Dwyane Wade sort of haunts the Philadelphia 76ers right now.
After all was forgiven and Wade found his way back onto the Miami Heat at the trade deadline, the process of reestablishing the Heat culture was paramount to his presence in South Beach. Shortly after his return, Wade knocked down a game-winner in Ben Simmons face in late February. It was one of only four losses the Sixers would finish the season with in their final 24 games, as they ended the 2017-18 campaign on a 16-game winning streak. But after Game 1, the Sixers looked cocky, confident, and full of firepower the Heat simply couldn’t match.
The Heat needed a spark and they needed some help with the 3-point line. They received both in taking Game 2 in Philadelphia with a 113-103 victory. Wade came off the bench to score a season-high 28 points on 11-of-17 shooting in 26 minutes. He made timely passes and important defensive plays when the Heat needed to slow down the relentless pace of the young Sixers. Miami swarmed post-entry passes and closed out on shooters like we didn’t see in Game 1.
That’s how they went from allowing 130 points and 18 made 3-pointers in the first game to holding Philadelphia to 103 points and seven made 3-pointers in Game 2. Since a playoff series doesn’t begin until the home team loses, we officially have ourselves a series heading back to Miami. Philadelphia tried hard to manufacture some of the same looks they received in Game 1. Marco Belinelli and JJ Redick flew around the court, trying to disorient and confuse the Heat’s perimeter defenders. But this game saw the Heat bigs help a lot better with these actions than what happened in Game 1.
Kelly Olynyk and James Johnson had the assignment of containing the bigs (let’s count Ben Simmons as a big in this case) while also helping slow down the shooters off-ball. Miami bumped and grabbed and stood in the way of the runners’ pathways to get to open shots. It eliminated a lot of the time and space Redick and Belinelli found in Game 1 to light up the Heat defense. Robert Covington couldn’t get going from deep either, making just one of his eight attempts. The only scorer outside of Simmons who grabbed any kind of a big stretch was Dario Saric in the second half. But his overall shooting numbers from the outside finished at 3-for-10 from deep.
By cutting down on that space, the Heat took away a real strength of the Sixers. Simmons still established his will and put his fingerprints all over the game. He finished with 24 points, eight assists, and eight rebounds. When the Sixers were at their best, Simmons was pushing the ball in the open court and acting like a runaway semi-truck that was somehow completely in control. You know when you’re driving on the open highway and you see those little pseudo off-ramps for runaway trucks? Those are actually for Simmons in transition in case he needs a safe place to stop his momentum. When Simmons was in the open floor, defenders bounced off him and Philadelphia created some pretty solid looks.
Those looks just didn’t find the bottom of the net. Philly didn’t adjust too much as those shots didn’t fall either. While most Sixers and the fans weren’t crazy about the officiating in the game, the Sixers just kept waiting for their style to eventually find them buckets. They dribbled a little recklessly into defenders and hoped to draw fouls. Philadelphia kept firing away 3-pointers, whether they had the space or the balance to feel good about the attempt. And those lazy post-entry passes needed one more dribble to create a better angle against defenders like Josh Richardson, James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk.
All the while, Wade methodically picked the Sixers apart. He peppered the Sixers’ defenders with midrange jumpers and finishes around the rim. The dagger came against Simmons, lined up in an isolation possession fairly similar to the shot he hit against him shortly after coming over in the trade from Cleveland. Wade rocked Simmons a bit on his heels with Simmons knowing he had to watch the step-back. At the same time, Wade has made so many defenders look foolish biting on pump fakes that Simmons had to avoid that, as well. A quick step to Wade’s right and he had the room to bury the midrange jumper.
Wade was the spark but the Heat culture and their team effort and everything else they love to drop in sound bytes came into play. A game after Covington swallowed up Goran Dragic’s offense, the Heat point guard created a lot of havoc on the floor with 20 points on 14 shots. Johnson was a perfect playmaker and a perfect shooter (7-of-7) on the night for Miami. Richardson rebounded from a rough Game 1 to make a few plays in a row as the Heat tried to distance themselves on the scoreboard. Miami’s 33-14 second quarter proved to be the main difference in this game, as it gave them the cushion to weather the storm against Philadelphia’s second-half run.
As the two teams head into Game 3, the Heat have to know that a reckoning and a regression to the mean could be headed against their favor. Joel Embiid posted his frustrations to Instagram after the game — clearly wanting to be unleashed on the Heat’s frontcourt in Game 3. Embiid is one of the most unstoppable forces in the NBA and the Heat have mostly played better without Hassan Whiteside as of late. Olynyk can’t handle Embiid’s physicality, meaning Whiteside likely has to play more than 15 minutes if the Sixers’ center is back on the court.
This creates a real tough decision for Erik Spoelstra in how he wants to handle those minutes and those matchups. That’s, of course, assuming Embiid gets his way and shows up in Miami next game with his gear on. Otherwise, the Sixers have to find ways to keep pushing the tempo against Miami and find the 3-point rhythm from Game 1. Realistically, their shooting ends up somewhere in between the two games we’ve seen so far. But that would still be enough to give them a chance to steal a road game back from Miami.
All the while, the Heat will hope Wade can continue to make an impact. The Sixers will hope his presence on the court won’t matter. And Embiid will hope it’s his turn to put his mark on this first-round series. After all, that series has officially begun.
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