Aside from Joel Embiid ringing the bell before Game 1 as the Phantom of the Process and Meek Mill doing so after just being released from prison before Game 5, there was one thing that stood out during the Sixers-Heat series in 2018: It was physical.
Luckily for the Sixers, they were prepared for it.
“Two things really stand out from the lead-up to that series,” Sixers assistant coach Kevin Young told NBC Sports Philadelphia in a phone interview. “It was really the physicality that we knew Miami was going to bring, because that's kind of what they do, and then the physicality that the playoffs will bring, because that's what the playoffs do. … As that series played out, obviously a lot of that physicality came to fruition.”
The Sixers carried the momentum of a 16-game winning streak — led by rookie Ben Simmons — into a Game 1 drubbing of Miami in which they hit a team playoff record 18 threes. In Game 2, Dwyane Wade had a vintage performance in leading the Heat to a win to even the series.
Game 3 in Miami marked the return of Joel Embiid — and also when the series got ugly.
Embiid was playing his first ever playoff game in an “annoying” mask to protect his previously fractured orbital bone. Heat forward Justise Winslow, likely annoyed by Embiid’s brashness and caught up in the intensity of the series, stomped on Embiid’s mask at one point. This was also the game where Justin Anderson — remember him? — got locked up with Wade and the players were called for double technicals.
The physicality of the Heat and the NBA playoffs, just as the Sixers had planned for, had gotten real.
That also ignited Simmons, who had elevated his play during the Sixers’ streak and was having a coming out party during this series.
“Ben's a guy that thrives on physical play,” Young said. “Even that year and as we've moved forward since then, he's consistently been one of our best screeners. He loves using his strength to free teammates up, using his ability to rebound as a strong, big, athletic guy. So he fed off it. In that series, I think it fueled him a little bit and that type of environment is where he can really shine as opposed to sometimes when teams play off him and things like that.”
While the physical play and theatrics may have grabbed all the headlines, it was a series with plenty of momentum-changing shots. Whether it was Josh Richardson, then a member of the Heat, making “a lot of timely shots” or Dario Saric making a big three to help seal Game 3, those are the plays that stick out to Young.
One that stood out to Young above the rest was a shot in Game 4, which NBC Sports Philadelphia will re-air Tuesday night. For as physical and competitive as the series was at the time, this was truly the only close game.
The Sixers shot just 7 of 31 from three and Simmons and Embiid combined for 15 turnovers. They found themselves down four going into the fourth quarter and staring down going back to Philadelphia with the series tied 2-2.
Then, led by Simmons and Embiid, the Sixers took their defense up a notch in the fourth, opening up a six-point lead with a little over two minutes left. Just when it seemed like Wade may deliver the same magic he did in Game 2 by getting the Heat to within one, JJ Redick made a huge shot with 30.1 seconds left to put the Sixers back up three.
Though Simmons did turn the ball over a bunch in Game 4, he still finished with a triple-double and four steals. Throughout the five games, he was superb.
Watching Simmons in that series, you sort of forgot he was just a rookie.
“One thing with Ben that I think the whole group would probably say has always been impressive with him," Young said, "is he's never been a guy who really gets fazed by much. Obviously, you guys see it from your seat, too. He's very stoic, and not a lot of things rattle him. With that kind of makeup, it's like he's kind of built for some of these moments, and I thought that kind of showed itself in his first series.”
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