The Heat Is On: Sixers Play Game One in Miami

The Heat Is On: Sixers Play Game One in Miami

No matter where you look, you're not going to find the Sixers getting much love from the playoff predictors. Everywhere in the NBA community, it's Heat in Five, Heat in Four, Heat in Two and the Sixers are going to be so demoralized that they forfeit the series, or wait a minute, you mean the Heat don't just have a first round bye? Nobody, and I mean nobody, is predicting the Sixers to pull off the upset. And can you blame them? A team that overachieved to get to 41-41, against a team that could potentially be a dynasty in the making? Which they went 0-3 against in the regular season, and seem overmatched against in just about every comaprison?

No, it's not some weird national prejudice that has the Heat as unequivocal favorites in this series, and I'm not going to be the first person to tell you that the odds should say otherwise. Without an injury, a deus ex machina, or a couple blind strokes of dumb f'ing luck, it's going to be hard bordering on impossible for the Sixers to win this series. But does that mean we shouldn't be watching anyway? Of course not. Here's a couple things to look out for in this series, that could be of interest even if the team doesn't end up winning.

  • Can they win one of the first two games in Miami? Students of recent Sixers history will of course note that they've had pretty good luck with game ones, winning in both Detroit in '08 and Orlando in '09 in series that they were similar underdogs (though maybe not quite to the degree that they are here). And Miami has a disadvantage that neither of those teams had—complete nationwide scorn, which could see the media take up the Sixers as a grassroots movement of sorts if it loos like they even have a chance to hang with the Heat. It could make us a fun story for a while, have people feeling good about the team even if they eventually bow out for the series.
  • Can the team's bench give them any sort of advantage? As was pointed out on a recent Bill Simmons podcast, the advantage that the Sixers should have with their bench—one of the best in the NBA, as opposed to the Heat's, which is undoubtedly one of the weakest—is minimized by the fact that the Heat can play their big three nearly 48 minutes a game in the playoffs, and not necessitate the drop-off. Still, they're gonna have to dip into their stocks of Joel Anthonys and Eddie Houses for at least a little while, and if Thad and Lou can come in at that point and burst out in the one-or-two-man 8-0 runs that they're certainly capable of, it could keep us competitive in a number of games that would otherwise get ugly real quick.
  • Can Jrue and Evan give us hope for the future? Neither of the team's two young pups have seen anything like playoff basketball before, and the experience here could be absolutely invaluable for the pair moving forward. Can the two step up, show maturity beyond their years, and whet the fans' appetites for what could be a number of playoff appearances to come for the two as Liberty Ballers? Remember, Evan had his best game of the season's first two months in the home opener against Miami, and Jrue ended the season on something of a tear, posting double digits in scoring in each of his last 12 games. Not only would strong performances from the the two help the team immeasurably in the series, it would show progress towards the future for the Sixers that would certainly NOT be gleaned by giving Andres Nocioni 20 minutes a game. (You listening, Dougie?)
  • Can anyone on this team make a big shot late in the game? For all his late-game failures in the two seasons since, Andre Iguodala did hit some absolutely enormous shots in the first-round series against Orlando in '09. Expecting a repeat performance might not be realistic, but if someone on this damn team could show a willingness to step up in such situations—even just Jodie Meeks hitting a dagger three with a minute and a half to go—it would certainly go a long way against a team in the Heat that showed almost as impressive a knack for late-game choke jobs as the Sixers did over the course of the season. Donyell Marshall is not working through that door, kids, and for the last time, using Jason Kapono as a floor-spacer and potential big-shot-maker in crunch time is absolutely, 100% not an option.
  • Can this team try to actually win this series? Look, it's not impossible. It's pretty close—this isn't hockey or baseball, where once you get in, any team can win. If the Sixers were to pull it off, this would almost certainly be the biggest NBA post-season upset of the 21st century. But it wouldn't be the biggest seeding-wise—the 8th-seeded Warriors took down the top-seeded Mavs half a decade ago. And nobody expected the sub-.500 Hawks to be able to hang with the regular-season-best Celtics three years ago, and the Hawks ended up pushing them to seven games—as did the 7th-seeded Bulls a year later. Would I bet on it happening? No. Would I believe it was likely to happen up until the final seconds ticked off the Sixers' fourth victory in the series? No. But it's not impossible. The Heat aren't world-beaters yet, and there have been stretches this season where the Sixers have played as well as anyone. A couple breaks early, and who knows? Philly could end up being the surprise story of the playoffs.

It's worth watching to see all this stuff. And anyway, as Michael Levin pointed out yesterday, even if the team gets swept, it's been way more fun to watch them this year than anyone could have predicted, and we should leave with a good feeling about the season regardless. The future, if not exceptionally bright for the team, is also not nearly as dim as was previously anticipated, and next season should be an interesting one regardless. So let's watch this series without expectation, and just hope that our boys can show the Heat, themselves and the world a little something, and see where it goes from there. Miracles happen every day in this world, you know.

3:30 tip from the American Airlines Arena. Let's get heroic.

In long-awaited NBA debut, Joel Embiid treats Sixers fans to a show

In long-awaited NBA debut, Joel Embiid treats Sixers fans to a show

The crowd erupted as Joel Embiid stepped to the free throw line. They chanted a phrase Embiid has been repeating for the past two years, a fitting welcome to his NBA debut.

“That was great,” Embiid said after the Sixers' 103-97 loss to the Thunder on Wednesday (see Instant Replay). “That’s my motto, 'Trust the process.'”

After two years of rehabbing foot injuries, Embiid has his first regular season game behind him. Embiid scored a team-high 20 points, shooting 6 for 16 from the field, 1 for 3 from long range and 7 for 8 from the line. He also recorded seven rebounds, two blocks, four turnovers and four fouls in over 22 minutes. 

“The beginning I was nervous, but once you make that first shot it just goes away,” he said. “The fans were so into the game that it was fun. I love having fun.”

Brett Brown enjoyed watching Embiid on the court as much as he liked being on it. Brown has seen the 7-foot-2 center grow and develop during his rehab. Finally, he was able to utilize his versatile skills in a real game setting.

“I can't say this loud enough,” Brown said. “For the city to be rewarded with a player that we all understand has unique gifts, special gifts, for him to go through all the things he has been through and play like he did on opening night, the city deserves it. Most importantly, he deserves it.”

Now that Embiid has been cleared to play, he would like to do so for longer periods of time. He began the preseason at 12 and was increased to 20 in segmented spurts for opening night. Even though he exceeded that limit by over two minutes, Embiid is itching to be cleared to play more extensively. 

“It sucks,” Embiid said. “I feel like I could have played more but you know you’ve got to trust the process, got to trust those guys. If I have my minute restriction at 20 minutes, I guess I’m going to go with that. But obviously I want to play more and more and I think it can help the team better. But they have a plan for me and I’ve got to follow it.”

Embiid has maintained he wants to be a clutch player. Brown looked to him toward the end of the game as the Thunder pulled ahead late in the final quarter. He drained a fade away jumper to tie the game at 97 apiece with 50.7 to go. 

Later trailing by four with 10 seconds left, the Sixers went to Embiid. While he was whistled for an offensive foul, Brown was glad to have a go-to unlike in years past. 

“You have a target,” Brown said. “We tried to get the ball to him a lot. … By and large, to have somebody like Joel, where the mystery is solved like, 'What do you do?' You get him the ball as much as you can.”

The more the Sixers found Embiid, the more the Thunder had to try to defend him. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan knew what his team was going up against. He watched Embiid as a high schooler and coached against him during his tenure at Florida. 

“He’s gifted and skilled,” Donovan said. “It was probably our guy’s first time seeing him … I knew the talent, the gifts. The one thing with him is, he’s got great footwork. He’s hard to guard because he’s herky-jerky. He moves. He’s got a lot of (Hakeem) Olajuawon to him.”

Opening night had been two years in the making. Even though the Sixers didn't win, the significance of the evening didn't disappoint. 

"I thought this moment was going to be special," Embiid said, "and it was just great."

Best of NBA: Davis' 50 points not enough in Pelicans' loss to Nuggets

Best of NBA: Davis' 50 points not enough in Pelicans' loss to Nuggets

NEW ORLEANS -- Jusuf Nurkic scored 23 points, Will Barton added 22, and the Denver Nuggets survived a dominant performance by Anthony Davis to defeat the New Orleans Pelicans 107-102 in both teams' regular season opener Wednesday night.

Davis had 50 points, 16 rebounds, seven steals, five assists and four blocks. His production helped New Orleans trim a deficit as large as 14 late in the second quarter down to two points in the waning minutes. He simply didn't have enough help.

The rest of the Pelicans combined to shoot 21 of 58. Tim Frazier scored 15 for the Pelicans. E'Twaun Moore added 10 points, but missed a 3-point attempt that could have tied it with 24 seconds left.

Danilo Gallinari scored 15 for Denver and Wilson Chandler added 12 points (see full recap).

Celtics top Nets in Horford's home debut
BOSTON -- Isaiah Thomas had 25 points and nine assists, Jae Crowder added 21 points and Al Horford pitched in 11 in his Boston debut on Wednesday night as the Celtics survived a late scare to beat the Brooklyn Nets 122-117 in their season opener.

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 21 for Brooklyn, including a 3-pointer to make it 120-117 with 47 seconds left after the Nets erased most of a 23-point deficit against the Boston bench. But he missed one with a chance to tie it after Joe Harris intercepted Thomas' cross-court pass, and the Celtics were able to hold on.

Justin Hamilton came off the bench to score 19 points and grab 10 rebounds for the Nets in coach Kenny Atkinson's debut (see full recap).

Turner's opening act leads Pacers past Mavs in OT
INDIANAPOLIS -- Myles Turner scored 30 points, tied his career high with 16 rebounds and made a 3-pointer with 1:18 left in overtime to start an 8-0 run that allowed the Indiana Pacers to close out a 130-121 victory Wednesday night over the Dallas Mavericks.

Three-time All-Star Paul George added 25 points, including another 3 with 55 seconds left to seal Indiana's fifth season-opening win in six years.

Deron Williams scored 25 points, while J.J. Barea and Dirk Nowitzki each added 22 as the Mavs lost their fifth straight in the series. They still haven't won in Indianapolis since February 2014.

Dallas didn't tie the score or take a lead until the fourth quarter, yet still forced overtime when Harrison Barnes' open 3-pointer made it 115-all with 2.3 seconds left.

Turner could have won it with a long buzzer-beating 3, but it bounced off the back of the rim (see full recap).