The Heat Regain the Upper Hand by Unraveling the Sixers

The return of Joel Embiid over the weekend sent a shockwave through the second-round matchup between the 76ers and the top-seeded Heat. As it turns out, the introduction of an MVP-caliber two-way world-breaker, even one just a week removed from a broken orbital bone and concussion, fundamentally changes the rules of engagement and state of play. The Heat had more or less cruised with Embiid sidelined, outscoring the Sixers by 17.2 points per 100 possessions to take a 2-0 lead. With Embiid back and James Harden briefly looking like the fire of old, full-strength Philly flipped the script, outscoring the Heat by 17 points-per-100 over games 3 and 4 to level the series and, as my Ringers teammate Rob Mahoney wrote, “put all the tactical pressure in this series on the Heat.”

Luckily, Miami employs a guy who’s pretty damn good at dealing with tactical pressure, and who’s got the jewelry to prove it. By the time Game 5 tipped off, Erik Spoelstra had the Heat ready to smother Embiid, Harden, and the Sixers, to regain the upper hand in the best-of-seven set, and to push Philadelphia to the brink of yet another second- round exit.

The Heat looked much more like the team that boasted the NBA’s no. 4 regular-season defense on Tuesday than they did in Philadelphia, pressing the Sixers all over the court, forcing turnovers, and seizing control from the opening minutes. A 16-2 mid-first-quarter run gave Miami a double-digit lead, and Spoelstra and Co. never looked back, blowing the visitors’ doors off late for a 120-85 pasting that puts the Heat just one win away from their second Eastern Conference finals berth in three seasons.

“They were just so much more engaged and physical and took us out of our stuff,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers told reporters after the game. “There’s a lot of disappointment from all of us tonight.”

Chiefly, a plummet-back-down-to-Earth performance by Embiid. The hobbled All-NBA center had averaged 21 points on 48 percent shooting to go with 11 rebounds and paint-patrolling defense in 37.3 minutes per game back in Philly. On Tuesday, though, he looked a hell of a lot like a guy who’d been running on the adrenaline of a high-stakes comeback for a few days, and who suddenly started to feel the weight of dealing with a torn thumb ligament, a broken face, and the aftermath of a concussion.

Slamming his back into the first row of seats on the baseline trying to save an errant pass midway through the first quarter probably didn’t help:

Nor did Heat reserve center Dewayne Dedmon inadvertently slapping the ball directly into Embiid’s protective face mask while trying to grab an offensive rebound, dropping Embiid like a sack of bricks and leaving him writhing in pain and apparently in tears on the baseline:

Embiid stayed in the game, but had a significantly more muted impact, struggling to pressure the rim on offense and posing less of a shot-blocking threat on defense as the game wore on. A brief flurry of offense in the third quarter resulted in his finishing with 17 points on 7-for-12 shooting to go with five rebounds and two assists in 33 minutes, but—fair or unfair—that wasn’t nearly enough for a Sixers team desperate for more from him with his season in the balance.

“It’s just about pain tolerance,” Embiid told reporters after the game. “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, [like] ‘I guess he’s just not good enough.’ … I have to dig deeper than I have, try to forget about what’s going on and play freely. I just have to have that mentality for four quarters. I like our chances to come back here.”

The Heat probably like their own chances, after holding Philly to just 36.5 percent shooting as a team, with more turnovers (15) than assists (14). Some of those miscues, particularly in the early going, came as a result of Miami having greater success in its attempts to aggressively front Embiid in the post and bracket him with a help defender on the back side, forcing the big fella’s teammates to have to make contested entry passes in tight windows. They weren’t exactly up to the challenge:

That strategy wasn’t anything new, though. Miami tried fronting the post in games 3 and 4, but Philadelphia had much more success finding angles of approach, in part because those entry feeds were coming after the Sixers had already worked a switch on a ball screen earlier in the possession. Philly gashed the Heat at home with the Harden-Embiid two-man game, taking advantage of Miami’s tendency to switch screens; either Embiid got a deep seal in the post against a smaller defender, or Harden went to work up top against a slower-footed defender he felt comfortable attacking.

Rather than stick with that switch-everything script in Game 5, though, Spoelstra changed course, instructing his charges to make a more concerted effort to fight through the initial screen, opting for softer coverages with PJ Tucker ducking under the pick to meet Harden on the other side while Bam Adebayo dropped back to stick with Embiid. It bit them sometimes: a Harden stepback 3 here, an open pick-and-pop Embiid 3 there. But for the most part, Adebayo and Tucker (with plenty of help from Miami’s active help defenders) held up, keeping Philadelphia’s top two offensive weapons from finding room to operate, getting deep into the paint, or generating clean looks for teammates:

In games 3 and 4, Philadelphia averaged nearly 1.24 points per play after Embiid set a screen for Harden—a rate that would’ve led the NBA during the regular season among high-volume pick-and-roll partnerships, according to Second Spectrum. In Game 5, though, that number dropped all the way down to 0.73 points per direct pick—which would’ve finished near the bottom of the league.

A change to Miami’s perimeter defensive assignments made it even more difficult for Philly to find easy pathways in the half court. Through four games, point guard Gabe Vincent—who got his third start of the series on Tuesday in place of Kyle Lowry, who reinjured his balky left hamstring in Game 4—took the primary assignment on the like-sized Tyrese Maxey, while Heat superstar Jimmy Butler spent most of his time defending the larger Tobias Harris. On Tuesday, though, Spoelstra switched things upmoving Vincent from Maxey to Danny Green, Max Strus from Green to Harris, and Butler over to check Philly’s second-year guard.

The looming presence of the five-time All-Defensive Team selection effectively vaporized Maxey’s touches and impact. After averaging 23 points on 14.5 shot attempts and 6.3 free throws through the first four games of the series, the Sixers’ second-leading playoff scorer got off just two field-goal attempts in the first quarter, and finished with only nine points on 2 -for-10 shooting. Most stunning of all: Maxey produced zero points or assists on the 37 plays he spent matched up with Butler in the half court, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking.

Putting Butler on Maxey helped short-circuit Philly’s offense elsewhere, too; as good as Jimmy can be on the ball, he’s even more disruptive away from the action.

Confident he had the quickness and length to be able to recover to Maxey if the ball swung his way, Butler repeatedly made his presence felt as a help defender. He lurked behind Sixer pick-and-rolls, helping keep Harden (who had a strong first half, but finished with just 14 points on 13 shots with four assists and four turnovers) or Embiid from turning the corner on drives to get into the paint . He contributed to the bracket coverage on Embiid post-ups, sliding over from the weak side to deter lob entry passes over the top and forcing Philly to swing the ball elsewhere. When Philly was able to spray the ball around the perimeter, he made sharp rotations and stunted toward would-be shooters on the catch, making them think twice about raising up or putting the ball on the deck.

Butler’s roaming made everything the Sixers wanted to do that much harder. Harris (12 points on 5-for-14 shooting) couldn’t get much going against a stout and mobile defender in Strus. Miami’s perimeter defenders largely shut down dribble penetration with great lateral movement, sliding their feet to keep the ball out of the paint:

And Adebayo handled his new assignment, shuffling from switching to dropping back to stay closer to the rim. He blocked two shots and altered many more while still remaining connected to Embiid and preventing him from getting easy post touches:

The cherry on top: Bam, Butler, and the rest of the Heat managed to crank up their physicality, defensive intensity, and overall disruptiveness without racking up more fouls. After being whistled for 22, 22, and 26 personal fouls over the last three games, Miami picked up just 13 fouls in Game 5, and limited Embiid and Harden—who finished the regular season first and third in free throw attempts per game—to just six total free throws.

Some of the disparity comes down to long-range variance—Miami made 13 3-pointers on Tuesday after making 14 in games 3 and 4 combined, while Philadelphia dropped from 16 3s in each of its home games down to nine in Game 5—and some surely owes to Embiid looking significantly worse for wear throughout the first half as Miami built its lead. It’s not all luck, though: Spoelstra and his players deserve credit for holding the Sixers to an unsightly 92.1 points-per-100, their fifth-worst offensive performance of the season, in the highest-pressure moment of the campaign to date.

“This series is shifting quite a bit, and you’re dealing with a really skilled offensive team,” Spoelstra told reporters after the game. “And Harden and Embiid, in particular, require great detail. They’ve earned that kind of respect from our team, and if you’re not doing it with great detail, and focus, and trusting each other [and] your system, you don’t have a shot with them.”

That, as much as anything, is the so-often-overlooked secret about the Heat: For them, that detail, respect, focus, and trust are a given. They’re table stakes. And when you’ve got that, and the kind of quality depth to withstand the absence of Lowry, and a center who can guard anybody in Adebayo, and Butler, who’s been playing as well as anybody in this postseason … well, then you don ‘t just have a shot against Harden and Embiid. You’ve got a shot against anybody.

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