The Sixers failed to make open looks for the second game in a row, and as it turns out, putting the ball in the basket is a pretty essential part of winning playoff games. Miami put them to bed with a 119-103 victory that never got all that close in the second half, even with Tyrese Maxey dropping 34 points.
Here’s what I saw.
• It is tough sledding for Tyrese Maxey out there right now. And on some level, it is not his fault. With Joel Embiid unavailable, the Heat have been comfortable switching any 1-5 ball screen, comfortable with the notion of Bam Adebayo dealing with Maxey in space and just about anybody (Max Strus throughout this game) taking the DeAndre Jordan “assignment” with no fear of the Sixers dumping the ball in to him. That fact gives you hope for Philly if they’re able to get Embiid back in reasonably good shape, but it doesn’t do Maxey or anybody else much good at the moment.
Fortunately for the Sixers, Maxey showed more flashes of the resilience that has allowed him to fight through tough starts and tougher matchups all season. Adebayo is an absolute menace on the defensive end, but Maxey was able to get by him just enough to keep whittling away at Miami. There was a marked difference between Maxey early in the game, when he was forced to put up a lot of off-balance junk from weird spots on the floor, and the Maxey we saw later on. His speed and decisiveness around the basket finally started shining, and for the second consecutive game, Maxey kept putting himself at the free-throw line, slowing the game down long enough for the undermanned Sixers to catch their breath.
Without Joel Embiid, the Sixers need that from Maxey, for him to follow his coach’s advice to get his hand to the backboard and live with the results. The longer this game wore on, the more he was able to get there, and that bodes well for whatever is left of this series.
On the negative side of the ledger, the defensive end has been a complete disaster for Maxey the vast majority of the time. There are issues he’s always going to have as a result of his size, so it’s hard to get too worked up when he gets wiped out by a screen — that’s the cost of playing a smaller guard in your lineup. But he has also made a ton of poor reads in this series, including on a play in the first half where he decided it was sensible to abandon Tyler Herro on the wing to help across the floor, only for Herro to can an open three in the spaced he’d just vacated.
• Paul Reed did not commit his first foul of the game until the second minute of the fourth quarter. That is one of the most staggering stats I can remember in my time covering the Sixers. Good on him — after noting that he needed to clean it up after a foul-heavy Game 1, Reed went out there and played disciplined defense, altering shots at the rim without jumping into anybody or getting himself in hot water.
And to Rivers’ credit, he rolled with Reed over Jordan for a lot of important minutes in the second half. Play without being a total spaz, and that’s the reward you’ll get.
• Tobias Harris turned down too many potential threes for my liking, and there were some bad off-ball miscues on defense, but I think he continues to show the right stuff even as some of his teammates falter. There was no throwing in the towel late as the Heat surged to a pretty comfortable lead, with Harris still busting his ass and trying to get stops in order to give them a chance. For Harris to have enough left to dig deep in that spot says a lot about the work he has put in — the guy was chasing around everyone from Jimmy Butler to Bam Adebayo depending on the possession.
He’s being asked to do a heck of a lot right now, and if they can get the big man back on the floor this weekend, it’s going to give the Sixers a chance to head back to Miami tied 2-2.
• Getting a better version of James Harden was almost inarguably the most important thing for Philly coming into this game, aside from basic stuff like “make shots” and “play the bad players fewer minutes.” It looked like Harden might have another clunker in the early stages of the game, No. 1 coughing up some ugly turnovers with Miami pressuring him at or near the point of attack.
As in Game 1, Harden had a strong close to the first half, using the methodical crossovers that he loves to lull guys to sleep and find space to attack. After looking a step slow in the early going, too interested in foul baiting as opposed to going strong to the rim, Harden put his head down and kept attacking, bulldozing his way to a 16-3-5 half that seemed louder than that on first watch. Perhaps that’s because the five assists felt like it could (and even should) have been closer to nine or 10, Harden playing out of double and triple teams and still finding ways to create open shots for teammates.
The second half, once again, offered a much stiffer test for Harden, who continues to struggle with efficiency, partly because of his shot diet. Harden has to live and die on the success of his stepback three, which was never a high-efficiency shot even when he had the total scoring package to put it all together.
That being said, I find it hard to pin a large amount of blame on him. He is being faced with fronts that he is simply not going to beat by himself by trying to carry the Sixers as a scorer. There was a first-half possession where Harden was triple-teamed by Miami in the middle of the floor, the Heat conceding a wide-open three to Georges Niang on the wing as opposed to letting Harden attack them. Harden made the right read, the Sixers got a quality look, and Niang clanged the rim with a shot that wasn’t all that close to going in.
It’s not reasonable to expect Harden to simply teleport through players, even if you think he should and can be better than he has played to this point in the series. Danny Green looks like he has never shot a basketball before in his life right now. Philadelphia’s role players need to start making open shots, or this is going to be a very short series, and it won’t be because Harden should have found a way to pull 40 points out of his behind.
Are there paths to unlocking him further? Maybe. Small ball, which was up-and-down in effectiveness during Game 1, was a big key to Harden’s success in Game 2. With a lineup around him that made it much harder to Miami to leave multiple defenders around the paint, Harden getting the edge was much more likely to happen. But given how bad Georges Niang is right now, I don’t know how you go to it any more than the Sixers have already, because the defense (and their rebounding) is just a mess out of those looks.
They need more from Harden in basically any version of this series, and they certainly need him in the version of the series where they’re playing without Joel Embiid/with a compromised Joel Embiid should he return back in Philadelphia. But I’m still finding it hard to point the finger at him as the reason they lost Game 2 and are down 2-0 in this series. The Sixers do not have enough good players, and they’re not taking advantage of the looks Harden is consistently creating by drawing most of Miami’s attention when he’s on the floor.
• True to his word, DeAndre Jordan did a better job in Game 2 of coming out to meet Philly’s ball-handlers as a screener and move to the side of the floor that was most advantageous for their perimeter players. It helped the Sixers develop much better offensive flow in the early stages of this game, and if he’s going to get blamed when things go wrong, he deserves a bit of credit when they go right. He can still go up and finish a lob, after all.
Unfortunately, the Heat are aware that basketball players have to participate on both sides of the floor, and they made a pointed effort to involve Jordan in action after action after action, knowing he was never going to come up to the level on a screen or do anything but play in drop coverage. He’s no longer a shot-blocking presence, so his issues in space loom a hell of a lot larger. On the rare occasion where Jordan tried to step up into space, it was a total adventure, Jordan forced to take a foul or risk getting blown by as if he was simply standing still.
Effort-wise, he was much better, but they’re not playing Little League Baseball and just hoping to burn some energy out of the kids so the parents can have a relaxing night at home. If the coach doesn’t see the defensive limitations, it’s on him, not on Jordan.
• Niang has absolutely nothing to offer in this series, I guess. Six fouls in 10 minutes is hard for even Reed to manage.
• I’m not sure you can play Matisse Thybulle at all in meaningful minutes, regardless of how poor your options are to deal with Tyler Herro off of the bench. You almost certainly can’t play him in minutes where you have a big who can’t floor space out there with him, unless you want to run into a constant wall of defenders at the rim.
Rivers put out some absolutely insane groupings in Game 2, including a Maxey-Thybulle-Furkan Korkmaz-Niang-Reed group that closed the first quarter in apocalyptic fashion, unable to generate anything positive on either end. Anytime you have a late-clock possession that ends with Paul Reed staring down a trail three before stepping inside the arc for a pull-up jumper, you know something has gone horribly wrong.
On the one hand, it highlights the lack of options the Sixers have compared to the opponent. If Miami wanted to, they could bring a guy like Duncan Robinson into the game and a lot of Sixers backers would get a bad feeling in the pit of their stomachs watching him come off screens and get up threes. Nobody that comes into the game off of Philly’s bench inspires fear whatsoever.
• Danny Green playing so poorly that Doc Rivers had to pull him off of the floor to get Korkmaz in the game early in the second half was not on my Sixers-Heat bingo card. This might be the single worst basketball game Green has ever played in his life, and he has played a ton of them.
(Outside of basically air-balling an alley-oop in the fourth quarter, I thought Korkmaz gave the Sixers some decent minutes and earned himself some more time in the Philadelphia games later this week. The first half of that sentence sort of explains the depth problem they have, though.)
You can’t win playoff basketball games if you can’t make shots. 8/30 from deep with a group of guys who can’t be expected to do much else aside from making catch-and-shoot threes? That’s ugly.
• The guy yelling “SHOOT IT” two feet behind the media section every time Harden touches the ball apparently thinks Harden can hear him from the top of the first level. I promise you the sound isn’t traveling that far, pal.
• The Heat crowd is pretty horrific, as many people have said over the years, but the arena swag surfing between the third and fourth quarters every game is inarguably cooler than anything that happens at the Wells Fargo Center.
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