MIAMI — One has to figure the road to the NBA Finals in the Eastern Conference will eventually go through Philadelphia.
Something about needing to win one of their remaining two games against the lowly Orlando Magic makes that a high probability.
But the Sixers (47-23) sure didn’t look like a team on the verge of clinching the conference’s No. 1 seed in a 106-94 loss to the Miami Heat on Thursday night at the AmericanAirlines Arena.
The Heat basically manhandled the Sixers from the start in a game that got testy. It was as if Miami were sending a message to Philly, a potential second-round opponent.
This game had six individual technical fouls. Joel Embiid and Miami forward Trevor Ariza received double technicals for a near altercation in the first quarter. Then Heat forward Udonis Haslem and Dwight Howard and received double technicals for another near altercation.
In addition to trying to rough up the Sixers, the Heat did whatever they wanted to do on the court.
Miami (39-31) shot 50.6 % from the field, including going 13-for-35 on three-pointers. They had six double-figure scorers and led by as many as 26 points.
“I just didn’t think we were ready tonight,” coach Doc Rivers said. “You could see it early. Everything hurt us. They [man-to-man defense] hurt us. They’re zone hurt us. Our defense hurt us. I don’t think they dipped below 50% shooting the entire night.”
Embiid had one of his worst games of the season. He finished with season lows of six points and two rebounds to go with four turnovers in 25 minutes, 19 seconds. Embiid made 3-of-9 shots and was a minus-17. The MVP candidate and the other Sixers starters sat out the fourth quarter.
The four-time All-Star missed Tuesday’s road loss at the Indiana Pacers with flu-like symptoms.
But this was a rough time for him in more ways than one.
Embiid and Ariza had to be separated and received double technicals with 2 minutes, 33 seconds left in the first quarter. Then at the 10:19 mark of the second quarter, Howard and Haslem, making first appearance of the season, received double technicals.
This was Howard’s 16th technical foul of the season. As a result, he’ll have to serve a one-game suspension.
But the heated moments began when Embiid fell on Ariza underneath the Sixers’ basket. The Heat forward hurt his ankle and exited the court with 3:13 left in the quarter.
Embiid appeared to ask Ariza if he was OK while Ben Simmons was attempting free throws at the other end. Suddenly, there was a back and forth. Miami assistant Caron Butler even said something to Embiid, who then walked near the Heat bench. Ariza had to be restrained from stepping on the court to approach Embiid.
He did approach Embiid during the timeout at 2:33. The players had to be separated and both received technicals. The two talked things out before the start of the third quarter. Embiid approached Ariza, who was shooting three-pointer, as he exited the tunnel onto the court. The conversation ended with Embiid patting Ariza on the back.
Things didn’t end as nicely for Haslem and Howard.
The altercation was a result of Haslem taking exception to being elbowed and thrown to the court by Howard. So Miami’s 18-year veteran walked over to Howard during a stoppage in play. He told him to “shut your [freaking] mouth or I will shut your [freaking] mouth” before putting his finger in the backup center’s face.
Upset, Howard had to restrained while walking toward midcourt after receiving the technical. Haslem said something else and received his second technical.
“You know it’s obviously very physical,” Haslem said. " Dwight plays the way Dwight plays. It was just a conversation between me and him where I just wanted to make it clear that the throwing down and swinging of the elbows and things like that, I felt like we should kind of leave that out of the game for the night.
“So I think he disagrees. So when he disagreed, I disagreed, and it was a whole bunch of disagreeing.”
Haslem scored four points on 2-for-2 shooting in just 2:40 seconds during his first appearance of the season before being ejected.
Former Sixer Jimmy Butler, the Heat’s gritty standout, was asked where Haslem’s exchange with Howard ranked as far as Miami highlights this year.
“Basically at the top,” Butler said. “I love confrontation, altercation, all of the good stuff. I feed off it. We feed off it. I encourage it.”
Howard and Embiid did not speak to the media following the game.
Former Sixer Dewayne Dedmon tried to get into it with Howard in the third quarter.
It was obvious that the Heat used their physicality to their advantage
“From the tip, they kind of set the tone with that,” Danny Green said. “We were on our heels most of the game. I thought we played passive, because we got a couple foul calls. But we can’t let that dictate how we play defensively with our aggression.
“Yeah, they were allowed to play physical, and they were allowed to get up in us. I feel like we tried to do the same at times.”
Green, however, was hampered by early foul trouble.
Tobias Harris paced Philly with 21 points, while Butler had 21 for the Heat.
The Sixers will look to snap their two-game skid and clinch the conference’s top seed during Friday night’s game with the Magic at the Wells Fargo Center. Orlando (21-49) has lost five straight games and 12 of their last 15.
The two teams will conclude their season-ending two-game series Sunday.
A victory Friday would allow them to rest players Sunday for what they hope is a long postseason run.
As the No. 1 seed, the Sixers will secure home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs. It will also enable them to avoid a potential grueling second-round matchup against the Brooklyn Nets or Milwaukee Bucks.
However, the Sixers could face the Heat (39-31) in the second round. They’ll definitely have to play much better than they did Thursday.
The Heat are fifth in the conference with two games left. If they remain in that spot or move up to fourth, they’ll compete in the four-vs.-five seed opening-round series. The Sixers would face that series winner, assuming they get the No. 1 seed and win their first-round series.
Meanwhile, Nets are Bucks are battling for the conference’s second and third seeds. Barring upsets, the Sixers would face one of those teams in the conference finals. And that’s where having home-court advantage would benefit Philly the most. The Sixers have the conference’s best record of 27-7 at home. Meanwhile, they’re 20-16 on the road after Thursday’s loss.
While the top seed doesn’t guarantee a conference or Finals appearance, it does increase the Sixers’ chances.