MIAMI — There were a few minutes late in the third quarter when you looked out on the court and saw this:
Justin Anderson. T.J. McConnell. Marco Belinelli. Ersan Ilyasova. Amir Johnson.
Mind you, this was Game 3 of an NBA postseason series, as close to a must-win as the Sixers have experienced in Brett Brown’s tenure as head coach, a game where they were finally at full-strength thanks to the return of their all-star big man. And this wasn’t some sort of makeshift lineup produced strictly by circumstance. It was emblematic of how they won.
After it was over, and the Sixers accomplished what they had set out to do — recapturing the home-court advantage that they’d given away the previous game — their head coach pointed to two of those names in particular. Anderson and McConnell combined for just 14 minutes on the night, but they were 14 of the more-impactful minutes that you could have expected, from guys who have spent most of the series at the end of the bench. Both played critical roles in the defensive transformation that Brown orchestrated between Games 2 and 3, in particular when it came to guarding the one player on the Heat who has the potential to tilt a series.
After hitting 15 of 23 shots from the field in Games 1 and 2, Dwyane Wade missed eight of his 10 field goal attempts in Game 3. Some of the credit goes to Lady Luck. Or, more accurately, Lady Regression to the Mean. But a lot of it goes to the tenor with which the Sixers played on D. And a lot of credit for that goes to Anderson and McConnell.
“I think that both of those guys injected just a passion, an energy, an enthusiasm, a toughness, a pace,” Brown said.
By the end of it, you might have looked twice at the final score, because it said the Sixers scored almost as many points as they had in Game 1, which felt like a track meet compared to this one. I suppose that’s an easy effect to achieve when you shoot 51 percent from the floor and 53 percent from deep.
But make no mistake: This was a playoff game, played playoff style, which is pretty much 180 degrees from the style of play that the Sixers prefer. That’s what made it such an impressive performance. Not only did they win, and win convincingly, but they did so by beating the Heat at their own game.
An hour-and-half before tipoff, Brown sat at a podium and relayed something assistant coach Jim O’Brien had told him. A series doesn’t start until both teams get punched in the mouth, said O’Brien, who spent seven seasons as an NBA head coach and is in his second season on Brown’s bench. The implication was that the Heat took their shot in Game 1, when the Sixers paced and spaced and shot them out of the Wells Fargo Center in a 130-103 rout, and then returned the favor in Game 2.
When the court finally cleared Thursday night, the two teams had combined for 56 fouls, six technicals, and a near skirmish that required some creative rules interpretation to keep Wade from getting ejected and perhaps taking Anderson with him. The Sixers entered Game 3 still smarting from the whupping that Wade and the Heat had put on them in the second quarter of Game 2. They knew they needed to greet fire with fire on the offensive end of the court. And, on the defensive end, they knew they needed to find a way to throw cold water on a red-hot Wade.
Enter Anderson, who had yet to play a meaningful minute in the series. The sturdily built swing man out of Virginia checked into the game with Wade in the first quarter and immediately set about getting up in his grill. After the two tangled on the baseline, exchanging fists full of jersey and less-than-casual elbows, Wade never seemed to regain the swagger he’d carried with him from Game 2. Late in the third quarter, Wade made Anderson stumble with a jab step at the top of the three-point line, but his ensuing shot clanked off the front of the rim.
“They’re a well-coached team,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You know that there’s going to be a sense of urgency. I wouldn’t say that we didn’t have a sense of urgency tonight. It was pretty physical both ways. I would say we made more mistakes over the course of the game, and we paid the price for that.”
For the Sixers, that sense of urgency was the most immediate takeaway from this one. It showed you something about their composition.
Joel Embiid played a big role in that, particularly on the defensive end, where his presence around the rim was felt by the Heat throughout.
The Sixers shooters hit shots, and that played a big role too.
But there was also something less tangible that played a role in the outcome, something you saw in a late layup attempt that served as their response to a gratuitous score by the Heat’s Goran Dragic at the end of Game 2.
“We’re not here to make friends,” Embiid said.
The Sixers punched back, and, this time of year, that counts for a lot.