MIAMI — The 76ers definitely missed Joel Embiid.
And if Monday’s game was any indication, they’re going to have a tough time defeating the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinal series without the MVP finalist.
The Sixers battled hard but just couldn’t keep up with the Heat in a 106-92 loss in Game 1 at FTX Arena. They will need to improve in just about every area when the teams meet for Game 2 of the best-of-seven series here Wednesday. Embiid is expected to miss at least the first two games of the series with an orbital fracture near his right eye and a concussion.
Coach Doc Rivers said the Sixers would replace Embiid with a center-by-committee approach and what they call a “James-dominant” offense for guard James Harden.
One of the two actually happened.
DeAndre Jordan got the start at center, and Paul Reed and Paul Millsap gave meaningful minutes. Charles Bassey saw action late in the game. The Sixers also went with a small-ball lineup with Tobias Harris at center.
Meanwhile, Harden’s play was no different than when he played alongside Embiid. The point guard was still more of a facilitator than scorer. He did pick some spots to look for his own shot. But the Heat tried to make things tough for him. So Harden took what the defense gave him. As a result, Harden, Harris, and Tyrese Maxey had a balanced attack and shared the offensive load.
Harris finished with a team-high 27 points on 11-for-18 shooting to go with six rebounds. Harden finished with 16 points, nine rebounds, and five assists. He made 5 of 13 shots, including 2-for-7 on three-pointers. Maxey added 19 points on 6-for-15 shooting.
Tyler Herro paced the Heat with 25 points, sinking 4 of 6 three-pointers. Bam Adebayo had 24 points and 12 rebounds, and Jimmy Butler added 15 points and nine boards.
But without Embiid’s low-post presence, the Sixers had to rely on the three-point shot. And they just didn’t have it Monday night, shooting only 6-for-34 from behind the stripe.
“I thought 6-for-34 from three-point line, you are never going to win a game when you shoot like that,” Rivers said. “I told our guys I thought 27 of them were absolutely drawn-up great looks. I didn’t like how we played, though. I didn’t like how we moved the ball. I felt that we passed late tonight just from my raw. I have to watch the video.
“I felt their physicality affected us tonight. I felt they got into us and that had an impact.”
The Sixers were destroyed on the glass. The Heat outrebounded them, 47-37, including an 15-9 edge on offensive boards. Several of those offensive rebounds were the result of the Sixers missing boxouts. Miami had three straight offensive boards on one possession midway through the third quarter.
“They just killed us,” Rivers said. “Listen, I don’t love the matchup with Paul [Reed] and Bam. It’s funny I took D.J. out right before that, and he was actually rebounding the ball well for us. But we wanted more speed on the floor, so we could do more switching.
“When we go to zone and switch, we like Paul Reed on the floor more. That’s what we did there, and unfortunately, they crushed us on the glass at that point.”
And on this night, the Heat’s physicality, rebounding disparity, and the Sixers’ horrid three-point shooting enabled Miami to outscore the Sixers 56-41 in the second half.
Before the game, Rivers was asked what the Sixers need to do to get off to a good start without Embiid.
“Nothing really,” he said. “Early on, you just have to come out and play. We can come out and make every shot, and that doesn’t mean we’re going to win the game. We can miss every shot, and that doesn’t mean we’re going to lose the game. The key for us is to hang in there, keep fighting, keep playing at the pace that we want to play at, and good things will happen.”
But Embiid’s presence was missed on this night. He not only opens things up for teammates offensively, he erases plenty of their defensive mistakes.
Center by committee
Jordan’s start at center in Embiid’s absence came after playing a total of 0.8 seconds in the opening-round series against the Toronto Raptors. The 14th-year veteran subbed out Georges Niang in the final 0.8 seconds of overtime in the Sixers’ 104-101 Game 3 victory.
This marked Jordan’s second start since signing with the Sixers on March 3. The 33-year-old averaged 4.6 points and 5.8 rebounds in 16 appearances with them in the regular season.
On this night, he drew the tough task of guarding Adebayo. The Sixers went with the 6-foot-11 Jordan over the 6-9 Reed because of his size. The team also wanted to keep Reed out of foul trouble.
“That’s why you don’t want to start him,” Rivers said. “We like D.J. We are going to keep starting him, whether you like it or not. That’s what we are going to do because our guys believe in him.”
Jordan finished with four points on 2-for-2 shooting to go with two rebounds, two turnovers and two blocks in 17 minutes, 17 seconds. Meanwhile, Reed committed five fouls to go with four points, nine rebounds, four assists, one steal, and one block in 13 minutes. And Millsap had one rebound, one assist, one foul, and no points or shot attempts in six minutes, all in the second quarter.
“I think it’s a collective effort from those three that are going to get the majority of the minutes at the center position,” Harden said. “So tonight, I think we went to [a lineup of] Tobias and Georges as well. It’s going to be different lineups. It’s just the position that we are in, and we have to figure it out.”
Jordan scored the Sixers’ first basket of the game on an alley-oop dunk on a pass from Harris However, that was his only early highlight.
The guy he defended, Adebayo, had six points on 3-for-3 shooting in the quarter. Jordan also committed two turnovers — one an offensive foul. With the Heat up 15-6, Rivers called a timeout with 7:48 left in the first quarter. At that point, Jordan was replaced by Reed.
Reed, however, committed a foul four seconds into his stint and had two in his first three minutes.
He settled down and had four points on 2-for-2 shooting to go with three assists and one rebounds before Jordan subbed in for him with 35.6 seconds left in the quarter. But opting to go small, the Sixers decided to have Harris replace Jordan while Herro was at the foul line.
Millsap was in at center at the start of the second quarter. When Reed subbed in with 6:46 left in the half, he continued to play with energy and created a spark off the bench. However, he had to leave with 4:39 after picking up his third foul. That time, the Sixers went with a small lineup of Harris, Danny Green, Niang, Maxey, and Harden.
Rivers considered having Millsap open the third quarter at the starting line, but stuck with Jordan.
“It’s funny at halftime, we asked all our key guys because we were thinking about it,” he said. “I thought Paul Millsap gave us some decent minutes, but to a man that’s where they wanted to go.”
The Sixers built a five-point cushion (55-50) on a Jordan alley-oop from Harden. But the Heat dominated play from that point forward.