Joel Embiid led the NBA in scoring this season. Only Luka Doncic commanded a higher share of his team’s offensive possessions. And only Nikola Jokic averaged more frontcourt touches per game.
Embiid also contested and blocked more shots than any other member of the Sixers, who allowed 4.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was patrolling the paint. With him on the court, the 76ers performed like a top-five defense; without him, they couldn’t get stops at even a league-average clip.
There’s no ready-made Plan B when a player that central to your team on both ends of the court gets his face broken just before the start of a playoff series. There’s no comfortable pivot, no easy answer to the existential question of, “Shit, what now?” Yes, the Sixers would need more out of James Harden, and yes, Tyrese Maxey would need to take another leap in a season full of them, but against an opponent as tough as the no. 1–seeded Heat, even that might not be enough; when your organizing principle and saving grace is suddenly unavailable, the search for salvation can lead you to unexpected places.
“You have to really be open,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers told reporters before Game 1 against Miami on Monday. “These are those games where you have to be free enough and fearless enough to try a lot of different things that you probably wouldn’t try [usually], but you may fall on something.”
The cynical among us paid little mind to the notion that a coach as doctrinaire as Rivers would be emboldened by the loss of his MVP candidate to start letting his freak flag fly. Sure enough, there was 33-year-old battleship DeAndre Jordan in the starting lineup, giving the Heat a pick-and-roll target to exploit as they raced out to an early double-digit lead. But then, with Philly quickly down 14, there it was: Doc falling on something.
With Jordan and fellow veteran Paul Millsap largely ineffective in their attempts to fill the yawning chasm left by Embiid’s absence, Rivers shook things up. He dialed up a zone—which the Sixers used for fewer than two possessions per game during the regular season, according to Second Spectrum, but which they used a ton (and to great effect) in Round 1 against the Raptors. It helped throw off the Heat’s offensive rhythm by making it tougher on Miami to get the paint touches on which it thrives. Rivers turned to bouncy sophomore Paul Reed at the 5, hoping that the 6-foot-9 chaos agent could inject some energy, athleticism, and unpredictability into an attack that hadn’t shown much juice without Embiid; he also plugged in Georges Niang, aiming to flank Harden and Maxey with as much shooting as possible to unclog the driving and passing lanes that Miami’s active defense had bottled up.
It worked. The zone completely short-circuited Miami’s movement, leading to a spate of off-kilter jumpers and unsightly turnovers. And the shift toward BBall Paul—featuring a handful of lineups that had either rarely or never played together during the regular season—plus more screens set higher in the half court helped give Philly’s creators both room to breathe and chances to attack isolated defenders in space.
The result: a total reversal in the run of play, with Philly outscoring Miami 38-25 over a 16-and-a-half-minute span—a period during which Jordan played all of 10 seconds—to head into halftime with both a 51-50 lead and, maybe just as importantly, a path to competing until Embiid comes back. Play small; protect the paint by mixing in some zone; play four-out (or, with Niang at center, five-out) and, especially when Miami goes small with P.J. Tucker at center, give Harden, Maxey, and Tobias Harris the runway to attack the matchups they like.
There’s a difference, though, between finding a path and being able to take it all the way to your destination. Miami decimated Philly in the second half, completely shutting off the Sixers’ water to the tune of just 26 points between intermission and the 4:40 mark of the fourth quarter, when Rivers pulled his starters and conceded—perhaps pointedly—before the reserves put the finishing touches on a 106-92 Heat win. All that good stuff from the first half? It pretty much all disappeared after halftime.
Rivers went back to Jordan to start the second half, a move he said after the game came at the behest of “our key guys.” That decision alone didn’t doom the Sixers, but the Heat looked their most comfortable when attacking the 14-year vet in the pick-and-roll, feasting virtually every time they could force him to defend in space:
The Heat went at Jordan 13 times in the pick-and-roll in Game 1, according to Second Spectrum; they scored 1.62 points per possession on those plays. The best offense in the NBA during the regular season averaged just under 1.18 points per possession, so that is, um, not great.
Switching things up and turning to small ball and zone wasn’t so simple, though. That’s tough to do when your preferred center option keeps hacking—BBall Paul finished with five fouls in 13 minutes of play, and played just four minutes after halftime—and getting pounded on the boards.
Miami absolutely brutalized Philly on the glass, grabbing 15 of its missed shots—an obscene 39.6 percent offensive rebounding rate that would’ve led the league by a mile during the regular season—and turning those extra possessions into 18 second-chance points.
Watching your team fail to finish the play by giving up the glass is tantamount to torture for a traditionalist coach like Doc. Of course he’s going to think, “We need a big body in there,” and respond by reinserting the biggest one he’s got available—even if Philly grabbed a lower share of available defensive rebounds with Jordan on the court in Game 1 than when he was off of it—which opens up the door for the Heat to go right back to attacking Jordan in the pick-and-roll.
Maybe the bigger issue facing Philly if Doc sticks with DeAndre—if there is a bigger issue than giving up 159.4 points-per-100—is how much tougher it becomes to generate clean looks with a non-shooting big man clogging the paint. His presence—as a screener, in the dunker spot, maneuvering around the half court in ways the Heat don’t really have to guard—makes it easier for Miami’s defenders to load up on Harden’s drives as they did with Trae Young’s in the first round. That leads to even tougher conditions for the not-quite-as-bursty-as-he-used-to-be Harden to get all the way to the cup, which means more passes out to the shooters that Miami would rather see deciding the game:
The Sixers scored just 27 points in 15 minutes with Harden and Jordan sharing the court Monday, with more turnovers (seven) than assists (six), and a 1-for-8 mark from 3-point land, in keeping with Philly’s disastrous 6-for-34 outing from distance overall. That continues a regular-season trend that saw Philly’s offense sputter at league-worst levels of offensive efficiency when Jordan played the 5 with Harden, with Harden’s shooting percentages plummeting and his turnover rate soaring. That won’t get it done against a Heat defense that ranked fourth in points allowed per possession during the regular season, and that sits second in defensive efficiency thus far in the postseason, behind only the defending champion Bucks.
The hope, if you’re a Sixers fan, is that Philly can find a way to combine the successful parts of the first half of Game 1—the disruption of the zone, the better spacing and activity in the small-ball units—with more success hunting Miami’s weaker defenders (hello, Tyler Herro) and better shooting games from pretty much everybody besides Harris, who led the way with 27 points on 11-for-18 shooting.
“It’s doable. It’s not totally out of reach,” Maxey, who finished with 19 points on 6-for-15 shooting, told reporters after the game. “You saw it in the first half. We were up one going into halftime.”
With that hope, though, comes fear. That this version of Harden—without easy targets to prey on in the half court, with Miami’s help defenders shrinking the floor for him, and with the likes of Tucker, Caleb Martin, and Victor Oladipo getting into his legs by hounding him the length of the court—might not be able to give you much more than the 16-9-5 he did in Game 1. That there’s no second-unit difference-maker who can give Philadelphia the kind of boost that Herro (25 points and seven assists in 29 minutes) provides whenever he checks in, and that Miami’s got answers to keep the Sixth Man of the Year front-runner from getting hunted on defense. That, while there’s no good answer in the middle until Embiid can come back, the Sixers will continue to trot out the least effective one, because a coach presented with a bad suite of options will always go with the one that makes him feel most comfortable.
“We don’t need Paul in foul trouble, and that’s why you don’t want to start him,” Rivers said after the game. “We like DJ. We’re gonna keep starting him, whether you like it or not. That’s what we’re gonna do, because our guys believe in him.”
At this point, though, belief in Jordan—once among the best of his style of centers in the game, but now a 33-year-old whose lateral quickness and overall utility are in steep decline—is really more akin to faith: the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. If he can’t give the Philly faithful a reason to believe, if the alternatives can’t stop fouling and bricking shots, and if Harden can’t raise his game enough to elevate his bigs like he used to, the Sixers will have an awfully hard time staying afloat against the tough, talented, and deep Heat long enough for the prospective return of their MVP candidate to matter.