If that hurts, it should. If it doesn’t, that’s a problem. This was a wake-up call, and it won’t do them any good if they bury their heads beneath the pillows.
In a 106-94 embarrassment that was supposed to have been worthy of national television, the 76ers looked like every previous version of the team that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have presided over. They got knocked to the mat early Thursday, and then kept on looking toward the corner.
“What did I take away from tonight?” head coach Doc Rivers said with a rueful laugh. “I took an ass-whupping.”
It was Jimmy Butler who delivered the body shots, early and often. He did it all the ways they knew he would, all the ways they feared he would. He dribbled off a ball screen and dropped a bounce pass to Bam Adebayo. He backed Danny Green down and hit a fadeaway from the elbow. He hit one contested three, and then he hit two more. And this was only the first quarter.
By the end of that opening period, the outcome was never in doubt. Not to anybody who had watched this team over the previous few years and become familiar with the body language of its two young stars.
How many times do you need to see Simmons spin away from the basket and throw a hot-potato hook off the front of the rim? How many times do you have to see Embiid slump his shoulders and turn up his palms and cast a pleading glance toward a ref? How many times do you have to watch Tobias Harris take the initiative because nobody else will?
“From the tip, they kind of set the tone,” Green said. “We were on our heels most of the game.”
The problem isn’t that it happened in this particular game. All things considered, the stakes were low. The Sixers still have two games to get the one win they need to clinch the No. 1 seed. Two weeks from now, when the Eastern Conference semifinals start, they’ll have at least six games of distance between them and Thursday night. From an ends-based perspective, this was a notch in the loss column, and nothing more.
The real problem is that the things we saw against the Heat are the things we saw against the Celtics last year in the bubble, and two years before that in the Eastern Conference semifinals. They’re the same things we saw two years ago whenever Butler took a break from carrying the team to the precipice of a Game 7 win over the Raptors.
Embiid and Simmons spent the majority of the night on the periphery of the offense, frustrated by the variety and physicality of the Heat’s defensive coverages. The duo combined to take just 15 shots and score just 14 points. They went to the free throw line three times. The most startling line on the box score was Embiid’s 0-for-1.
They weren’t just passive. They were invisible. They were ghosts who nevertheless played as if they’d seen one. The Heat were older, stronger, more physical, more mature, hungrier, just plain better. Embiid and Simmons know that these things are not magically going to change if and when these two teams meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals. What remains to be seen is how they respond.
They didn’t do it on Thursday night, and they had plenty of opportunities. There was one late in the first quarter, when Trevor Ariza had to be ushered back into his seat on the Heat bench while exchanging words with Embiid — not because of the confrontation itself, but because Ariza was standing on an ankle he’d just sprained. There was one in the second quarter, when Udonis Haslem saw his first shift of the season end in a summary ejection. He shoved a finger in Dwight Howard’s face. The Sixers had nothing to shove back.
“The energy from the start hurt us, the physicality,” said Harris, who was the one member of the team who didn’t look intimidated. “You would have thought they were the team out there playing for the No. 1 seed. We didn’t bring it tonight.”
A week before the start of a postseason that they will enter as the ostensible team to beat in the Eastern Conference, the Sixers got an early look at all of the reasons that regular-season records mean nothing once the playoff tournament starts.
The Heat didn’t look like a team that will mind starting a playoff series on the road. They didn’t look like a team that will be thinking about the fact that they started the season 6-12.
They looked like a team that had the best player on the court, and several of the toughest, and a plan that they knew they could execute. That No. 1 seed had better come with some big boy pants, because there are some Sixers who are going to need them.