Game Review | Defense Sets Tone, Proves Enough in Conference Win
SOUTH PHILADELPHIA - Three quarters into Friday’s noteworthy Eastern Conference clash at The Center, the 76ers getting back on the winning track seemed like a relatively probable outcome.
Their defense had been airtight, offense balanced, and ball security rock solid.
Then, the fourth quarter hit, and behind a furious scramble, the Miami Heat put a scare into the home squad.
In the end, in a match-up that pitted two of the NBA’s stingiest defenses against one another, the Sixers prevailed, 103-97.
Ben Simmons, one of the league’s leading thieves, came up with a vital steal with 21.2 seconds to go after the Heat had pulled within four points. Following another stop on Miami’s next trip down the floor, the Sixers got a runout dunk from Justin Anderson (11 pts, 4 reb, 2 stl), which put away the spunky Heat for good.
“We played well overall,” said Simmons. “A few rebounds we missed, few plays we didn’t execute, but I think overall we played a pretty solid game.”
Minted Thursday as the KIA NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for January, Simmons opened the fourth month of his career with a game-high 20-point showing. As has been increasingly the case lately, he was once again efficient, converting 8 of 13 shots, while going 4 for 4 from the free throw line.
For the first time in his career, the Aussie point man went without commiting a single turnover.
On a night the Sixers spread around the scoring, the rest of the startering group finished in double-figures as well. Dario Saric and Joel Embiid both tallied 17 points, while delivering double-doubles with 10 and 11 rebounds, respectively. JJ Redick and Robert Covington supplied 13 points apiece.
Kelly Olynyk paced Miami with 19 points, 12 of which came in a frenetic final frame.
Through three periods Friday, the Sixers, boasting the NBA’s fourth-rated defense, held a commanding 26-point lead, due in large part to their defense. At that point, Miami had managed to shoot a paltry 32.8 percent from the field.
But the Heat came into the evening with a strong defensive track record, too, and they displayed why. Holding the Sixers without a field goal for nearly six minutes of game time, Miami, sixth in the league in defense, strung together a 17-0 run to get right back in the mix.
Pivotal buckets from Simmons and Embiid on back-to-back possessions in the final two minutes of regulation stemmed the tide, and positioned the Sixers for a helpful win, the 100th of Brett Brown’s tenure
“We’re kind of greedy to start winning,” said Brown. “We want to make the playoffs."
Friday’s triumph not only snapped a three-game losing streak, it allowed the Sixers, eighth in the East, to move within 2.5 games of the fourth-place Heat in the conference’s tight standings.
“Our focus is always to win,” Simmons said. “It’s just a big win.”
Ahead 86-60 by the end of Friday’s third quarter, the Sixers appeared to be sitting pretty. The lay of the land looked even prettier early on in the fourth period, when their lead twice reached a game-high 28 points.
Fast forward to the two-minute mark of regulation, and the Sixers were involved in a completely different kind of game. On the strength of a 17-0 surge, the Miami Heat had not only chipped away at the Sixers’ cushion, they had whittled it down to five points, 97-92.
A lay-up from Ben Simmons and 16-foot step-back jumper from Joel Embiid on consecutive possessions restored some order, 101-92, and ultimately proved to be enough.
“They started making their way,” Brett Brown said of Miami.
How did the Heat do so? By shooting efficiently (12 for 20 fg in the fourth quarter, for 60 fg%), getting to the free throw line (9-14 ft), dominating the glass (+10 rebounds), and forcing turnovers (the Sixers committed 5 in the fourth, after giving the ball up 5 times total through three quarters).
“We want to be able to close these types of games out in a more authoritative way,” Brown said, referring to the fourth quarter, in which Miami outscored the Sixers 37-17. “It’s part of being a young team, but we want to try to arrest those situations more and more as we get older down the road.”
With Simmons assuming a key role, the Sixers got to the finish line Friday with a sought-after win in hand.
“They made a run, a great run,” said Rookie of the Year candidate. “I think on our end, we did a good job staying in our coverage, and guarding the ball.”
Embiid x Whiteside Rd. 1
At least that’s what Friday was in the context of the 2017-2018 regular season.
Joel Embiid and Hassan Whiteside, two 7-footers who both wear the no. 21 for their respective squads, had a memorable, spirited pre-season encounter back in October, thus stoking the fire (at least by we media types) for Friday’s meeting.
All said and done, it was Embiid who got the better of the bigs’ first match-up of consequence this year, and not just because the Sixers came away with the victory.
According to stats.nba.com, Embiid and Whiteside were on the court together for 13 minutes. During that period, the Sixers outscored Miami by 12 points, a stat that certainly reflects favorably on Embiid.
While battling each other throughout Friday’s first half, the two centers found points tough to come by, but did productive work on the glass. Whiteside was limited to just five minutes of action following the break, and didn’t play at all in the fourth quarter, as a result of not feeling well.
Afterwards, Embiid called Whiteside a “great player,” and said that he has “a lot of respect for him.”
“We won the game,” said the All-Star. “That’s all I care about.”
Lots of Love for the Birds
There were plenty of nods of support for the Philadelphia Eagles sprinkled into the presentation of Friday’s game. Let’s count a few of the ways the Sixers shined the spotlight on the Birds’ run to Super Bowl LII, which will be played Sunday in Minneapolis:
• A co-branded #BrotherlyLove midnight green t-shirt giveaway for the first 10,000 fans through the doors.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) February 2, 2018
• A revamped pre-game hype video with Eagles season highlights spliced in throughout.
• Paper underdog masks placed on courtside seats.
• Endless rounds of “E-A-G-L-E-S EAGLES!” chants.
And there was plenty more on top of all that.
Brett Brown was happy that the Sixers’ organization tapped into the enthusiasm surrounding the Birds’ success.
“I think it’s awesome,” said Brown. “It’s just great for the city, it’s amazing for the city. It’s just something that we like to share in the excitement that we all feel.”
Of all the ways the Sixers and their fans feted the Eagles’ magical season throughout Friday’s contest at The Center, perhaps the most apropos gesture of the evening came on the court. In the first-quarter sequence below, Dario Saric and Ben Simmons made like Nick Foles and Alshon Jeffery.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) February 3, 2018
For the second time in the span of a week, and seventh time overall this season, the Sixers will complete a back-to-back set. Saturday’s assignment will be a quick trip to Indianapolis, to face a Pacers squad that, as of Friday, was 3.0 games ahead of the Sixers in the Eastern Conference standings. The big storyline for Indiana has so far been enjoying a breakout campaign. In his fifth year as a pro, the Indiana University product has been averaging 23.9 points per game, a full 6.0 points better than his previous career-high. On the defensive end, Oladipo has been productive as well, posting 1.9 steals per game, good for sixth-best in the league. He was acquired by the Pacers from Oklahoma City in the off-season, and was recently named an All-Star reserve.