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Sixers comeback falls short as they lose 101-96 to the undermanned Miami Heat

The outmanned Miami Heat saw a 23-point lead vanish, but still won the game in the last minute.

Sixers Tyrese Maxey drives on Heats Marcus Garrett during the 2nd quarter at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Wednesday, December 15, 2021.
Sixers Tyrese Maxey drives on Heats Marcus Garrett during the 2nd quarter at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Wednesday, December 15, 2021.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Think back to the 76ers’ contest against the Miami Heat on Jan. 12.

The product inside the Wells Fargo Center was a prime example of the league’s struggle to maintain order during the NBA’s non-bubble pandemic season.

The Heat had just eight available players compared to 10 for the Sixers. Well, things weren’t much different for Miami in its 101-96 victory Wednesday night at the same arena.

The Heat only had 10 available players due to injuries and Caleb Martin being in the COVID-19 health and safety protocols. The Sixers were also impacted by COVID with reserve Georges Niang being placed in protocols earlier in the day.

But Joel Embiid (rib soreness) and Seth Curry (right shoulder soreness) returned after missing Monday’s loss in Memphis.

So one would have expected them to breeze past the undermanned Heat playing without three of their best players — five-time All-Star Jimmy Butler (tailbone contusion), fellow All-Star Bam Adebayo (right thumb reconstruction), and Tyler Herro (right quad contusion). Right?

However, the Sixers had their hands full before ultimately failing to post a comeback victory.

“We put ourselves in a hole to start the game,” Embiid said. “We didn’t respond until the last couple minutes of the third [quarter], and obviously we made a push in the fourth.

“It looks like they affected us with the zone. I mean, whether it’s just we couldn’t catch the ball in the post or we couldn’t make any threes. But we have to start off with the mentality to try to win the game.”

The Sixers made just 12-of-37 three-pointers against Miami’s zone.

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Unsuccessful comeback

The Sixers (15-14) struggled from the start, shooting 35.3% in the first quarter, and trailed by 11 points heading into the second quarter. The Heat (17-12) extended their lead to 19 in the second and had a commanding 23-point cushion midway through the third while the Sixers were being booed by the home crowd.

But the Sixers pulled within five points on Tyrese Maxey’s foul shots with 9 minutes, 22 seconds remaining. Then Danny Green closed the gap to four points (95-91) on a corner three with four minutes left. The Sixers trailed 95-93 after Tobias Harris’ layup at the 2:40 mark. Harris knotted the score at 96 on a corner three with 1:24 left.

However, Gabe Vincent answered with a three-pointer to give Miami a three-point lead with 39 seconds left. The Sixers had a chance to knot the score with 6.7 seconds remaining. However, Embiid caught an inbounds pass from Green and misfired on a three-pointer with four seconds left.

Miami’s Kyle Lowry was fouled while grabbing the defensive rebound. He went to make a pair of foul shots with 1.2 seconds left to give the Heat the five-point win.

Maxey’s moments

The Sixers were fortunate to have Maxey on this night.

Embiid was visibly bothered by his rib injury, and the Heat shot 40.9% from three-point land. But Maxey spearheaded a huge comeback. He finished with a game-high 27 points. He had a personal 6-0 run that pulled the Sixers within five (84-79) early in the fourth.

Embiid rolled his left ankle while falling on Lowry with 1:32 left in the game. He remained in the game, but walked gingerly. He finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds. He made 5-of-13 shots, missing four of five three-point attempts.

Green had nine points, six rebounds and a season-high five steals in a reserve role for the Sixers.

Meanwhile, Vincent paced the Heat with a team-high 26 points while making 7-of-12 three-pointers.

Changing of the small forward?

Matisse Thybulle made his third consecutive start at small forward. Sixers coach Doc Rivers was asked if Thybulle would remain the starter moving forward.

“No,” Rivers said. “Like I told you before the season, we are going to move it around. Not just him. I don’t think this is a team right now that you say the same five guys are going to start every night. We try to keep it that way as much as we can just for continuity’s sake, but we are not scared at all to make a change in any of our guys.”

Green, who had been the starting small forward, has been supportive of Thybulle in his recent role and has praised the third-year veteran’s defense. In addition to that, Green knows the Sixers are trying to find ways to get the second unit going.

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“I think we are just taking it day to day,” he said, “and figuring out who’s healthy, who’s not, which bodies we have, who the matchups are. And I just come in and do my job.”

Green acknowledged that it’s different trying to find rhythm coming off the bench.

“But you have to be professional, come in, figure out ways how to adapt, adjust and do my job the best of my abilities,” he said. “It actually gives me a chance to see the game from a different perspective, but I also like seeing how the game’s being called, who’s hot, who’s doing what, their sets. It allows me to adapt and adjust differently.”

Thybulle had a tough night, failing to score after missing all five of his shots. He finished with two blocks and a steal in 14 minutes. He and the Sixers did a terrible job of guarding Duncan Robinson in the first half. The small forward scored 19 of his 21 points before intermission. He hit all four of his three-pointers in the first half.

“We lost Duncan Robinson five or six times,” Rivers said. “We were late on switches, getting off bodies. Stuff we work on every day, guys. Every single day.”

Thybulle was benched in the fourth quarter.

His first of three straight starts came Saturday, when he held Golden State’s Steph Curry to 6-for-20 shooting.

“We had him out there and we were pretty effective,” Rivers said of the victory over the Warriors. “On a night like tonight, when Matisse is not giving us a great defensive night, and they’re helping off of him [offensively], we’ve got to get him out, and that’s what we did.”

Next up

The Sixers travel to New York for Thursday night’s game against the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center. The Nets have the Eastern Conference’s best record at 20-8, but are without seven players due to COVID-19 protocols.