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Sixers return home in search of first win against Heat

Will Joel Embiid make his return? And is there anything else the Sixers can do differently to get their first win of the series in Game 3?

Philadelphia 76ers v Miami Heat - Game One Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Sixers have competed about as well as they can to start the second round without their MVP candidate, but they haven’t been able to keep up with the Heat through two games. Now, they’ll be looking for their first win in Philadelphia, as they return home on Friday down 2-0.

Of course, the biggest question mark heading into Game 3 is whether Joel Embiid plays. For the moment, he’s listed as out. He won’t be upgraded from “out” until he’s cleared concussion protocols. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Thursday that “there’s still progress that could be made to change his availability vs. Heat on Friday.”

(Editor’s update: Shams Charania has reported that Embiid has now cleared concussion protocol and is doing all he can to play. There is “optimism” he’ll play, and he’s been upgraded to doubtful.)

Ramona Shelburne discussed Embiid’s status, and said that a decision about whether he’ll play will likely come much closer to tip-off. Shelburne also mentioned that while Embiid will need a mask when he returns, he won’t need goggles this time, like the ones he hated wearing in the 2018 playoffs. At least the big fella can play with a bit more comfort when he’s able to return.

For the Heat, Kyle Lowry has been upgraded to questionable after missing the first two games with a hamstring strain.

We all know Embiid’s return, even only at his best masked-up self, would change everything. While the Heat are still an elite defensive team that can send sharp double teams, they don’t have a ton of size to throw at Embiid. The pressure on James Harden and others to create as much would immediately be lifted, restoring the Sixers with better staggering options again. Embiid’s rolling, post-ups and face-up play to provide an interior presence and added free throws would give the offense a dimension it’s been lacking. And with the attention Embiid commands inside, his passing out of double teams would lead to more open threes and maybe more makes after the Sixers’ ice-cold start to the series.

Embiid’s defensive presence, even if he’s not at 100 percent, is sorely missed as well. He’d reduce some of the Sixers’ rebounding woes (they allowed 15 offensive boards in Game 1 and eight on Wednesday), have the ability to handle Bam Adebayo, and generally anchor the paint in a way that no one else comes close to. The Sixers’ pick-and-roll defense has been burned too often as well — whether it’s a matter of defenders not getting over ball screens, or DeAndre Jordan offering no resistance at the rim or at the level of the screen. Embiid returning with the mobility to move higher against picks and utilize drop coverage at a high level would be huge. The Sixers would also be able to remove all of Jordan’s minutes (if Doc Rivers would trust Paul Reed as a slightly smaller backup option).

Jimmy Butler has made it clear he’s eager to face his choice for MVP.

So, apart from the hope for an Embiid return, what else could the Sixers use to get back in this series in Game 3?

Tobias Harris has been excellent throughout the playoffs and isn’t letting up against the Heat. He’s bringing his best defense and scoring efficiently, using decisive attacks off the dribble while effectively targeting favorable mismatches on drives and short jumpers. If he keeps this up, the Sixers always have a better chance to keep games close.

Tyrese Maxey only shot 6-of-15 in Game 1 and had a modest 11 points at half time in Game 2. To start the series he had some struggles against the Heat’s aggressive, switchy defense, and couldn’t always drive by opposing bigs off the dribble in pick-and-rolls like usual, given how incredibly agile Adebayo is. However, Maxey exploded in Wednesday’s second half. He scored 23 points on 7-of-11 shooting over the final two quarters, which kept the Sixers in the game far longer. He looked more comfortable getting to the rim and ran out effectively in transition to add a few easier scores, too. If Maxey’s found more comfort in how to be successful against Miami’s defense, that would give the Sixers a real boost on Friday.

Downsizing more often with Harris-Niang frontcourts can help space the floor and get the offense moving, too. If you can’t build a good enough defensive lineup anyway, why not at least embrace more pace, spread out Miami’s defense, and fire more threes to (hopefully) out gun the Heat if shots start falling?

Plus, Jordan is going to get torched whenever he’s guarding Miami’s pick-and-rolls. Giving Reed as many minutes as possible so he can stay mobile in the middle of a zone and move at the level of ball screens or switch is a far better option. Reed has his issues on the boards and handling someone as strong as Adebayo, but Reed is still a much better option than Jordan. The young big man also played 25 minutes in Game 2 and only committed two fouls, which is a step in the right direction for getting more time moving forward. Whether the Sixers use the Harris-Niang duo or Reed at center, going smaller is smarter.

James Harden was solid in Game 2, tallying 20 points and nine assists. But similarly to Game 1, Harden was quiet in the second half with four points and one made field goal (the exact same numbers as his Game 1 second half). Obviously the Sixers would benefit from a larger scoring output from Harden to help close games, but the Heat are throwing two or three defenders at him so often, with help defenders shifting towards the lane ready to take away his space to drive. This version of Harden can’t elevate to high-volume, No. 1 Scorer status against a defense this good without Embiid. Miami is taking away Harden’s room to create and forcing other players to beat them.

But the other problem from there is as simple as it gets in basketball: those players are missing too many shots.

The Sixers have generated good looks from three in the first two games, many of which have been created by Harden’s excellent passing against pressure. But the shots just aren’t falling.

Through two games, the Sixers have shot only 21.9 percent from three. Danny Green has shot 2-of-14, including a 1-of-9 mark in Game 2. Georges Niang has made 1-of-10. Maxey seems to have found his scoring groove now, but even he hasn’t been on point from three at 2-of-10 in total.

Considering how good this Heat team is, their advantage in depth, and the absence of Embiid, the Sixers’ margin for error is already far too small. If they can’t make their threes on top of all those disadvantages, there’s really little else they can do.

It’s not surprising that for now, with Embiid out until further notice, the Heat are going into Game 3 as a 3-point favorite.

If Embiid makes his comeback, this is a different series entirely. But even if he remains out in Game 3, it’s not impossible for the Sixers to win. If Maxey and Harris continue to step up, and the team’s supporting cast can actually start hitting their threes, that may be enough to lift the Sixers towards their first victory of the second round.

Game Info

Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Miami Heat

When: 7:00 pm ET, May 6, 2022

Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA

Watch: ESPN

Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic

Follow: @Liberty_Ballers

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