MIAMI — Tyler Herro dribbled along the baseline and dished a one-handed pass to the left corner where Max Strus waited to launch a three-pointer.
That capped a stretch of five Heat points — which also included a Bam Adebayo alley-oop dunk and a bad out-of-bounds pass by the 76ers’ Matisse Thybulle — in a 24-second span of the fourth quarter to put the 76ers away for good. Miami topped the Sixers, 119-103, Wednesday night at the FTX Center to take a 2-0 series lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals.
After Game 1, both teams believed they would shoot better as the series continued. That held true for the Heat, who made 51.3% of their shots and went 14 of 29 from three-point range. Most notably improved was former Sixer Jimmy Butler, who had 22 points, 12 assists, and 6 rebounds after going 5 of 16 from the floor Monday night. The Heat also compiled 21 second-chance points.
The Sixers, conversely, connected on just eight of their 30 three-pointers. Second-year guard Tyrese Maxey led the way with 34 points, often willing his team to stay within striking distance with crafty and authoritative finishes at the basket. Tobias Harris added 21 points, 4 assists, and 4 rebounds.
“The first two games, it’s pretty simple,” said All-Star point guard James Harden, who finished with 20 points (6 of 15 from the floor, 1 of 5 from three-point range, 7 of 7 from the free-throw line) and nine assists. “You fight, you claw, you give yourselves chances. But when it comes down to it, you’ve got to make shots, especially on the road against a really good team. …
“We make a couple shots, it gives us more confidence and puts more pressure on them. I feel like we never really put that pressure on them throughout the course of the game.”
Miami led by as many as 15 points in the second half. And after a Maxey finish cut the Heat’s lead to 92-84 with about 10 minutes to play, Miami answered with a 12-2 run to prompt a Doc Rivers timeout.
Game 3 of the best-of-seven series is Friday at the Wells Fargo Center. The lingering question remains the health of MVP finalist Joel Embiid, who did not accompany the Sixers to Miami while nursing an orbital fracture and concussion sustained in Game 6 of the Sixers’ first-round win over the Toronto Raptors last week. Rivers said he FaceTimed with Embiid Tuesday and Wednesday, but that he was unsure if he would be able to play in Game 3.
“He looked good as far as talking, but he’s got so many steps to go through,” Rivers said. “I don’t think he’s cleared any of them right now, so we just have to wait and see.”
Harden’s mixed bag
For the second consecutive game, a fan seated in Section 106 of the FTX Center mockingly yelled, “Shoot it!” every time Harden got the ball.
In spurts, that sarcastic chant was appropriate.
Harden missed four of his first five shots before draining a step-back three-pointer early in the second quarter and following with a driving finish at the rim. That created rhythm for Harden in that frame, when he made four of his six shots and scored 12 points. Three of those points came when, after losing and picking up his dribble, Harden drew a whistle beyond the arc with 0.1 seconds remaining on the second-quarter clock — much to the chagrin of that taunting fan.
Harden only scored two points in the third quarter, then missed all three of his fourth-quarter attempts. His misfires on a pull-up jumper and three-pointer on back-to-back trips could have cut the Sixers’ deficit to two possessions. He went 1-for-5 from the floor in the second half with four assists, and credited the Heat’s double-teams for getting the ball out of his hands — especially without Embiid on the floor.
“They’re doing a good job of just putting two on the ball, trying to deny me basically the entire court,” Harden said. “So it’s giving our guys more space to be aggressive if they’re going to deny me wherever I am on the floor.”
Men in the middle
Without Embiid, DeAndre Jordan (six points, five rebounds in 13 minutes) started again at center while Paul Reed (four points, four rebounds) was the backup but played 25 minutes.
Like his team, Jordan got off to a much better start. But like his team, that success did not last.
Jordan recorded two early rebounds, and converted two lob finishes. After re-entering with about eight minutes to play in the first half, he tipped in a missed Harris pull-up. But he was pulled quickly in the third, when the Heat stretched their lead back out to 71-58.
Reed, meanwhile, first entered the game with about five minutes to play in the first quarter, and scored quickly off an over-the-top feed from Harden. Though the man who is often in foul trouble did not pick one up until the fourth quarter, Reed also was not as active on both ends of the floor as in Game 1.
“Listen, they’re doing their best,” Rivers said of Jordan and Reed. “You can’t blame D.J. You can’t blame Paul. They’re doing their best and, as a coach, that’s all you can ask from those guys. They’re fighting their butts off. That’s what you want. That’s what I would want as a fan.”
The Sixers also went small for the final five minutes of the second half, first with Harris and Georges Niang in the front court and then with Danny Green when Niang picked up his third foul. That group ignited a 9-0 run to trim the Heat’s lead to 52-47, before Miami pushed it back out to eight at the half. The Sixers briefly went to that look again in the fourth, before Niang fouled out and Reed eventually came back in.
Paul Millsap, who played six minutes in Game 1, did not see action Wednesday. Rookie Charles Bassey played during garbage time.
Milton out, Korkmaz in
Rivers continued to tinker with his rotation, with Furkan Korkmaz taking Shake Milton’s spot. He finished with eight points on 3-of-8 shooting and six rebounds in 18 minutes.
“Against Miami, you need a guy that can move without the ball, a guy that can catch and shoot and a guy that can put the ball on the floor,” Rivers said of that decision. “I thought [Korkmaz] did that. … I liked the lift that he gave us.”
Korkmaz initially entered late in the first quarter. Early in the second frame, he hit a three-pointer and then made a nifty move to the basket for a layup.
He came back again about midway through the third quarter, with mixed results. He missed a wild finish near the basket and was called for an offensive foul when he tried to draw a whistle beyond the arc. He then drilled a three-pointer on the Sixers’ next possession, but then missed a transition layup.
After scoring 25 points in Game 1, Herro again showed why he was honored as the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year. He totaled 18 points, including a 3-of-5 mark from three-point range, and seven rebounds.
He scored 10 quick points on 4-of-4 shooting, blending long-range shots with off-the-dribble makes. While Rivers praised the work Thybulle did when matched up against Herro, the Heat guard still made crucial shots when the Sixers attempted to rally.
Herro first squashed the Sixers’ momentum in the first half by banging a three in Niang’s face and then grabbing a rebound, taking the ball coast to coast, and drawing a foul. Herro halted another Sixers’ push when, after Maxey hit two free throws to cut the Heat’s lead to 89-80 late in the third, he responded with a floater.
“He’s crafty,” Harris said of Herro. “Obviously, he can get a shot off at any time and he makes tough shots as well. when he gets in the game, the offense is predicated towards him — the movement that they have, the screens that they set.
“We can’t lose a guy like that, though tonight we lost him a little bit too many times. Especially for somebody that can roll off 20 points pretty easily. We’ve got to be truly locked into him.”