The Sixers held serve on Saturday night, putting on a second half clinic to sink Miami in game one of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Now we get the interesting part – the adjustments, the coaching wrinkles, and the true nuance of a seven game playoff series.
Both sides were presumably tight-lipped about X’s and O’s after game one, but between the quotes, stats, and game film, there’s enough to parse heading into Monday evening.
1. Defending Ben Simmons
JJ Redick was asked on Sunday what changes he anticipates from Miami:
“They’ll probably make an adjustment on how they guard Ben, or what their strategy is with Ben, how they shift to the basketball and how they load up on Ben. And maybe they switch more off the ball with Marco and I. Those are probably the things I’d probably anticipate.”
Simmons finished with 17 points, 9 rebounds, and 14 assists in his playoff debut. He shot 5-13 from the field and scored 7 of his points from the foul line.
It’s not easy to defend a 6’10” point guard. We’ve seen him get to the paint even when opponents sag. He’s fast enough to breeze by tight positioning as well and something in between those two philosophies is usually a non-starter.
Looking through his misses from Saturday night, I saw this:
I think that’s more on Ben for trying to drive a crowded lane, then attempting the step-back instead of trying to finish over two players. But in that sequence, Justise Winslow gives him a cushion and engages near the elbow, doing a nice job of moving Ben horizontally and not allowing him to move downhill.
On a couple of the Simmons turnovers, Miami seemed to have success attacking him at the point of screens or hand-offs:
Keep on eye on that tonight and watch to see whether Miami sags and invites him to shoot, or whether try to be more aggressively in the back court. If Simmons gets a head of steam moving north/south, you’re cooked.
Which Hassan Whiteside are we getting tonight?
The Miami Herald’s Manny Navarro wrote a good story about the Heat center, who was ineffective Saturday night with 2 points and 6 rebounds in 12 minutes of play, squeezed off the floor by the Sixers’ smaller shooting lineup.
From Navarro’s article, here’s Erik Spoelstra on whether he feels comfortable putting Whiteside out there to defend Philadelphia’s Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova pairing:
“He would have to and that’s not the first time that we’ve worked through this,” Spoelstra said. “I mean that’s the way the league has been and that’s what he’s been working on all season is to play shooting bigs and still find ways to impact our team positively at the rim. It’s a challenge with all their shooting. That’s what the playoffs are about. It’s tough to win and that’s a good team. So are we.
“We have to find a way to overcome some of their strengths and things they do well. Without Embiid, they go to those kind of shooting lineups and actions probably more than they normally do. We just have to find a way.”
Theoretically, whatever deficiencies Whiteside has in defending stretch fours and fives, you’d think Miami could scheme something up on the offensive end to capitalize on of the lack of size in the Sixers’ paint.
“We didn’t take advantage of that,” (Josh) Richardson said of Whiteside’s size advantage on the offensive end. “I’ll take part of that, that’s on us. We can’t allow them to put guys like Saric or Ilyasova on H because he’s bigger than them. We just have to make it happen.”
Whiteside finished with two offensive rebounds in game one and somehow got credit for this one:
White is 7’0″, 265 pounds, and he’s got a matchup there on the 6’10”, 235 pound Ilyasova. Yet Ersan gets the better positioning and Whiteside just goes up with an off-balance flail at the rim. He just has to be stronger in those situations, because that’s where Miami has the advantage with the Sixers running their smaller lineup.
3. Controlling the tempo
Spoelstra said on Saturday night that he felt like Miami needed to play the game on their terms.
Redick was asked about that specifically, and if he felt like the flow of the second half benefited the Sixers:
“Yeah, I think a lot of it was just the ability to get multiple stops in a row. That allows us to – I don’t really want to call it transition, because they aren’t really fast breaks – but it’s what we call that yellow zone, those first 7 or so seconds after a defensive rebound or a steal where we’re kind of spacing the floor and allowing Ben to attack. I think that was big in the first quarter.”
To Redick’s point, the Sixers only had four fast break points in the win. But this is a good example what JJ is talking about, where a play where Simmons gets a rebound, starts to walk it up, but then catches Miami sleeping and finds his shooting guard for an early shot clock three:
There’s still defensive transition in that play, and James Johnson loses his assignment for a split second, which is all it takes for Simmons to pick out the open shooter.
He was excellent defensively.
Miami hit just 2 of 8 shots against Robert Covington on the entire night. Good stuff, yea? It was somewhat of an NFL cornerback type of performance, actually, since they really didn’t even try too many attempts with RoCo guarding them.
Know what I mean? You see what I’m sayin’?
They tried 77 shots total, but only 8 against Covington, so that’s just 10.4% of their looks for the evening. It’s like a defensive back who is hard to really evaluate because there isn’t a massive sample size of targets in his direction. I think we suffered that scenario in the Byron Maxwell trade, because he looked good in a defense that also featured Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. Turns out he was nothing close to a lock down corner.
And in that same sense, sure, Covington does benefit by playing alongside excellent defenders like Ben Simmons, but his utility and length and switching has always been the key. If he’s not superb at one specific thing, he’s really good in a bunch of different areas at the same time, and you saw a lot of that in the third quarter on Saturday night.
5. Auxiliary categories
I mentioned in my series preview that Miami performs well in some of the more specialized areas of the game, namely these four below, where they rank top-12 across the entire league:
- opponent points off turnovers: 15.6 (11th)
- opponent second chance points: 11.7 (9th)
- opponent fast break points: 10.9 (7th)
- opponent points in the paint: 43.5 (9th)
The Sixers finished with 28 points off turnovers, 18 second chance points, and 46 points in the paint, even while showing a lot of that four-shooter, small ball look.
So they bested Miami’s season averages soundly in three of those four categories. The only average they didn’t out-perform was in fast break points (4), which I mentioned above after the Redick quote.
Win the small battles and you usually win the big battles, too. Philly won across the board Saturday night.