The Heat regain the lead 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 a result, the introduction of an MVP-caliber two-way world breaker, even one that just a week after an orbital bone fracture and concussion, fundamentally changes the rules of engagement and the state of the game. The Heat had more or less sailed with Embiid out of the game, 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, Philly in full force flipped the script, outscoring the Heat by 17 points per 100 in Games 3 and 4 to level the series and, as my Ringer his teammate Rob Mahoney wrote, “Put all the tactical pressure in this series on the Heat.”

Fortunately, Miami employs a guy who is very good at dealing with tactical pressure and has the gems to prove it. As Game 5 began, Erik Spoelstra had the Heat ready to stifle Embiid, Harden and the Sixers, reclaim the lead in the best-of-seven set and bring Philadelphia to the brink of another second. round outlet.

The Heat looked a lot more like the team that held no. 4 regular-season defense on Tuesday who did it in Philadelphia, pressuring the Sixers all the way up the floor, forcing turnovers and taking control from the opening minutes. A 16-2 run midway through the first quarter gave Miami a double-digit lead, and Spoelstra and company never looked back, kicking down the visitors’ gates late for a 120-85 blowout that puts the Heat just a win from their second-place finish in the Eastern Conference finals in three seasons.

“They were a lot more committed and physical and got 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.”

Mostly, a performance from Embiid plummeting back to Earth. The lame All-NBA center had averaged 21 points on 48 percent shooting to go with 11 rebounds and a defense patrolling the paint in 37.3 minutes per game in Philadelphia. On Tuesday, however, he looked an awful lot like a guy who’d been running on the adrenaline of a high-stakes comeback for a few days, suddenly starting to feel the weight of dealing with a torn thumb ligament. a broken face and the aftermath of a concussion.

Hitting his back against the first row of seats at the baseline trying to save a missed pass midway through the first quarter probably didn’t help:

Neither did Heat backup center Dewayne Dedmon inadvertently hit the ball directly into Embiid’s protective mask as he tried to grab an offensive rebound, knocking Embiid down like a sack of bricks and leaving him writhing in pain and apparently crying on the line. background:

Embiid stayed in the game but made a significantly quieter impact, struggling to pressure the rim on offense and posing less of a shot-blocking threat on defense as the game went on. A brief offensive flurry in the third quarter resulted in him 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 enough for a Sixers. team desperate for more of him with their season on the line.

“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, they’ll probably call me soft. And if I play and I play bad, they probably invent a lot of things, [like] I guess it’s not good enough. … I have to dig deeper than I have, try to forget what is happening and play freely. I just have to have that mindset for four quarters. I like our chances of coming 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 mistakes, particularly early on, came as a result of Miami being more successful in their attempts to aggressively engage Embiid in the post and set him up with a help defender in the back, forcing teammates from the big man to having to make contested entrance passes in narrow windows. They weren’t exactly up to the challenge:

However, that strategy was nothing new. Miami tried to hit the post in Games 3 and 4, but Philly had much more success finding approach angles, in part because those innings came after the Sixers had already worked on a change on a ball screen earlier. in possession. Philly wrecked the Heat at home with the two-man Harden-Embiid 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 got to work up top against a slower-footed defender he was comfortable attacking with.

Rather than stick to that script of turning everything around in Game 5, however, Spoelstra changed course and instructed his charges to make a more concerted effort to fight through the initial screen, opting for softer coverage with PJ Tucker ducking under the pick to meet Harden on the other side, while Bam Adebayo backed off to stay with Embiid. Sometimes it bit them: 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 on, preventing Philly’s two main offensive weapons from finding room to operate, penetrating deep into the paint or generating clean looks for their teammates. of equipment:

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

A change in Miami’s perimeter defensive assignments made it even more difficult for Philly to find easy paths in the half court. Through four games, point guard Gabe Vincent, who made his third series start Tuesday in place of Kyle Lowry, who re-injured his left hamstring in Game 4, took over Tyrese Maxey’s primary assignment. , the same size, while Heat superstar Jimmy Butler spent most of his time defending the older Tobias Harris. On Tuesday, however, Spoelstra changed thingsmoving Vincent from Maxey to Danny Green, Max Strus from Green to Harris and Butler to check out Philly’s sophomore 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 managed just two field goal attempts in the first quarter and finished with just nine points. in 2- for-10 shots. Most impressive of all: Maxey produced zero points or assists in the 37 snaps he matched with Butler in half court, according to Second Spectrum tracking.

Putting Butler in Maxey also helped short-circuit Philly’s offense elsewhere; As good as Jimmy can be on the ball, he’s even more disruptive outside of the action.

Confident that he had the quickness and length to get Maxey back if the ball spun his way, Butler repeatedly made his presence felt as a help defender. He hid behind Sixer’s pick-and-rolls, helping to prevent 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 in units to get to the painting. . He contributed to Embiid’s post support coverage, sliding in from the weak side to deter lob passes over the top and forcing Philly to move the ball elsewhere. When Philly was able to spray the ball around the perimeter, he did sharp turns and acrobatics toward would-be shooters on the receiving end, making them think twice about picking up or putting the ball down.

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

And Adebayo handled his new task, going from switching back to staying closer to the rim. He blocked two shots and altered many more while he stayed connected to Embiid and prevented him from getting easy touches in the post:

The icing on the cake: Bam, Butler and the rest of the Heat managed to increase their physicality, defensive intensity and overall disruption. without racking up more fouls. After drawing 22, 22 and 26 personal fouls in the last three games, Miami committed 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 free throws in total.

Part of the disparity is due to long-range variance: Miami hit 13 3-pointers on Tuesday after making 14 in Games 3 and 4 combined, while Philadelphia fell from 16 3-pointers in each of its home games to nine in the Game 5, and some are surely due to Embiid looking significantly worse in the first half as Miami built its lead. It is not everyone 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, at the most pressured time of the season to date.

“This series is changing quite a bit and you’re dealing with a very skilled offensive team,” Spoelstra told reporters After the match. “And Harden and Embiid, in particular, require great detail. They’ve earned that kind of respect from our team, and if they’re not doing it with great detail, focus and trust in each other [and] your system, you don’t stand a chance with them.”

That, more than anything, is the oft-overlooked secret about the Heat: To them, that detail, respect, focus and trust are a given. They are table bets. And when you have that, and the kind of quality depth to withstand Lowry’s absence, and a center who can protect anyone in Adebayo, and Butler, who has been playing as well as anyone this postseason … well, then no You will not only have a chance against Harden and Embiid. You have a chance against anyone.

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