MIAMI – As Doc Rivers sat down for his pregame news conference, he playfully mocked the varying standards of each team’s back-to-back set.
The Heat played Friday night at home against the Atlanta Hawks, while the 76ers hosted Boston and then needed to hop on a nearly three-hour flight to Miami.
“You make it OK, guys?” Rivers said. “It wasn’t too taxing for you?”
Rivers would not buy into the idea that Saturday’s circumstances were ripe for a “schedule loss” for the Sixers, even if for the first half, they looked like a team with heavy legs. A third-quarter surge made this an outing that would be decided in the final period. Then, the Sixers rolled down the stretch to clinch a wild 109-98 victory at FTX Arena that could be regarded as their best victory of a regular season that just crossed the halfway point.
“It’s nothing new to this team,” said reserve forward Georges Niang, who finished with 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting from three-point range. “Since the season started, with everything going on with this team, I feel like we’ve been up against everything. So what is a back-to-back?
“It’s minuscule to what we’ve had to deal with. We’ve all realized that we have to come together, and no one individual is gonna take us to the top. We have to do it as a collective unit.”
The Sixers have now won nine out of their last 10 games, including two in a row since a Wednesday loss at home to Charlotte that left All-Star big man Joel Embiid feeling “[ticked] off.” They also evened the regular-season series, 1-1, against Miami, which entered Saturday in second place in the Eastern Conference standings.
“There’s a lot of games in the regular season that you’re really happy about,” Rivers said. “It feels bigger than one game, but that’s all it is at the end of the day. But there’s still important games to win. … Just coming here, winning a game when they’re playing great and we’re playing great, it’s a good sign for us.”
After a Kyle Lowry three-pointer gave the Heat a 59-47 lead early in the third, the Sixers outscored Miami 62-39 the rest of the way. They used a 28-14 run to take a 75-73 advantage into the final 12 minutes. They started the fourth on an 8-3 spurt to seize a 83-76 lead. That advantage then grew to 101-89 on a Niang three-pointer with less than three minutes to play.
Tobias Harris (22 points on 9-of-13 shooting) and Seth Curry (21 points on 5-of-9 from three-point range) carved out efficient outings, while Embiid overcame a cold start to make nine of his final 10 shots to propel the Sixers to victory.
Battle of the bigs
The first quarter belonged to the rookie center from Turkey by way of N.C. State and Georgetown.
The third quarter belonged to the MVP contender.
And the second half belonged to Embiid’s team.
Embiid, who was listed as questionable to play Saturday because of elbow soreness stemming from Friday’s win against Boston, overcame a cold start to finish with 32 points, 12 rebounds, and three assists.
After starting 3-of-12 from the field, Embiid exploded for 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting in the third quarter to spark his team’s rally. He scored another 13 in the final period, hitting key jumper after key jumper in the fourth, including a difficult fadeaway with less than four minutes to play that gave the Sixers a 98-89 advantage.
“There is no way I could have played worse than I did in that first half,” Embiid said. “I said it earlier, I was probably the worst player in the NBA in that first half. There was no way I could have played worse than I did, so all I needed to do was be aggressive. ...
“I hadn’t shot like that in a while. Obviously, my elbow was not feeling good, but I’m glad I pushed through and we got a win.”
A turnaround jumper with less than eight minutes to play in the third and a finish underneath helped Embiid gain traction. His pull-up cut the Heat’s lead to 68-65 with less than five minutes to play in the third and prompted a Heat timeout as a corner of the arena populated with Sixers fans cheered. Then, another Embiid turnaround jumper rolled in to get the Sixers within 70-67.
Embiid started 1-of-6 from the floor and 1-of-3 from the free throw line. He gained a smidgen of rhythm when he converted an and-one off the glass and a spinning layup shortly after re-entering the game in the second, cutting Miami’s lead to 38-37.
Turk Omer Yurtseven, meanwhile, continued his stunning play in place of Heat All-Star Bam Adebayo. He totaled 10 of his 22 points and five of his 11 rebounds during a breakneck initial eight minutes that ignited the home crowd. He threw down an alley-oop from Lowry, followed a missed Jimmy Butler layup with a tip dunk, followed his own miss with a putback dunk, hit a floater, and got free for a cutting slam.
Yurtseven also kept his team within striking distance in the fourth with a dunk that cut the Sixers’ lead to 86-83 with about seven minutes to play, then an and-one finish that got the Heat within 91-88 about a minute later.
When asked about playing against Embiid, Yurtseven said, “He was going all night. We should have gotten more stops, but it’s just a learning curve. His physicality and how strong he is, is definitely a factor.”
Defense by committee
Without Matisse Thybulle (shoulder soreness) and Danny Green (hip pain) to guard the wing, the Sixers needed to get creative with how they defended the Heat’s perimeter threats.
The defense-by-committee plan worked. Butler, the All-Star and former Sixer, went 1-of-11 from the floor. Lowry went 2-of-11. Duncan Robinson went 0-for-8 from three-point range, and the Heat went 9-of-35 from beyond the arc.
“A lot of good things that we wanted to do, happened,” Rivers said.
Rivers said their goals were to take away Butler’s right hand, to run Herro off the three-point line to make him a driver, to put size on Lowry and to become the more physical team. Harris added that they tried to pack the paint to limit off-ball movement. After some frustrating early putbacks when Embiid challenged shots inside, the big man was pleased with how teammates limited the Heat’s ability to get into the lane.
Embiid also said the performance was a continuation of the challenge extended to those perimeter defenders following the loss to the Hornets, when they struggled to contain the ball and close out on shooters.
“The last two games, they’ve shown that [they can be much better],” Embiid said.
Harris started the game on Butler, but eventually switched over to Lowry. Maxey started on Lowry — and recorded a Thybulle-esque block where he snatched the ball out of the air on a play that Rivers called a turning point — and also guarded Herro. For stretches, the Sixers deployed a bigger group with Harris and Niang on the floor at the same time, forcing the latter to defend guards.
New two-way wing Charlie Brown, meanwhile, was active again while guarding just about everybody. The coaching staff chuckled when, during a rapid sequence, the Northeast Philly native and St. Joseph’s product guarded Butler, Robinson, Herro, and Max Strus.
“He’s a one-man zone,” Rivers said. “He’s just guarding anybody with the ball. But he’s long, he’s athletic, and he has a really high basketball IQ.”
Though Embiid and the defense were the headliners Saturday night, Rivers gave shout outs to these players for making their performances in key moments:
On Harris’ 15 first-half points: “Tobias saved us in the first half. ... Without that, we’re in trouble. He kept us afloat, because that game could have got away three or four times in the first half, and he would make a shot.”
On Niang’s three fourth-quarter three-pointers: “He has guts. That’s one of the reasons we wanted him. I want guys that aren’t scared to take an open shot no matter what time of the game it is, and he’s one of those guys … He missed the one, and we were like, ‘Keep throwing it up there. They’re gonna leave you open. Shoot the ball.’”
On Maxey’s performance: “[He] went downhill when he needed to go downhill. Made shots when he needed to. But, more importantly, got us in our stuff [offensive sets].”