After the Philadelphia 76ers pulled away to beat the Miami Heat 128-108 to take a 2-1 series lead on Thursday, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra made it very clear that while his team doesn't want to grind the game to a complete halt, they absolutely cannot, under any circumstances, compete with the Sixers when the score starts creeping toward 240 total points. They don't have the collective firepower, so they have to slow the game to at least a manageable pace.
How can they do that?
"Make shots," both Tyler Johnson and James Johnson said at Miami's practice on Friday. Indeed, making shots is always a good thing, not just for the obvious offensive uptick but for the opportunity that provides to get back and set your defense rather than having to deal with Ben Simmons pushing in transition.
Problem is, the Heat did make a lot of shots in Game 3. They hit 16 threes as a team and shot nearly 50 percent from the arc. Justise Winslow, who averaged less than one 3-point make per game this season, went 4 for 6 from downtown. Tyler Johnson, James Johnson and Josh Richardson combined to go 8 for 12 from three. You can't realistically ask for much more from a shooting standpoint, and yet with the way the Sixers are playing -- and shooting -- more is exactly what will be necessary if the Heat are going to even this series up on Saturday.
For starters, Joel Embiid is back, and if you were concerned about his conditioning or any potential rust, or even the pressure of his first playoff game getting to him, you can go ahead and forget all that. After a three-week layoff with a broken orbital bone, Embiid was terrific in his postseason debut with 23 points, seven rebounds and three blocks as he established himself as the best player in this series moving forward.
"He continues to blow me away," Sixers coach Brett Brown told CBS Sports. "What he did endurance wise, what he did skill wise, after not playing basketball for as long as he did, to jump into an NBA playoff game, his first playoff game, and then have it be on the road against a great organization, a well-coached team, I give him an A-plus. I thought he was exceptional."
For good measure, Embiid also knocked down three of four 3-pointers, which is fitting, because the Sixers have just been relentless from downtown. Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova, Dario Saric, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, the whole crew has it going. The first two names on that list, Bellineli and Illyasova, have taken this team to another level almost from the minute they arrived, and certainly in this series. Ilyasova is shooting over 55 percent from three vs. Miami. Before Embiid returned, the Sixers were putting some combination of Ilyasova, Belinelli, Saric, Redick and Covington alongside Simmons, who is absolutely impossible to handle with that kind of shooting around him.
Good luck with that.
Belinelli, in particular, is killing Miami. He's registering a team-high plus-16 in the minutes he's been on the floor, largely thanks to his shooting 43.5 percent from three for the series on almost eight attempts a game. Many of those makes, as Spoelstra pointed out Friday, are coming in late-clock situations after the Heat have defended well for nearly the whole possession. This 30-footer he drained in Game 3 after the Sixers nearly ate a back-court violation is the perfect example of the type of soul-piercing daggers he's throwing right now:
Marco Belinelli dgaf, he’ll pull up from half court if he wants to. pic.twitter.com/iAZcgREfuU— Brandon Lee Gowton (@BrandonGowton) April 19, 2018
"Ersan and Marco came to us in unusual situations where we picked them up so late," Brown said. "But we've been able to absorb them into a structure that I think suits them, and they definitely suit us."
This simple statement, that the Sixers' structure suits shooters and vice versa, speaks to the ongoing process in Philly. Yes, drafting Simmons and Embiid changed everything, but it's the way the Sixers have continued to surround those two with specific kinds of players that has this team way ahead of schedule.
Early in the season, Simmons' numbers were taking a big dip when he was on the court without Covington and/or Redick, as he needs shooters to not only punctuate his brilliant floor game and passing skills, but also to create the spacing that his own inability to shoot from beyond 10-12 feet can sometimes squeeze.
"It's not a secret. It's what we all seek is to find creators and then put shooters around them," Brown said. "In Ben Simmons, you have that. In Joel Embiid, in a different way, you have that. Anybody that can draw two defenders, when you can put shooters around them it makes the world go round."
All of this said, Miami has beaten Philly three times this season, twice in the regular season with Embiid in the lineup, so they can clearly play with the Sixers. After a Game 1 shellacking, they've been more than competitive, winning Game 2 and playing right with the Sixers into the fourth quarter of Game 3. They have played well. They have played incredibly hard.
"I don't think there's a physical edge [one way or the other]" Spoelstra said on Friday, and he's right.
The Heat haven't backed off an inch. They've gotten into Philly's space. Contested shots. Fought on the boards, even with Hassan Whiteside riding the bench for the better part of this series. They've denied wing passes, post entries, fought over ball screens and pressed Simmons full court. But the Sixers have matched all of that, and then some.
Look at the numbers: Miami made 16 3-pointers on Thursday, but Philly made 18. Miami had 26 assists, but Philly had 28. Miami shot 48 percent from three, but Philly shot 53 percent. The Heat came up with seven steals, but the Sixers tallied 10. Miami shot 45 percent from the field, while Philly shot 50 percent.
Indeed, there was no single area that the Sixers dominated in Game 3. They just did everything a little bit better that the Heat -- which, in the end, adds up to a lot. Throw in the return of Embiid, who was masterful, and suddenly whatever slight margin for error the Heat might have once enjoyed has completely vanished. They have to play almost perfect in Game 4 to even this series on Saturday. Even that might not be enough.