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Sixers-Heat recap: Miami’s zone defense baffles Sixers until it’s too late

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Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Tonight, in Jimmy Butler’s second return to the Wells Fargo Center this season the result was much different than his first. Back on November 23rd, the Sixer faithful rained down a chorus of boos on Butler as the Sixers blitzed the Heat, who were on their second leg of a back-to-back. Philadelphia won 113-86. This time, however, both teams came in fresh. The Sixers had a full lineup. Al Horford returned, following a two game absence, due to left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness. And Joel Embiid returned following a one game absence with an illness.

The Heat were a bit short handed. They were missing Goran Dragic, who was out with a sore groin and Justice Winslow (back) was out as well. Dion Waiters is suspended and James Johnson, who has had a miserable season, was out for personal reasons. The absences looked like they might stymie the Heat after the first quarter. The Sixers defense did it’s usual stellar job and held the Heat to just 19 after the first quarter and led by ten. It was a dominant first period for a team who was undefeated at home at the time.

But then Miami’s two-time championship winning coach, Erik Spoelstra, made some key adjustments that changed the game for good. In the second quarter, the Heat employed a zone that threw the Sixers for a complete loop. And they apparently found some cracks in the Philadelphia defense and began to throttle the Sixers on both ends for an extended period. By the half the road team led 56-48. They outscored the Sixers 37 to 19 in the second period, utterly reversing the game’s momentum. About halfway through the second period the Sixers looked like they had no chance to stop Miami who ran them off the floor.

By the half the home crowd was restless. The third quarter was a push, as the Sixers tried to ratchet up the intensity, but the Heat matched them blow for blow, preserving an 8 point lead heading into the 4th.

Things got a lot worse before they got any better. At one point the Heat, using this vicious zone that limited Joel Embiid’s field goal attempts and forced the Sixers into lots of awkward looking attempts they didn’t seem used to taking, built their lead up to 16 points! When it was 99-83 with around 7 minutes remaining it felt all but over. But the home team tapped into some pride, and fed off of the crowd and their defensive energy and made a run.

They chiseled into the Heat lead and had it down to just 3 with just under 48 seconds remaining in the 4th period. It finally looked like they figured out how to get some good looks vs. the college-style defense and finally figured out how to get some stops. But the player who was the Sixers’ closer just a few months ago, drew a crucial foul on Embiid and went to the line to put Miami up 5 with less than 34 seconds to go.

Tobias Harris drilled a corner triple to extend the game and when Kendrick Nunn missed a couple huge free throws it gave Philly life. Ben Simmons grabbed the board and raced up the floor, drew in the defense, and kicked it out to Al Horford who got a pretty good look at a spot up triple but it didn’t fall. ESPN broadcaster, Jeff Van Gundy credited Spoelstra for surprising the Sixers and leaving their zone for a man offense. He thought that if the Sixers detected the change they might have gotten a look inside to Embiid.

But that was all she wrote and Butler and the Heat got some revenge against the Texas natives former team.

Kendrick Nunn led the way for Miami. He was red hot in the first few periods finding almost every seam in the Sixers defense for good looks. Bam Adebayo is a monster, and on his way to the All-Star team. He had 23 points, 9 boards, five assists, two steals and two blocks. His activity in the zone made life unbearable on the Sixers. He’s been so impressive this year.

Jimmy Butler had a quiet game other than his clutch free throws. He finished with 14 points, 5 assists and 7 rebounds, but his role as the leader of the Heat has them very much in contention to out seed Philadelphia this regular season; something very few people would have seen coming. If it so happens that the Sixers had to visit Miami come playoff time, it could be a tough matchup for Philly.

As for the Sixers, Embiid led the way offensively. He had 22 points and 19 rebounds, but was just 1-5 from downtown. He found a bit of a rhythm late but it took him a long time to get going and he had another crippling late game turnover in crunch time when the team was making a big push. Tobias Harris had 20 points and was 2-6 from downtown. Ben Simmons had 17 points, 6 rebounds and six assists, with a block and a pair of swipes. Philadelphia’s bench really struggled to help them much in this one. Matisse Thybulle was terrific in limited minutes in the first half but for some reason Brett Brown didn’t go back to him much in the second half. He was a -14 +-, that may have something to do with it. The team as a whole shot under 31% from downtown. Typically teams fear playing zone against an NBA team because you can give up so many open 3s but the Sixers couldn’t really get many great looks and missed lots of both the open and contested ones they did take. The gambit paid off for Miami tonight.

One thing that we can pretty much bank on at this point in the season: the Sixers are going to have cold stretches shooting the ball, whether they face man or zone. And they’re going to have some turnover issues. Turnovers weren’t the biggest issue this evening. They had 13, which is 3 less than their average. But they did have some important ones late in the contest. If they battled cold shooting and turnovers they wouldn’t have gotten back into this one.

If you want some silver linings, the team probably isn’t entirely healthy. Horford may still be fighting off a little rust or soreness from his injuries. Embiid may still be getting over his illness. Josh Richardson shot just 6-17 from the field, he may not have found his rhythm after missing time with a hamstring issue. The team really hasn’t had many games where their starting five was all available. They got some important minutes this evening and faced some adversity against a good team with a creative attack and can now practice adjusting to zone.

They’ll look to rebound on Friday when they host the Luka Dončić-less Mavs, as the MVP candidate is nursing an ankle injury.