8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: 76ers -2, Over/Under: 207.5
It appears that we finally have a series on hand in this Eastern Conference Semifinal, as the resurgent Philadelphia 76ers have welcomed back their biggest gun in an attempt to draw even against the top-seeded Miami Heat, in this crucial Game Four from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Before we get into the biggest story of this series, we have to start off the Heat (53-29, 1st in Eastern Conference), who missed a golden opportunity to take a commanding 3-0 lead as the scene shifted to the City of Brotherly Love. Heading into Friday night’s affair, nobody would argue that Miami was indeed in firm control of the affair; after handling eliminating the Hawks with ease in the First Round, they continued to thrive in the first two games against the Sixers, averaging 112.5 points on a healthy 47.1% shooting from the field, including 35.4% from beyond the arc, while amassing 23.0 assists in comparison to committing just 12.5 turnovers, while relegating the visitors to a scant 97.5 points on 44.2% shooting, including a miserable 21.9% from downtown, with only 17.5 assists, and outrebounding them by a sizeable margin (+10.0). Furthermore, (Head Coach) Erik Spoelstra’s troops had outscored Philadelphia by a combined THIRTY points in Games One (106-92) and Two (119-103), with the vast majority of that margin coming from the perimeter where they held a 27-point advantage. Indeed, the Heat’s three-point shooting has long been a major component of their success, and once again proved to be decisive for them; in Game One, they may have only knocked down 9-of-36 triples (25.0%), but they nonetheless edged Philly by nine points in that regard, and in Game Two the disparity was even greater as the hosts drilled a scorching 14-of-29 attempts (48.3%), leading to an 18-point advantage. Of course, their defense has also played a crucial role in the matter, for Miami had done an excellent job of suffocating their opponent on the perimeter (14-of-64 3FG), while choking off their ball movement in permitting fewer than twenty assists in each matchup and limiting their opportunities in transition with twenty-five total fast break points. Granted, the primary reason for that domination was the absence of one very big man, who we assure you that we’ll cover ad nauseum in a moment. Simply put, Spoelstra’s charges took full advantage of the 76ers without the frontrunner for this season’s MVP award, and that all changed once the series pivoted to Wells Fargo Center where a certain All-NBA Center returned from injury. Needless to say, Game Three’s 99-79 defeat served as a complete 180 for both teams, as the Southwest Division Champions authored what was easily their most disappointing showing in the playoffs thus far. How bad was it, you ask? Well, the visitors had compiled a dreadful THIRTY-FOUR points in the first half and didn’t hit fifty until 5:18 mark in the third quarter, shooting a woeful 14-of-43 from the field (32.6%), including 2-of-16 from three (12.5%) in the first half, and missing half of their eight free-throws along the way. With that said, the Heat did manage to go on a 20-6 run midway through the third period to tie the contest at 51-51, but that would be as close as they would get, they ran out of gas in the final stanza where they were ousted 31-14. In the end, Miami shot just 35.1% overall and 7-of-30 from long-range (23.3%), while dishing out a meager fourteen assists and being battered on the glass (-10). (All-Star Swingman) Jimmy Butler (21.4 PTS, 48.0% FG, 23.3% 3FG, 87.0% FT, 5.9 REB, 5.7 AST, 1.6 STL, 0.5 BLK, 23.6 PER) was literally the ONLY member of the starting lineup to score in double-figures, totaling a game-high thirty-three points on 12-of-22 shooting (54.5%), and 8-of-10 from the charity stripe (80.0%), along with nine rebounds, and a pair of assists and steals apiece. The rest of the team could muster only forty-six points on 27.2% shooting. The only other member of Spoelstra’s rotation that managed to crack double-figures was (newly-minted Sixth Man of the Year) Tyler Herro (20.7 PTS, 44.7% FG, 39.9% 3FG, 86.8% FT, 5.0 REB, 4.0 AST, 0.7 STL, 16.2 PER), who after torching the Sixers for 21.5 points on 55.6% shooting and 63.6% from beyond the arc in the first two games, finished with fourteen points on 5-of-15 shooting (33.3%) and 2-of-7 from downtown (28.6%). Furthermore, the visitors really let things get away from them in transition, where they were outscored 19-6. Granted, they were edged 15-8 in that regard in the previous game, but their torrid shooting from the perimeter more than made up for it. So, what needs to change for the Heat moving forward, you ask? Well, now that Philly has returned to full strength (or at least as close as they realistically can at this point), Spoelstra & Co are going to have to adjust their defensive approach, for what worked so well in Games One and Two certainly didn’t apply to their successor. Apart from that, they simply must get more production out of the supporting cast, particularly a staring five that offered only TWENTY-TWO points on 7-of-27 shooting (25.9%), with as many turnovers (6) as assists. This includes (All-Star Forward) Bam Adebayo (19.1 PTS, 55.7% FG, 75.3% FT, 10.1 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.8 BLK, 21.8 PER), who amassed nine points on 2-of-9 shooting (22.2%), three rebounds, an assist, and a pair of steals while saddled with foul trouble throughout the affair. And then there is (veteran Point Guard) Kyle Lowry (13.4 PTS, 44.0% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 85.1% FT, 7.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 15.0 PER), who finally returned after missing the last four playoff games nursing a tender hamstring. One of a trio of veterans possessing recent championship experience that arrived on South Beach in Free Agency, the 36-year-old spent much of the campaign as the ideal complement to Butler in the backcourt, though his return from and injury did not go as anticipated for the Philadelphia native; Lowry went scoreless in over twenty-five minutes of action, racking up more fouls (4) than assists. One of the better two-way Guards for years now, the Heat need the vet to live up to his billing, otherwise Spoelstra will be forced to allot more minutes towards a revitalized Victor Oladipo (12.4 PTS, 47.9% FG, 41.7% 3FG, 73.7% FT, 2.9 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 16.8 PER), who after missing all but eight games this season rehabbing from knee surgery, has enjoyed his moments in these playoffs; the former All-Star erupted for twenty-three points in Miami’s closeout of the Hawks last week, while posting nineteen points in Game Two on Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, my, oh my, what a difference a single player can make, for after looking dead in the water through two games, the 76ers (51-31, 4th in Eastern Conference) appeared to be reborn in Friday night’s 99-79 thumping of the Heat. Of course, it’s no surprise that their fortunes changed once (MVP frontrunner) Joel Embiid (30.6 PTS, 49.9% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 81.4% FT, 11.7 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 1.5 BLK, 31.2 PER) was cleared to return to action, for virtually everything that this team does begins and ends with the towering Cameroon international. After carrying Philadelphia throughout a first half of the campaign that mired in the ongoing Ben Simmons saga and finishing the season as the first Center to lead the Association in scoring since Shaquille O’Neal did it way back in 2000, Embiid had thus endured a whirlwind postseason littered with highs and lows. He propelled the Sixers to a quick 3-0 lead over the Raptors in the First Round, hitting the game-winning three in overtime before suffering a broken bone in his right thumb, before eventually taking an elbow to the face late in the closeout Game Six, fracturing an orbital bone and causing a concussion to boot. Due to the effects of the latter, the five-time All-Star refrained from traveling to South Beach for Games One and Two, with the faithful in Philly hoping that he would be cleared in time to participate in Game Three. Thankfully, their prayers were answered; roughly an hour before Game Three, Embiid was cleared of concussion symptoms, and thus donned a protective mask in the spirit of a superhero (or villain if you prefer), inciting a resurgent effort from the hosts. Though they also struggled offensively throughout the first half, netting just 12-of-35 attempts from the field (34.3%), (Head Coach) Doc Rivers’ troops earned a 41-34 lead at intermission thanks to their three-point shooting (5-of-14) and their residence at the charity stripe (12-of-14), which were two areas where they clearly suffered in the previous two games without the big fella. Indeed, this is the Embiid Effect, folks; in Games One and Two, the 76ers shot a miserable 14-of-64 from beyond the arc (21.8%) and 37-of-42 from the free-throw line (88.0%) and were thus outscored by a combined THIRTY-TWO points in those two categories. In 2021-2022, no player in the league attempted (654) and made (803) more free-throws than Embiid, and in turn, no team made (1,605) more singles than the Sixers. Simply put, their ability to draw fouls and get easy points at the stripe is a MAJOR part of their success, and that is something that’s only become more evident after the blockbuster deal that landed them (2017-2018 MVP) James Harden (21.0 PTS, 40.2% FG, 32.6% 3FG, 89.2% FT, 7.1 REB, 10.5 AST, 1.2 STL 21.8 PER), who led the NBA in both free-throws made and attempted in six consecutive seasons from 2014-2015 to 2019-2020. Getting back to Friday night’s showdown in the City of Brotherly Love, Miami would strike back in the second half, putting together a 20-6 run in the third quarter to tie the affair at 51-51, but it would be the hosts who exhibited the necessary ruthlessness to win in the playoffs, running them off the hardwood at Wells Fargo with a 31-14 fourth quarter. Rivers’ charges dominated on both ends of the court in this period, shooting 11-of-16 from the field (68.8%) and 6-of-10 from downtown (60.0%), while relegating the visiting side to a miserable 3-of-15 shooting (20.0%) overall and 1-of-8 from three (12.5%), yielding a scant two assists along the way. (Emerging Guard) Tyrese Maxey (17.5 PTS, 48.5% FG, 42.7% 3FG, 86.6% FT, 3.2 REB, 4.3 AST, 0.7 STL, 16.2 PER) erupted for fourteen of his twenty-one points in the final frame of play, on a perfect 5-of-shooting (100.0%) and 4-of-4 from three (100.0%). In the end, Philadelphia shot 47.8% from the floor, including 16-of-33 from the perimeter (48.5%), marking the first time in this series that they bested their opponent on triples (+27). Again, it all comes back to Embiid’s presence; though he was far from his best and visibly hindered by the aforementioned mask, he still finished with eighteen points and eleven rebounds, while getting to the free-throw line ten times and netting eight attempts. This allows his side to control the tempo of the game, while keeping the Heat out of transition, which was certainly evident as they killed them on fastbreak points (+13). Furthermore, the Center draws a wealth of attention wherever he goes, which creates far more space for his teammates to operate, which led to their success from the perimeter, as (veteran swingman) Danny Green (5.9 PTS, 39.4% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 78.6% FT, 2.5 REB, 1.0 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.6 BLK, 9.5 PER) looked particularly rejuvenated with twenty-one points largely on shooting 7-of-9 from three (77.8%). Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how Embiid acclimates to wearing the mask, and if he can in fact remain healthy; Rivers drew a wealth of criticism for leaving the likely MVP in a game in which the outcome was clearly decided, particularly after he had already sustained a malady to his thumb. Furthermore, as Miami adjusts to his presence on the hardwood, the supporting cast MUST show up; Maxey and Green were integral to their success on Friday night, but at some point, you would have to imagine that the aforementioned Harden will make an impact. After struggling throughout the series with Toronto, the 10-time All-Star has continued to experience difficulties in this matchup, averaging just 17.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 6.7 assists, while shooting only 38.5% from the field and 4-of-19 from downtown (21.1%), with nearly as many turnovers (15) as assists (20). By now, the narrative has been fairly clear that the 32-year-old simply isn’t the prolific threat that he was when he won three consecutive scoring titles in Houston, with a noticeable lack of burst leaving him to settle for contested step-back three-pointers, while the Association’s shift in officiating players blatantly trying to draw fouls robbing him of one of his greatest advantages. Needless to say, this is setting up for a fascinating summer in the City of Brotherly Love, for after failing to trigger his gargantuan player option following his trade, the bearded one will essentially become an Unrestricted Free Agent, leaving the Sixers with a monumental decision to make in retaining the services of a declining star.