The Miami Heat were a different team in their 113-103 Game 2 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. They shook off the 74-43 trouncing they suffered in the second half of Game 1 and emerged with a stellar defensive effort to tie the series.
Before diving into their adjustments, it's important to note that there were two big factors helping the Heat's defense: the Sixers shouldn't shoot so poorly from 3 again (a mere 7-of-36 from deep) and Joel Embiid was still sidelined. Both those things could easily change in Game 3.
As Sean Kennedy broke down so well in his piece on Philly’s Game 2 shooting regression, they shot just 2-of-9 on wide open 3s (six-plus feet of space) and 4-of-16 on open 3s (four-plus feet of space). In other words, the Sixers still found some good looks. This team clearly has more offensive firepower than the Heat and Hassan Whiteside’s weakness guarding the perimeter can still be exploited with bigs like Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova. Sometimes the shots just don’t fall.
However, the adjustments Erik Spoelstra made and the intensity level of the team can't be ignored. Because even with Embiid back and more consistent shooting (the Sixers also came back strong in the second half after a slow start), the Heat showed how much of a nuisance their defense can be at its best.
One of the simple changes the Heat made was using plenty of full-court pressure. They tried to rattle the Sixers as much as possible, and bringing the ball up court was more of a challenge at times when they harassed Ben Simmons. If they can force the ball out of his hands and make others initiate possessions or generally do more with the ball, it’s a win for their defense.
Here, we saw what Justise Winslow is capable of. After Simmons completely had his way in all areas in Game 1, he was met with more aggression on the ball in Game 2. Rather than sagging off all the time — as the Heat still did in Game 2 — mixing in spells of physical pressure on the ball kept Simmons on his toes. Winslow picked up Simmons right off the inbound and bodied into him the second he passed the logo, keeping a low, strong stance and moving his hands to attack the ball. After contesting a drive well, Winslow ended the play by drawing an offensive foul:
The Sixers lost the second quarter 34-13 thanks to scoring two points through the first 6 minutes and 21 seconds of the period. Soon after the stop above we saw the Heat throw a double team at Simmons on back-to-back inbound attempts, trapping him at the sideline with all the wing length and physicality they could muster with Winslow and Johnson:
On the second inbound Johnson smothered Simmons as Winslow waited nearby, ready to trap if he got the ball. Once Marco Belinelli was forced to take the pass through a bunch of contact, the Heat pounced and forced a turnover.
Simmons still dropped 24 points, nine rebounds and eight assists with 10-of-17 shooting in Game 2, so it’s not like he was exactly overwhelmed by playoff defense. He put together another impressive performance and still helped lead the team to a near win after the Sixers drew within two points in the final four minutes of the game. There were also times when defenders like Winslow pressed a little too closely and Simmons was able to drive past into the lane. But the aggressive defense Simmons faced made him work harder and slowed the pace.
(I couldn’t bring up Miami’s full-court press without throwing in this beautiful 94-foot Dario Saric dime to Simmons, which beat it in such pretty fashion. Robert Covington set a quick screen on Johnson, Simmons burst down court, and Saric dropped the ball into his hands perfectly for a dunk — not a single dribble was needed):
In Game 1, a key to the Sixers’ success was their off-ball movement. Some of Brett Brown’s creative sets and the off-ball screening of shooters like J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli threw Miami all over the place, freeing up Saric and Ilyasova for more shots in the process. In Game 2, though, Miami had a much better grip on shooters to throw them out of rhythm, which deserves credit despite some of the open misses.
Josh Richardson had himself a game. He’s earned a spot on an All-Defensive Team this season and he showed why in Game 2. With three blocks and plenty of hounding possessions on the Sixers’ guards, showing more energy and awareness off the ball, he was a headache to deal with. This sequence on Redick was a perfect example, as Richardson prevented Redick’s attempt to drive, forced him to pick up his dribble and go into a dribble hand-off with Amir Johnson, before nipping right past Johnson’s screen to fly at Redick’s shot for a rejection:
When guys can’t come off screens cleanly, make clear cuts, or execute their sets without being pestered and bodied up, it makes life tougher. Last year in the playoffs, the Utah Jazz found similar success with Redick by covering him closely at all times with more size in the form of Joe Ingles. It was clear Richardson and the Heat wanted to work hard to mess things up — not just Redick’s jumper itself, but his non-stop, darting runs around the court.
We saw more of that later in the game with this shot clock violation in the fourth quarter:
Miami fill the paint to give Simmons nowhere to go while covering up Redick and Belinelli outside. As Johnson switches onto Belinelli and forces him to stumble into the lane, you can see Richardson shifting into action on Redick right away to cut off any space and prevent a pass, anticipating that the Sixers would look for him to bail them out.
Credit needs to go to Spoelstra for making adjustments and to his players for executing. There was clear intent and effort to cause more disruption in Game 2, from the team defense on shooters and full-court pressure, to some of the trapping and varied, hyper aggressive defense on Simmons.
The Heat were always going to be a challenge, with their well-coached system and smart, versatile play. Yet there are plenty of reasons for the Sixers’ confidence to stay strong, holding firm with the kind of two-way play and ahead-of-their-years assertiveness that won them Game 1.
They won’t miss 80.6 percent of their 3s again, Dwyane Wade isn’t dropping 28 points on 11-of-16 shooting every night, and James Johnson won’t keep scoring 18 of his own on 100 percent shooting either. A lot went the Heat’s way to make the most of their strong defensive performance and the Sixers still had a win within arm’s reach in the dying minutes.
Heading into Game 3, it’s time for them adjust to the raised intensity, keep the ball (and players) moving, settle back into more characteristic shooting, and take a 2-1 lead on the road. They still have the edge in talent, offensive firepower and size to do just that.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.