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76ers 89 - HEAT 97 Recap

Apr 16 2011 8:51PM

MIAMI – Erik Spoelstra had to cut the Miami HEAT’s Friday practice short because the team was so excited, so energetic that the coach was worried someone was going to get hurt. Yet it was the Philadelphia 76ers who were the aggressors, knocking the HEAT back on their feet as the visitors took a 12-point lead at the end of the first.

It was a familiar story to anyone who remembered Philadelphia doing the exact same thing to Miami on March 25, a game in which the HEAT were playing from behind throughout, eventually winning on the strength of a defensive-minded run.

Though the initial 76ers burst wasn’t as turnover-driven this time around as it was a result of speed and simple shot-making, this one played out all the same. Miami fell behind by double-digits, but their defense remains the single greatest factor in this series, and behind it, re-took the lead, sustained through a late Philadelphia run and won, 97-89, to go up 1-0 in the first-round series.

And though it’s not too late in the season to build on good habits, the win – particularly that first postseason victory – is what matters most.

“You go through the regular season, you want to get wins but it’s all about how are we playing,” Dwyane Wade said. “You get to the playoffs you want the win. You find a way to win by any means necessary.”

By any means meant going to a zone defense in the second quarter, a move Spoelstra has been hesitant to make all season, particularly before halftime. Most NBA teams can figure out a zone after a handful of possessions and as such they are best utilized in short bursts to keep an opponent off guard. But the scheme – at times a 3-2 matchup zone that is at least half as difficult to dissect afterwards as it must have been to play against in real time – was so effective in helping Miami to a 35-18 second quarter, the HEAT used it again in the second half.

“Coming out with a zone against a team that really likes to attack, it just caught them off guard,” LeBron James said.

That’s the talking point, but why was it so effective? It forced Philadelphia to work long offensive possessions, shut down the paint and in conjunction with Miami’s 15 second-quarter free-throw attempts, slowed the game to a crawl.

And with that success settling things down, the preferred strategy righted itself.

“It’s not something I want to do a steady diet of for a whole game,” Spoelstra said. “But certainly to try and break their rhythm.

“We finished off the second quarter with our normal man-to-man defense and we were much more active.”

After surrendering 147.7 points per 100 possessions to the 76ers in the first quarter, Miami gave up a mere 87.87 points per 100 in the three quarters after that.

The other end of the floor was more of a mixed bag.

Chris Bosh led the way with 25 points and 12 rebounds on 8-of-17 shooting while Wade and James combined to shoot 10-of-27 as Doug Collins sent traps and double-teams at them seemingly any time they ventured below the free-throw line, nullifying the expected plan of getting the two perimeter players mismatches in the post.

The 76ers, for their part, did a magnificent job running the HEAT off the three-point line, holding Miami to 4-of-17 from beyond the arc while forcing Mike Bibby and James Jones to use a forward dribble rather than spot-up for an assisted three.

But that wasn’t the reason the HEAT suffered such offensive stagnation. The ball stopped far too often and players stopped moving with the paint effectively on lockdown thanks to the 76ers. Spoelstra said there was little of the execution and efficiency Miami has displayed the past few weeks, and he was right.

That’s why this was built as a defensive team from the very first day of training camp. Philadelphia took away much of Miami’s easy-offense by taking care of the ball and sending extra defenders into-and-across the paint, but the defense afforded the HEAT the time to sort things out. And it was the defense that kept a four-minute, 12-0 run in the fourth quarter to just that.

Once the 76ers closed the gap to one with 2:30 to play, they would score just once more the rest of the game. Adjustments will be made on both sides, the HEAT won’t cause as much confusion with the zone and will likewise be better prepared for Philadelphia’s blitzing schemes, but the defensive foundation will always be there.