MIAMI — After the Sixers fell flat on their face, Doc Rivers uttered a refrain that you will hear from him and other coaches throughout an 82-game NBA season.
“I want to watch the tape or burn the tape, I’m not sure which one,” Rivers said. “I’ll probably watch it because I have to, and then I’ll burn it.”
From October through March, performances like the Sixers’ 120-85 loss in Miami on Tuesday night can happen. There is always another game the next day or the day after. The problem for the Sixers is this one came May 10 and was unquestionably their most important game of the season.
They had everything to play for — this was an opportunity to set up a home closeout game Thursday that would complete an epic comeback and vault the franchise deeper into the postseason than at any point in the past two decades — yet they were not competitive from the opening tip. This was the kind of focus and energy usually reserved for the second half of a back-to-back in March.
The Sixers had little margin for error heading into the night because they began this series in a 2-0 hole with Joel Embiid out of the lineup. Although those first two games were viewed as a chance to steal a victory, there was a legitimate reason that did not happen.
For the Sixers to submit a complete stinker in Game 5 after picking themselves up off the mat in Philadelphia over the weekend qualifies as nothing less than a massive disappointment. There is no getting around or hiding from that reality.
“That’s a bad loss for us,” Tobias Harris said. “We understand it, we know it. But we have to get ourselves right to be able to let that go, figure out ways to get better in 24 hours pretty much and get ourselves ready to get a win.”
There are plenty of elements that can swing a basketball game, but in the first four games the outcome boiled down to makes and misses. The home team made its 3-pointers, the road team clanked them, and that is how things turned from a best-of-seven series to a best of three over the first week.
On Tuesday, the Heat outplayed the Sixers in every facet. Sure, the Heat shot much better than the Sixers, but more of the difference was from 2-point range (63 to 41 percent) than beyond the arc. They swept the turnover, offensive rebounding and free-throw categories, as well. This was as thorough a domination as you’ll see in the playoffs.
“Obviously, they were so much more engaged, more physical, took us out of stuff,” Rivers said. “There’s a lot of disappointment from all of us.”
That wasn’t the end of Rivers’ criticisms. He went on to say that the Sixers didn’t run any offense, that they “played at a snail’s pace,” that everything the Heat did was “harder and better.” He also cited the “awful transition defense,” and that is where we can start to pinpoint the Sixers’ ineptitude in such an important game. And the key to the transition defense wasn’t actually the defense.
At its core, this series boils down to the two teams’ strengths going head to head. Per Cleaning The Glass, Miami had the fifth-stingiest half-court defense in the regular season. With the likes of Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and PJ Tucker, the Heat are a long, physical and switchable group and a major challenge for opposing offenses.
Meanwhile, the Sixers with James Harden had a top-five half-court offense. Harden and Embiid have proven to be a devastating pick-and-roll pairing. Tyrese Maxey is capable of explosive scoring bursts, and Harris and Danny Green provide the necessary spacing with their shooting gravity. Whoever wins that battle is likely to win the series.
In Game 5, it was no contest. Miami’s defense throttled the Sixers in the half court with physicality and a fronting strategy against Embiid that forced the Sixers into stagnant possessions and nine first-half turnovers. At the beginning of Game 4, the Sixers created quality looks for Embiid and his teammates against that strategy. During Game 5, they mostly turned the ball over.
Here is one example. Green throws a poor pass to Embiid, who crashes into the front row while trying to save the ball.
Here is one out of the very next timeout. Green cuts for the high-low pass against Embiid being fronted, but the Sixers swing the ball to the opposite side and the entry pass goes out of bounds.
What made the Sixers’ no-show even more baffling is Miami did not seemingly change its game plan significantly. This was the same type of defense the Sixers saw at the end of Game 4, when Harden bailed them out with sublime shotmaking as they struggled to enter the ball to Embiid.
The Sixers went an absurd 16 of 23 from the field in Game 4 when there were seven seconds or fewer on the shot clock, per NBA.com. Perhaps they were aware that their execution needed improvement, but it certainly did not show.
This also is where the transition defense comes into play. Due to the Sixers’ poor offensive execution in the half court, Miami started 19.8 percent of its possessions with a transition play, per Cleaning The Glass. That is a sky-high number. And for the Heat, a team that has been struggling mightily in the half court, those transition plays resulted in easy baskets they desperately needed. As much as the Sixers’ effort and defensive details will be criticized after this one, the general offensive execution was mostly at fault.
“In the second round of the playoffs, on the road in Game 5, it’s not good enough to just play hard,” Harden said. “You got to play hard and you got to be able to think possession by possession. And we just didn’t put enough thinking possessions together.”
There was not a single Sixers player who could claim to have a positive night, including Embiid. But perhaps the most consequential play for him happened when he took a shot directly to the right orbital fracture he suffered at the end of the previous round. It happened after Embiid grabbed a contested rebound and Dewayne Dedmon inadvertently knocked the basketball into his mask.
Embiid was down in pain for a couple of minutes, but after being looked at by a doctor on the bench, he returned immediately to the game. When asked if he’s putting himself at any risk, Embiid said he doesn’t think so after listening to doctors.
“It’s just about pain tolerance,” Embiid said. “This is a lose-lose situation for me. If I don’t play, I’ll probably get called soft. And if I play and I play bad, they’ll probably come up with a bunch of stuff, ‘I guess he’s just not good enough.’ It’s all about not trying to get too high or too low and try to dig very deep and try to do whatever I can.”
Embiid’s toughness should never be in question, but for the first time since he returned Friday, his presence wasn’t enough to tilt this series in the Sixers’ favor. Miami is making life difficult for him, and with the Sixers struggling to get him the ball, he managed just 17 points and could not make the type of offensive impact to which he is accused.
If there is any positive that the Sixers can carry into Game 6 (and you admittedly have to squint hard for this one), it’s that Embiid went 5 of 6 in the third quarter and started to make some of the moves that allowed him to win the league scoring title and become a legitimate MVP candidate.
And for the first time since it was reported that Nikola Jokic won the NBA MVP award, Embiid spoke at length about the disappointment of falling short after another monster season.
“It’s really time to really put all my energy into the bigger picture, which is to win the whole thing,” Embiid said.
Joel Embiid’s full response to not winning the MVP award this season. pic.twitter.com/7jki2SnPyh
— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) May 11, 2022
How can the Sixers do that? This was a similar performance to a game they played in 2019 in the second round against Toronto, a 125-89 loss that left everyone in Philadelphia in a sour mood. From the moment the game began, Embiid looked disengaged because of an illness, the Sixers had little energy and they were blown out. The Sixers responded by controlling Toronto in Game 6 and taking the Raptors to the wire in Game 7, with Jimmy Butler taking the lead.
Heading into that Game 6, there was very little good feeling with the Sixers, yet they got as close as humanly possible to knocking out Toronto, which went on to win the title. Rebounding again is doable, but after a dispiriting performance, the Sixers will have to be much better if they want to win this series. After they didn’t show up at all in Miami, their season will be on the line Thursday night in Philly.
“For myself, I have to dig deeper than I have, try to forget about what’s going on and play freely,” Embiid said. “I just have to have that mentality for four quarters. I like our chances to come back here.”
(Photo of Joel Embiid: Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images)