Miami Heat

Meek Mill, Sixers building hope highlighted Game 5 win over Heat

Meek Mill, Sixers building hope highlighted Game 5 win over Heat

Game 5 of Sixers-Heat on April 24, 2018, was as wild as we’d seen the Wells Fargo Center.

It all started during the day with the news that Philly rapper Meek Mill was being released from prison. The first thoughts on Sixers fans’ minds: Will he come to the game and/or ring the bell?

That put all of us on Meek watch as we all anxiously followed the saga on social media. Thanks to limited partner Michael Rubin, Meek Mill made it to the game before tip-off.

You have to remember that a couple months prior, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz were among Sixers players that visited Meek Mill in prison. They were enormous advocates for him after he was sentenced for two to four years in prison for violating the terms of his probation.

When he arrived to the Sixers’ locker room, it was a hugfest.

When Meek rang the bell in a Joel Embiid jersey, the roar of the crowd was deafening.

The video doesn’t do it justice. You could feel the ground quake even from the press box upstairs.

As for the game itself … how could the Sixers possibly lose after all that? The only drama left for the night was wondering which opponent they’d get in the second round as the Celtics and Bucks had yet to play their Game 7.

Led by their young stars, the Sixers secured their first playoff series win since 2012 — and looked damn good doing it. They suddenly became a trendy pick to represent the East in the NBA Finals. 

Even Dwyane Wade, who looked like vintage D-Wade at times during the series, couldn’t help but be impressed by what he saw.

"They're the future of the NBA," Wade said postgame. "The NBA is in great hands with Ben and Joel and those kind of individuals."

He then went on to heap praise on both the Sixers’ young stars.

"These guys believe it. You can see it in their eyes,” Wade said. “Embiid is not just talk. He's not just a Twitter rat kind of person. He's a player. He's very good.”

"I think the thing that was impressive about him all year, is he just continued to get better and better and better,” Wade said of Simmons. “To the point where it's like that guy in Cleveland [LeBron James]. ... The imprint that [Simmons and James] put on the game is more than just scoring. [Simmons] does so much. The sky is the limit obviously for him and this organization. "

This wasn’t just the first postseason for Simmons and Embiid. 

Assistant coach Kevin Young was also experiencing the NBA playoffs for the first time. Young had been with the organization since 2013, the first year of The Process. He was an assistant with the then Delaware 87ers before taking over as head coach for two seasons. Then in 2016, he was given a job on Brett Brown’s staff.

That means Young had seen it all — the injuries to first-round picks, all the losing. The lead up to Game 1 meant a lot to Philadelphia and an awful lot to Young. It was a culmination of The Process and everything that happened before it.

“On a personal level for me, that was my first taste of coaching NBA playoff basketball,” Young said, “so I'll never forget prior to Game 1. We're at home and the gentleman in a wheelchair that sings the national anthem [Ron Brooks] sang the anthem that game. Every time he does it, there's an electric feeling in the building, but that night, it was just 10 times more. 

“Another thing that was really cool, and I'm not from Philadelphia, and so being in the city during that time when the Eagles [won the Super Bowl], there was like this energy in the city and it bled into our building. And then that anthem happened and then just the magnitude of the playoffs and it was like all the stuff that happened for years prior to getting to that moment all came to a head at that particular moment. You could just feel that in the building.”

After the disappointment of Game 7 in Toronto and the underperformance of the 2019-20 team, it can be hard to remember all the hope and positive vibes the Sixers’ series win over the Heat provided. This is a "what have you done for me lately" kind of town — and the Sixers hadn't done much this season.

With NBC Sports Philadelphia set to re-air Game 5 Friday night, it gives you a chance to re-live the craziness of Meek Mill ringing the bell, the first playoff run of the Sixers’ two young stars, and that fleeting feeling of hope the city felt with its basketball team.

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Sixers assistant coach Kevin Young remembers Ben Simmons, Sixers feeding of Heat's physicality in 2018

Sixers assistant coach Kevin Young remembers Ben Simmons, Sixers feeding of Heat's physicality in 2018

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.”

And how.

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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Non-stop drama, a high-tech mask and Joel Embiid's playoff debut

Non-stop drama, a high-tech mask and Joel Embiid's playoff debut

NBC Sports Philadelphia is re-airing Game 3 of the Sixers-Heat 2018 playoff series Sunday night at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia. 

At 26 years old, Joel Embiid has played 19 career playoff games. The lead-up to the first one was full of frustration, drama and angst.

Minutes after the Sixers’ 17-game winning streak ended with a loss to the Heat in Game 2, Embiid posted on his Instagram story, “F---ing sick and tired of being babied.” 

He’d been a glum observer from the sidelines that night, still out with an orbital fracture of the left eye he’d sustained in a collision with Markelle Fultz on March 28, and had seen his teammates cool off from three-point range and allow a 36-year-old Dwyane Wade to score 28 points. Embiid wanted to play, thought he should be permitted to and figured it couldn’t hurt to let the world know how he felt. 

Not for the first time — and certainly not for the last, either — Brett Brown found himself fielding awkward questions about how his players were being handled medically. 

“He just wants to play basketball," he said at the podium. “He wants to be with his team, he wants to play in front of the fans and he wants to see this through. When he’s not able to do that, he gets frustrated, and I respect his frustrations. … I do know the spirit he delivered that [Instagram story] you just talked about reflects my conversations with him.

"It’s completely driven by team, competitiveness, I want to play basketball, that type of feeling more than anything.”

Thanks to a high-tech, customized mask with goggles that was made of polypropylene and embedded carbon fiber filaments, Embiid was cleared for Game 3 in Miami, resembling the "Batman" villain Bane and the rapper MF Doom. The mask was an unavoidable nuisance — Embiid removed it from his face on free throws — but it allowed him to play basketball again, shifting the drama from social media to the court.

Embiid tossed the mask up in the air, spiked it on the floor and generally didn’t treat the device with much reverence. Head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson got a good amount of screen time as the Sixers’ medical staff ran repairs and ferried masks out to Embiid. Justise Winslow was not amused by the situation. When he saw the mask lying on the ground around the foul line at one point in the second quarter, he stepped on it, then unsuccessfully tried to break it with his hands.

"He kept throwing it on the ground. I don't know if he didn't like it or what,” Winslow, who was later fined $15,000 for the incident, told reporters. “I was talking to JoJo, we were smack talking, trash talking, going back and forth. No love lost.”

The back-and-forth with Winslow seemed to invigorate Embiid, though he probably didn’t require any additional fuel.

“Little do they know, I have about 50 of them,” he said to reporters in Miami. “It’s going to take much more than that to get me out of the series. It’s going to be a nightmare for them, too.” 

It was a casually bold prognostication, and also not an entirely outrageous one. The Sixers sprinted away from the Heat in Game 3, turning a two-point lead entering the fourth quarter into a 20-point win. They were, without a doubt, the better team when Embiid played.

We haven’t actually mentioned anything yet about how Embiid played. If he didn’t have a black mask shielding his face, the cliched (but accurate) description of his performance would be that he looked like himself. Embiid had 23 points in 30 minutes, seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks. He made three threes, drew 15 free throws and protected the rim well, limiting Heat players to 4 for 14 shooting on field goals he defended. 

Mask on or mask off, regular season or playoffs, he was clearly going to be the main story more often than not. 

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