The Miami Heat turned around their season on Monday night, all because of a couple key adjustments that threw the Sixers off their game.
The Philadelphia 76ers entered the playoffs in a unique situation. Led by Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, two players with a combined 177 games of NBA experience, the Sixers overachieved their way to the three-seed in the Eastern Conference and some unexpectedly lofty postseason expectations.
For most teams as young as Philadelphia, winning 52 games would have made the season successful regardless of the playoff result; but with the other East contenders facing injuries, dysfunction, and past playoff demons, Philly became a trendy pick to make the NBA Finals. After Game 1 against Miami, in which the Sixers outscored the Heat 74-43 in the second half, the hype only grew.
Philly had the chance to fly south with a commanding 2-0 series lead but, as Eric Spoelstra-coached teams tend to do, the Heat countered in Game 2. Behind a couple key defensive alterations and a vintage performance from Dwyane Wade, the Heat stole home-court advantage in Game 2 and took the momentum back with them to Miami.
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When examining what changed for Miami in Game 2, there’s no place to start other than with Wade’s performance. Wade looked like a 25-year-old version of himself out there, putting up 28 points on 11 of 16 shooting, grabbing seven rebounds, and adding two steals in what was his best all-around playoff game in years.
If he were being honest with you, I think even Wade would admit what he did on Monday isn’t sustainable for the rest of the series, but the numbers really bear that out. In Game 2, Wade shot six of eight on pull-up jumpers, eight of 10 on shots taken after 3+ dribbles, and six of seven on shots taken after six seconds. During the regular season, Wade shot under 40% in every one of those categories.
Miami needed Wade’s offensive renaissance to win Game 2, but everyone in the organization knows just how unlikely it is he has another game like that this series. That’s why the changes Spoelstra made on the other side of the ball are significantly more impactful going forward. The most important of which came in how Miami defended Simmons when he had the ball.
It isn’t a secret that Simmons struggles with his jump shot. He didn’t make a single three-pointer during the regular season and shot just 33% on pull-up jumpers. Any possession that ends with Simmons shooting from outside the paint is a win for the defense, so most teams are inclined to give him space and encourage him to shoot to his heart’s content.
Miami utilized this strategy for much of Game 1, but quickly realized its downside. Simmons is so tall and such a great passer that when you play off of him he’ll just dribble at the top of the key and pick apart your defense like a quarterback in the pocket. Simmons finished Game 1 with 14 assists, many of which came on plays where Miami gave him space and allowed him to wait until a shooter got open cutting off-ball.
Philadelphia shot 64 percent from three in Game 1 largely because they got open looks along the perimeter any time Simmons wanted. I don’t want to take away from what was a great shooting performance, but Miami didn’t make Philadelphia work nearly hard enough for those shots. In Game 2, Miami’s adjustments made Philly’s job much, much harder.
Instead of playing 10 feet off of Simmons, his defender pressured him to try to interfere with his vision and cut off passing lanes. Spoelstra played his more versatile wing defenders like James Johnson, Josh Richardson, and Justise Winslow more minutes in Game 2, not only because of their ability to bother Simmons but because of how much harder they make it for Philly’s shooters to get open.
The pressure that Winslow and Johnson put on Simmons really threw off Philadelphia’s offensive rhythm and timing. A couple of times Winslow picked him up full-court and it was clear that Simmons got frustrated by a tactic he wasn’t expecting.
Based on the results, it appears like that strategy worked wonders. Philadelphia shot just 19 percent from three on 36 attempts in Game 2. After Game 1 where no player shot worse than 50 percent from deep, no Sixer shot above 30 percent in Game 2. After going 2 for 3 on “tightly defended“ threes in Game 1, Philly shot one of 11 on those same shots Monday night.
I think that last stat is the most indicative of how successful Miami’s game plan was. The defensive adjustments allowed the Heat to contest far more of Philadelphia’s three-point attempts, and Philly’s shooters kept taking them regardless of if they were going in.
If the Sixers want to recover in Game 3, they can’t just rely on the shots they were missing in Game 2 to go in for the rest of the series; they are going to have to punish the Heat for going small. Miami’s small lineups that defend the three-point line so well are susceptible inside without a traditional rim-protector. If Simmons, Dario Sarić, and others can score enough in the paint to force Spoelstra back to a more traditional lineup, that is a massive win for the Sixers. Both of Miami’s traditional centers, Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo, have struggled in the series and combined for a -27 in 48 minutes.
The healthy Sixers have the talent to change the course of the series on their own, but the return of Embiid would be a huge boost. Guarding Embiid with Kelly Olynyk or James Johnson would essentially be conceding two points every time he touched the ball and Spoelstra would have no choice but to play Whiteside and Adebayo more minutes.
Regardless of who is out there for Philadelphia, the next couple of games are going to be vital for the Sixers. They’re the more talented team top to bottom and have beaten the Heat three out of five times this season, but how the Sixers respond to adversity over the next few days in Miami will tell us a lot about how far this team can go in the postseason.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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