Ice-cold shooting in Game 2 dooms Sixers, who are drawing dead without Joel Embiid

MIAMI — Doc Rivers can take credit for coining the term “make-or-miss league,” and after the Sixers fell into an 0-2 hole in their second-round series against the Miami Heat with a 119-103 loss in South Florida on Wednesday, it did a decent job of summing up the state of affairs.

“I mean, holy goodness, we had some wide-open looks,” Rivers said.

Sometimes, the box score can be a bit disappointing. Sometimes, looking solely at the 3-point disparity and chalking that up to the variance gods can be used as an excuse for getting outplayed in other areas. But that largely didn’t feel like the case for the Sixers on Wednesday night in Miami. The possession game was essentially a wash, because the Sixers turned the ball over only eight times and held the Heat to a manageable 21.6 percent offensive rebounding rate. Tyrese Maxey had a huge scoring night, james harden created enough good looks for his teammates, and TobiasHarris continued to play rock-solid two-way basketball.

Alas, putting the ball through the hoop is a critical part of the game. The Sixers went 8-of-30 from deep while the Heat went 14-of-29. For an undermanned team trying to steal a game on the road, such a disparity is untenable. For the Sixers, in this series, those numbers will equal a loss 10 times out of 10 on the road.

“Shot-making, simple. The first two games, I think it’s pretty simple,” Harden said. “You fight, you claw, you give yourself chances, but when it comes down to it, you got to make shots, especially on the road against a good team.”

The only other time that the Sixers shot worse than 30 percent from 3 in back-to-back games this season was in November at Sacramento and Golden State, which also coincided with Joel Embid‘s absence from the lineup. When the Sixers could least afford it, they stopped making shots.

In an analysis of the predicament that the Sixers find themselves in, Embiid’s absence cannot be minimized. The Sixers are an extremely top-heavy team with a bench full of players with question marks on at least one end of the floor. Miami, also missing one of its best players in Kyle Lowry, has the type of two-way depth that will overwhelm the Sixers’ supporting cast. The Heat can far easier exploit the Sixers’ weaknesses than vice versa. If the Sixers were going to have a chance in this series, it was going to be because Embiid and the starting lineup overwhelmed Miami with top-end talent.

Along that same path, the Sixers’ lack of depth also cannot be minimized. Many have viewed the Sixers’ two losses as a referendum on Harden, and that is only partially fair. Just as it did against Bring YoungMiami is sending the house to Harden, and he is making the right play more than his box score numbers would indicate.

When Miami put three on the ball, there wasn’t much else Harden could do than pass the ball to Georges Niang.

When Harden blew by PJ Tucker, Danny Green (who went 1-of-10 from deep) just couldn’t convert a corner 3. Even when Harden created a good look, the Sixers’ supporting cast had a hard time cashing in.

“We got to paint and got some really good possessions at times,” Harden said. “Eight turnovers, that’s a really good game. You make shots and, like I said, it’s a different ballgame.”

That is not to say Harden is anything close to the MVP version of himself. There was one stretch that stood out in this regard. Tyrese Maxey had just scored his 11th consecutive point to cut Miami’s lead to 92-84 early in the fourth quarter. The next four possessions for Harden, with Victor Oladipo guarding him: pass to Paul Reed for a contested layup, step-back 12-footer that missed short, step-back 3 that missed short and a flailing missed layup.

And even then, the spacing conditions that Harden is dealing with are far from ideal. On the ugliest of those critical possessions, Tyler Herro left Matisse Thybulle on the other side of the floor to zone up against Harden.

“Obviously, they know what we have on the floor at times,” Rivers said. “We needed Matisse on the floor. I thought Matisse did an excellent job overall on Tyler Herro. But now you got Matisse and DeAndre Jordan, or Matisse and Paul Reed on the floor, and they’re really just playing a two-man zone off those two guys. Damn if you do, damn if you don’t, but there are weakside actions we can do better.”

Harden finished 6-of-15 from the field for 20 points to go with nine assists (and three turnovers). We learned in Games 1 and 2 that this version of Harden can’t lead the Sixers to a win because he doesn’t have the explosiveness to score with volume. He can’t lift any supporting cast to the level of an elite offense, as was once the case. As has been discussed ad nauseam, how Harden and the Sixers approach his potential free agency this summer will be very interesting.

In the present, though, the context that Harden is playing within also matters. The Sixers didn’t trade for Harden this season to lead an undermanned team to wins in Miami. They wanted him to pair with Embiid and overwhelm opposing teams with offense. Without Embiid, the geometry of the floor changes completely. Harden’s playmaking of him, his major strength at this point of his career, does n’t matter nearly as much.

Here is another play that shows some of the key issues that Harden and Maxey have dealt with in Miami. This play is the case of excellent isolation defense from Bam Adebayo, perhaps the best switch big man in the league, against Maxey. But the initial switch is precisely why the Sixers are the team forced to counter-punch against Miami. If that is Embiid in Jordan’s place, would Miami be so willing to switch that pick-and-roll with Maxey? If so, that would put Gabe Vincent on the league’s scoring champion in the post.

And if Miami doesn’t switch that screen, Harden thrives setting up Embiid in conventional coverage. The threat of the pocket pass opens his playmaking for others. Harden’s excellent 15-assist performance in Game 6 against Toronto doesn’t happen if Embiid isn’t there to take up the attention of the entire defense.

“It changes dramatically,” Erik Spoelstra said of Embiid’s possible return. “You’re talking about MVP talent. So, we’ll just have to see.”

Rivers again started Jordan on Wednesday. He mixed in Reed and some small-ball looks, but that mixing and matching also probably won’t matter if Embiid is not playing in the series. When Embiid comes back, that problem becomes simpler: Play Reed for eight to 10 minutes and that is that.

So, where is Embiid at in terms of returning from the orbital fracture and concussion? It still seems to be in wait-and-see mode.

“I really don’t know,” Rivers said. “Honestly, we talked yesterday and we talked today on FaceTime. He looked good as far as talking, but he’s got so many steps to go through. I don’t think he’s cleared any of them right now. We just have to wait and see.”

The Sixers will likely shoot better back home in Philly, receiving an energy boost from the home crowd. But the first two games in Miami proved that we have a good idea where this series is headed without Embiid. Miami has more depth than the Sixers and the coaching/culture that won’t allow the Heat to play down to their opponent. Without Embiid, Adebayo is the most impactful player on the court. And even if Embiid does return to the fold in Philly, there are major questions about whether he can be his dominant self immediately coming off the multiple injuries he suffered when he was elbowed by Pascal Siakam last week.

Headed home, the Sixers are in a very tough spot. But if Embiid can return to form, there are some positives that the Sixers can take from their Game 2 loss.

“For the most part, we are still a confident group and we’ll go home and do what we’re supposed to do,” Harden said. “In the playoffs, the series doesn’t start until the road team wins. We didn’t get one of the first two, but we’ll go home and take care of business and be back for Game 5.”

(Photo by James Harden: Jasen Vinlove/USA Today)


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