody gets back and gets healthy.”
Growing concern, added protocols
Thursday’s Sixers vs. Heat game will now tip off at 7 p.m. and no longer be televised on TNT, the NBA announced. These games in which both rosters are shrunken by COVID-19 protocols are apparently not attractive for a national audience (although this one was sure entertaining in the fourth quarter and overtime).
The NBA and NBPA announced additional health and safety protocols Tuesday. Players must wear masks at all times on the bench, pregame locker room meetings are capped at 10 minutes and all attendees must wear masks, and players and team staff are prohibited from leaving their hotel or interacting with guests at the hotel. You can read the full press release on the new measures here.
“I think it’s coming from the outside to the inside, and so we just have to be more vigilant when we’re away from arenas and practice facilities,” Rivers said before the game, “because I think that’s the safest place you can be. It’s when we walk outside is when the real world comes into our bubble.”
Celtics-Magic and Wizards-Jazz games scheduled for Wednesday have been postponed for health and safety reasons, which makes it six postponed NBA games this season. The Sixers are scheduled to play Boston twice next week.
It’s an understatement to say that the last few days have been inauspicious for the NBA. Fewer games now remain on the schedule, but both the health and safety situation and competitive imbalances have been concerning. They remain issues worth acknowledging, even on a night that produced a wild game and exciting finish.
“I look at a young guy like Maxey, he doesn’t know what the real NBA is like," Dwight Howard said. "He knows COVID NBA. I know it’s a little tough for those guys, but we just try to keep them upbeat, keep the vibe nice and good. We’ll be OK.”