Game One Thoughts: Sixers Surge Late, Come Up Short in Miami

Game One Thoughts: Sixers Surge Late, Come Up Short in Miami

For a mintue there, it looked like the Sixers
were following the script of 2009's game one in Orlando to the letter.
Down double digits for most of the second half in a game where it seemed
like they were just a little bit out of their league, Philly surged in
the fourth quarter to cut the lead to a one-possession game with just a
few minutes to go. But there would be no Andre Iguodala go-ahead
18-footer in the final seconds of this one, as the Sixers failed to
capitalize on a few key opportunities, and the Heat were able to do just
enough to keep the team at arm's length and secure the 97-89 victory.

All in all, it was an admirable effort. There were times in the third
quarter where Miami's big three seemed to be taking turns hitting shots
they had absolutely no business making, and you start thinking to
yourself "This isn't fair—Miami are just so much better than we are!"
But the Heat were also one of the few teams this NBA season with as many
late-game meltdowns as the Sixers, and just by hanging tough (thanks
mainly to Thad and Jrue), the Liberty Ballers were able to make much
more of a game out of it than anyone could have expected. Now, you end
up walking away from this game not thinking "Oh God, we're gonna get
swept!" but "Hey, a couple different things go our way, who knows?"

Now, there's been a lot of talk about the foul disparity in this game,
which was indeed considerable—the Heat shot 39 to our 15, and for a
strech in the second quarter it seemed like Miami was getting whistles
every time they trotted down the lane, apparently regardless of contact
level. But I'm not going to put all that much stock in this—the Heat
have two of the greatest free-throw drawers of all-time, guys who are
going to get calls that they probably shouldn't on name alone, whereas
no one on the Sixers averages even five free throw attempts a game, the
team ranking 26th in the NBA for the season. Besides, the home team is
always gonna get a bit of an advantage in a series like this. A couple
instances were pretty egregious, and if the trend persists all the way
to Philadelphia, then I'll get on my high horse about it. But for the
time being, I'm not gonna call conspiracy, and I'm not gonna hang this L
on the refs.

Rather, I think we have to hang this one on our guys being a little
over-amped on occasion. After that dynamite first quarter, where the
team outscored the Heat 31-19, out-hustling them seemingly at every
opportunity, the adrenaline seemed to get the best of them, as the guys
blew more layups and close-range jumpers than I've seen them do maybe
for any stretch all year. And in the final minutes, even as they made
some incredible plays to get back in the game (namely that Thad
alley-oop across his body and falling down), they failed to convert on
the easy ones–Thad going 0-2 from the line on a key trip before his oop,
Iguodala rimming out a good-looking elbow jumper, Elton missing an open
free-throw-line jumper that he hits with ease 80% of the time—any one
of which could have ended up making the difference in this game. You
can't criticze the effort, but the execution after that first quarter
was often very sloppy.

Still, as out-of-their-depth as they seemed at times, the Sixers
deserve credit for doing what they had to do to keep the game in reach.
Despite the incredible number of free throws they gave up, Philly did a
fairly respectable job on the defensive end, 'Dre doing an impressive
job of checking LeBron (with Evan Turner getting some good minutes in
against him as well), Jrue and Jodie doing their part to make Wade take
some tough jumpers (many of which he made, but still) and the entire
team doing a good job of closing out on the team's shooters, holding
them to just 4-17 from beyond the arc. If anyone really caused problems
for the Liberty Ballers yesterday—and who might continue to for the rest
of the series—it's Chris Bosh. Bosh (25 points, 12 rebounds) had a
couple inches on each of his most regular offenders (Elton and Thad),
and when he's hitting his jumper, and getting them off good feeds from
Wade and LeBron off Sixer double-teams, it's awful tough to stop him.
But you can't shut down everyone on this team, and if you want to let
any of Miami's Big Three beat you, it's probably Bosh, who at the very
least will occasionally have games when he just isn't hitting,
regardless of defense (*cough* 1-18 *cough*).

And despite a couple of the dumb misses on the other end of the
floor, it's hard to fault any of the Sixers' individual offensive
performances yesterday too much either. Elton carried the team early,
ending with 17 points on 8-14 shooting, and Thad proved as much of a
handful for the Heat as Bosh was for us late, scoring double digits in
the fourth and motoring the team's huge comeback. Jrue hit some huge
threes, and wisely took advantage of his size and speed over Heat PG
Mike Bibby, getting to the foul line a team-high six times and posting
the Sixers' best-overall statline (19 points, five boards, five dimes,
three steals, no turnovers). And while some have gotten on 'Dre for only
scoring four points (and only taking seven shots), I'm fine with
that—if #9 is still doing everything else on the floor (nine assists,
eight rebounds, fine defense on LeBron), I think it's probably for the
best if he doesn't get into Hero Mode on offense, a role which has never
suited 'Dre particularly well and has often had disastrous results this
season.

Ultimately, though it's disappointing that the team wasn't able to
complete the comeback and officially put the Heat on notice in this
series, you really can't walk away feeling too bad about this one. The
Heat proved that they were the more talented team, no doubt, but they
also showed a vulnerability in those first and fourth quarters that's
probably making Miami fans across the country (chortle) loosen their
collars a little bit. Does it mean that the Sixers actually have a
legitimate chance in this series? No, not yet, not really. But it does
mean that they have a chance to at least make it a series, to
steal a game or two and see what happens from there. A couple more
converted layups, a couple less foul calls, and we're right there. You
gotta respect the heart, and you gotta keep the faith a little.

Game two Monday in Miami, 7:00 on TNT. I can't wait for our boys to get back out there.

Best of NBA: Bulls hand Spurs first road loss of season

uspresswire-bulls-dwyane-wade.jpg
USA Today Images

Best of NBA: Bulls hand Spurs first road loss of season

CHICAGO -- Dwyane Wade scored 20 points, and the Chicago Bulls handed San Antonio its first road loss after a 13-0 start, hanging on to beat the Spurs 95-91 on Thursday night.

San Antonio fell one win shy of matching the NBA's best road start set by the Golden State Warriors last season. The Spurs cut an 18-point deficit midway through the third quarter to four in the closing minutes, only to come up short.

Kawhi Leonard scored 24 for San Antonio. Patty Mills added 16 points, hitting 4 of 6 3-pointers. Former Bull Pau Gasol had 13 points and 10 rebounds in his first game in Chicago since signing with San Antonio in the summer, but the Spurs lost a road game for the first time since Oklahoma City knocked them out in the Western Conference semifinals last season.

Jimmy Butler scored all of his 13 points for Chicago in the second half. Rajon Rondo added 12 points, nine assists and 10 rebounds, and Chicago picked up the win after dropping three in a row and six of nine.

The Spurs hadn't dropped a regular-season road game since Denver beat them on April 8 (see full recap).

Scoreboard malfunction, quiet crowd don’t stop Wizards’ rally
WASHINGTON -- Overcoming a sluggish start in front of a sparse, silent crowd and with a malfunctioning scoreboard, the Washington Wizards came back to beat the Nuggets 92-85 on Thursday night, thanks mainly to Bradley Beal's 26 points and Denver's season-high 29 turnovers.

John Wall scored only 15 points one game after a career-best 52, but nine came in the fourth quarter for Washington, which trailed by as many as 14 in the first half.

With starting point guard Emmanuel Mudiay inactive because of what the team said was a sprained right ankle, the Nuggets went 5 1/2 minutes without a point in the fourth quarter.

In that final period, they had 10 of their turnovers and shot 1 for 14 on 3-pointers -- including 0 for 4 in one last-minute possession (see full recap).

Gasol, clutch free throws lift Grizzlies over
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Marc Gasol scored 36 points and Toney Douglas made two free throws with less than a second left to give the Memphis Grizzlies an 88-86 comeback victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night.

Douglas finished with 11 points, scoring the game's final six points to seal Memphis' fifth straight victory.

Gasol was 13 of 24 from the field, including 4 of 6 from outside the arc. But Douglas, signed by Memphis this week because of injuries, took over down the stretch. The guard scored on a 19-footer with 34 seconds left, then converted two pairs of free throws in the last 20 seconds.

CJ McCollum led the Trail Blazers with 24 points, and Damian Lillard had 19 on 6-of-18 shooting. Evan Turner had 15 points and 10 rebounds (see full recap).

Sixers beat Pelicans without Joel Embiid leading the way

uspresswire-sixers-ilyasova-rodriguez.jpg
USA Today Images

Sixers beat Pelicans without Joel Embiid leading the way

BOX SCORE

NEW ORLEANS -- Joel Embiid shot just 5 for 15 from the field and the Sixers … wait … the Sixers won. 

Surprising? Actually, that’s just how the Sixers envision finding success.

It’s not about Embiid having a relatively quiet night on offense with 14 points, especially going 0 for 5 from three. It’s about other players getting involved and taking the burden off the rookie. Embiid has proved he can do a lot of things, but carrying a team each night in his first season isn’t what the Sixers have in mind. 

“I think that’s when we’re at our best,” Nik Stauskas said after the Sixers beat the Pelicans 99-88 (see Instant Replay). “Obviously there are a few guys in the NBA like a LeBron (James), KD (Kevin Durant) or Steph (Curry) that can single-handedly win a game throughout the entire season. But most of the teams are going to rely on bench players to step up and make shots and make plays. I think that’s when we’re most effective.”

Embiid entered Thursday night averaging 24.3 points and shooting 48.9 percent in Sixers wins (three games played). His 14 points against the Pelicans were his fewest in a victory this season. He also grabbed seven boards with four blocks and three steals. Embiid was a game-high plus-27, which Brett Brown called "massive."

Instead of being powered offensively by their centerpiece, the Sixers received solid efforts from the starters and reserves. Ersan Ilyasova scored 23 points (along with eight rebounds) for the second straight game. Sergio Rodriguez chipped in 16 points and eight assists. Off the bench,  Stauskas hit three treys en route to 14 points while Dario Saric scored 10 points with five rebounds as the team snapped an overall eight-game losing skid and a 23-game road losing streak. 

Embiid’s teammates attribute their success to the fact he is such a focal point of the opponents’ defense. In comparison to the beginning of the season when Embiid was getting stifled by double-teams, he has been learning how to pass out of them. Embiid expects to see two defenders every game and has been making adjustments to create opportunities for others to shoot rather than committing turnovers. 

“We’re not standing around a lot and just focusing on what Jo can do,” Robert Covington said. “Jo is making great moves to find guys that are open. He’s willing to pass. We’re starting to build the chemistry that everyone’s been looking for.”

Ilyasova has noticed a change in the flow of the offense and has capitalized on defensive mismatches when opponents swarm Embiid. 

“We just share the ball well,” Ilyasova said. “I find myself open. Obviously Joel does a great job of as far as when there is a double-team, just kicking out. When I see the open look, I try to knock that shot down.” 

This style of play is mutually beneficial for both Embiid and his teammates. Just because Embiid is passing out doesn't mean he's not getting his looks. Oftentimes, dishing out of a double-team allows him to get a better look on the next touch. 

“It’s a team effort," Covington said. "We’re doing so much as a unit that we’re not just focusing on just get Jo the ball and let him do his thing. He’s getting the ball, he’s surveying the floor and then he’s making his moves. He’s reading the defense really well. He’s doing a lot of [kicking out]. Then we find him a lot of re-posts and finding the open shot and making it easy for him to find the easy bucket.” 

Embiid is capable of scoring 20-plus in spite of his 28-minute restriction. The Sixers are making strides, though, by finding ways to win when he isn’t the running up the scoreboard. 

“I think there’s no doubt Jo is our best player and our offense is going to revolve around him most of the time,” Stauskas said. “But we’re playing our best when he’s posting up and kicking out to guys and they’re hitting threes or we’re taking pressure off him by making plays and the defense can’t just be solely focused on him. In a game like tonight, that’s kind of what you saw.”