What we learned from the Sixers in the ugly play-in victory against the Heat

Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, left, talks with Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler following an NBA basketball play-in tournament game Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 105-104. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

The Sixers pulled out a play-in-game victory after a horrendous first half. Their resilience ultimately put them in the seventh seed.

Helpless for a half

Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler, right, shoots as he is fouled by Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid during the first half of an NBA basketball play-in tournament game Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

There were plenty of things that went wrong for the Sixers in the first half. The score was close early on because both teams shot poorly, but then the Heat flipped a switch in the second quarter that opened up the floodgates for a Philly disaster.

Once Eric Spoelstra gave the signal, his team responded. The Sixers had no answer for the tenacious defense that Miami unleashed. Their discipline and execution of a relentless zone defense forced Philly players to commit 11 turnovers before halftime.

The Sixers were flustered, and their frustration showed in their body language while fans in the stands gave them an earful of boos. Miami was in a three-two zone on one play, and Embiid had the ball just above the nail. He turned his back for a split second when Jimmy Butler took advantage of Embiid’s blindside. Butler stole the ball and went in for one of his multiple open-court dunks.

Butler took risk after risk, and it paid off from Miami during their assault. Every time you looked up, it seemed Butler was stealing the ball, compounding the issues that clearly the Sixers were unprepared to resolve. Then came the second half.

Sixers do the little things

Philadelphia 76ers’ Kyle Lowry, center, looks to pass the ball while losing his balance during the second half of an NBA basketball play-in tournament game against the Miami Heat, Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 105-104.(AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

For the Sixers to climb back into a game that seemed out of reach at halftime, something had to change. A few of the newest additions to the team managed to help chip away at Miami’s lead by making subtle plays that paid huge dividends.

For instance, on several plays Kyle Lowry tipped the ball away from behind his opponent to create a steal. This staple play that he’s known for, despite his age and waning athleticism, created fast break opportunities for the Sixers. Whoever he was guarding thought they had a lane to drive, but Lowry’s quick hands and veteran experience helped shift the momentum in favor of Philly.

Another example of something subtle that had a notable impact was from Buddy Hield. Yes, he only knocked down one triple, but Hield provided the Sixers with crucial spacing. As one of the premier volume shooters beyond the arc since he entered the league, Miami had to respect his shot. Because of his shooting threat, his presence on the court put pressure on Miami to close out even faster in their defensive rotations.

Several times, a Heat defender rushed to contest his shot, but he caught them out of position, driving to the rim. His penetration broke up any zone efforts that Miami had on those plays. More importantly, Hield dished out six assists on a few of those drives where a hard close out gave the Sixers a rare advantage in their rally.

Both Hield and Lowry gave the Sixers something to help mitigate the damage of one of the stingiest zone defenses in the entire NBA. This form of basketball terrorism was the biggest reason why the Sixers were down so much in the first place.

Never give up, never surrender

Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, left, shoots over Miami Heat’s Kevin Love during the first half of an NBA basketball play-in tournament game Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

The biggest difference between the first half and the second half? Turnovers.

The Sixers were able to take care of the ball better, and it put them in a position to rally. They coughed up the rock only four times in the last two quarters. 

Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey were inefficient on the night, shooting under 40 percent from the field. Yet, they found ways to lead the team just by not giving up. Miami’s defensive tactics seemed to neutralize the two All-Stars for most of the game. That’s when Nicolas Batum showed up.

Mostly known for his spot-up three-point shooting, he kept the Sixers in the game with his quick release, making six 3-pointers. Despite their deficit, Batum kept his focus on contributing and stepping up when the ball swung his way, knocking down key baskets.

To shine a light on Batum even further, he made a critical block on Tyler Herro in the final seconds of the game. Coming over in the James Harden trade at the start of the season, Nicolas Batum was seen by some as a throw-in asset in exchange for the NBA Top 75 Harden. Batum has been in the league for almost two decades, so how much could he help the Sixers in pursuit of a title?

Back in November, nobody knew exactly how. After last night’s comeback victory, Sixers fans now have a pretty good idea.

Game one of the Sixers/Knicks series is this Saturday at Madison Square Garden. Tip-off is at 6:00 pm EST on ESPN.