This one hurts a little something extra. It’s one thing to lose a game where you had a two point lead and the ball with ten seconds to go. It’s another when it’s the star player who served as your closer just seven months ago who makes the steal which ultimately leads to your overtime loss. This game was truly a wild one. The first time the teams met the Sixers destroyed Miami. The next time, the Heat perplexed and stymied Philly with zone defense. The road team had won both so far. This was the rubber match.
I’m not sure where to begin. Let’s start with the beginning of the 4th quarter.
Heading into the final period, the Heat led 85-79. It wasn’t a very big lead, but when the team with the second best record in the NBA and the best home court advantage in the league has a six point edge at home with 12 minutes remaining, it’s hard to feel good about your chances. Especially when your team suffered a heart-breaker the night before and is playing its second of a back-to-back at less than full health (Tobias Harris was reportedly battling a sore hip coming into this one). And about halfway through the final period, Philadelphia had not made up much ground. They trailed 96-90 with 6:17 to play following Goran Dragic’s triple.
Brett Brown turned to an unlikely spark plug in Trey Burke who played some important minutes down the stretch. With Burke in the lineup, the Sixers went on a 13-2 run and took a five point lead. Burke finished with 11 points and four assists in just 22 minutes. Here’s what coach Brown said about that decision:
Brett Brown on going with Burke over Horford: “We needed to get a little bit smaller, a little bit quicker and into the teeth of their zone.”— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) December 29, 2019
On the loss: “It is a different type of feeling than last night’s loss. They are both unpleasant, but for a different reason.” pic.twitter.com/vOiGm493i8
But Jimmy Butler, came right back and laid it up and in despite Ben Simmons’ silly (and soft) foul. But Embiid had Simmons’ back and on the next possession he used the side-step that Jimmy Butler used to use to drill game winners in a Sixers uniform and hit a three in Butler’s grill:
Joel Embiid can do everything... pic.twitter.com/Jc9WQ4DDb5— Potato Latke Lyons (@TheLyons_Den) December 29, 2019
This was an “are you kidding me” shot with the shot clock expiring and it’s a crying shame it’s now rendered a side note in a heartbreaking loss. It’s also a crying shame they wasted such an amazing performance from Embiid, in his second of a back-to-back no less. He finished with a monstrous line: 35 points and 11 boards and was 11-12 from the line and 11-16 from the field. He clearly saved himself in Orlando last night for this one. Anyway, that shot gave the Sixers a five point lead with 1:14 remaining. Things were looking very good here. But that would quickly change.
Bam Adebayo who had a quiet game with just 11 points and 3 boards flushed home a jam and on the other end Tobias Harris bricked a jumper. It was a brutal night for Harris who may have been struggling in part due to his sore hip and perhaps some fatigue from playing last night in Orlando. He finished just 4 of 15 from the field, 0-4 from three, and zero assists. He’d miss an open look at the game winner, more on that later.
On the next possession Butler got an extremely friendly whistle when it looked liked Embiid may have contorted his torso and avoided contact and blocked his shot. Butler split the pair and Philadelphia was up 2 with 25 seconds to go. That’s when disaster struck. Harris missed an open dunk but Simmons saved the day with a crucial offensive rebound. Simmons wound up with 15 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds. His offensive rebounding was especially important late. But rather than fouling right away the Heat sent a three player trap at Embiid who pivoted waiting to be hacked. Instead, the former Sixers’ star Butler picked his pocket and the rookie gun slinger Tyler Herro buried a go-ahead triple. The full painful sequence here:
On the ensuing possession Butler stole the ball from Embiid yet again. Butler’s defense late in this one was really vital to their win. His back to back thefts in the final minute changed everything. But there was plenty of drama left to happen.
Butler gets fouled and again splits the pair, leaving critical points on the board and giving Philly life. Well just like last night, the Sixers found themselves without any remaining timeouts and down by one needing to go the length of the floor in a matter of seconds. But this time, Dragic bailed them out and accidentally fouled Josh Richardson. Coach Erik Spoelstra challenged it but lost. Josh was heading to the line in one of the highest pressure moments of his Sixers career, in his former team’s building. He quickly bricked the first one. Welp. Now he had to miss on purpose to keep hope alive. That type of play almost never works. Josh lofts up a lollipop that hits 99.9 percent backboard and 0.1 percent rim and Simmons makes a freakishly athletic rim dive first stepping to his left then hopping to his right to tie the game up with 0.6 remaining. The officials missed the call at first but reviewed it and figured it out. Embiid broke up the lob attempt on the ensuing possession for Miami and we were heading to overtime.
It was pretty clear at this point that this was either going to be the most fun or the least fun game of the Sixers’ season.
In OT Simmons throws a gorgeous lob to Embiid who finished and that gave the Sixers the lead. They got a stop but then Embiid who exhibited a bit of dazzling footwork got way too cute and instead of hoisting up an 8 footer tried to toss it off the backboard to himself for a dunk. There wasn’t nearly enough time on the shot clock for that stunt and it was another crucial turnover at the hands of the big fella.
Both teams traded hoops for a bit. The highlights for the Sixers were a pair of Richardson lobs to Simmons for jams to beat the Heat’s zone. Simmons playing in that much-maligned dunker’s spot worked well in a couple of big moments. Something to think about next time they face a zone....
But it all came down to the best closer for either team, Jimmy Butler. Miami quickly got the switch they wanted and that left Horford (who played miserably) on an island with Butler. Horford almost casually, carelessly, left his arm out and impacted Butler’s shot ever so softly. Horford was a staggeringly bad -25 for the contest for seven points and looked lost or washed up at different times.
I’m beginning to wonder if he needs to take an extended break through the All-Star game to hit the reset button. He’s either hurt, or cooked, or in a dreadful funk that somehow makes him stink at defense sometimes too. He probably should not have been out there since he had played so little down the stretch but coach Brown showed faith in his veteran ability plugging him in for the crucial stop. He responded with a rookie type of mistake.
Butler split his pair of free throws and the Sixers were down one with 2.3 seconds to go. He finished with 25 points, nine boards, and nine dimes and what wound up being the game winning free throw. Huge night for Jimmy Buckets vs. his former team.
Coach Brown drew up a gorgeous play and got Harris an open look at a corner three but he missed yet another open shot.
The Sixers need to learn from this one. They’ve been flirting with coughing up a lead at end of game situations with careless turnovers. Usually it’s just a minor complaint in a victory. But this time it finally bit them and cost them a ballgame. Philadelphia is now the 5th seed in the East, Miami is still a two-seed with a 2.5 game lead over the Sixers. The good news is that the team is off until Tuesday so if Harris is still sore he can take a couple of days to recover. The bad news is that their next two games are at Indiana and then at Houston. It wouldn’t be shocking to see them drop four in a row.