The Sixers might have just taken the Heat’s best shot. Brett Brown will try to guard against such thinking as he gets his team ready for Game 2, but the rest of us are free to consider the possibility.
At the opening tip on Saturday, it didn’t seem far-fetched that the Heat could steal Game 1 and alter the complexion of the series. This was as vulnerable as the Sixers were going to be. Joel Embiid would be on the sidelines, and the rest of their young core would be playing in a bigger game than any had ever before experienced. Their opponent, meanwhile, would be a veteran team that beat them in the final two games of their regular-season series.
Yet, there we were, the final seconds rolling off the clock, the Wells Fargo Center shaking from the sound of 20,000-plus on their feet, the Sixers’ ’70s-era theme song crescendoing on the stadium sound system — the first playoff win of the post-Process era in the books.
The headline is this: the better team won the basketball game on Saturday night, and while it did not do it in the manner with which we have grown accustomed, that’s just another reason why it is the better team.
For a couple of quarters, all of the elements of a letdown seemed to be in position. Just before the opening tip, Embiid appeared at center court wearing a blazer and a Phantom of the Opera mask and delivered a series of strikes to the bell that the Sixers have made their pregame tradition. But it wasn’t long before everybody’s attention turned to how much the Sixers missed their big man on the defensive end of the court, as the Heat’s first possession ended with four-man James Johnson swooping in for a layup over Amir Johnson. Meanwhile, the Sixers’ first possession featured their oversized rookie point guard backing down a defender on the low block but air-mailing his shot high off the backboard.
Those initial trips down the court by the two teams more or less set the stage for what was to come over the rest of the half. Simmons missed five of his first six shots and turned the ball over five times in the first two quarters. His backup, fellow rookie Markelle Fultz, air-balled his first shot, a baby pull-up from the paint.
On the opposite end of the court, a couple of Heat big men took advantage of the Sixers’ lackluster rim protection, Johnson and backup center Kelly Olynyk combining for 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting in a first half that ended with the Sixers trailing by four.
In the third quarter, though, everything changed, and the fact that it did was a testament to the work that general manager Bryan Colangelo has done over the last calendar year to augment his young Processors. With the Sixers’ transition game rarely finding fifth gear, a trio of veterans stepped up huge in their half-court offense.
Atop that list was JJ Redick, whom Colangelo lured from Los Angeles with a deliberately massive overpay on a one-year contract. As the rest of the offense struggled to find its groove, Redick showed just how much he has evolved as an all-around player since his days at Duke, knocking down 4-of-6 from three-point range but also 4-of-7 from two to finish with a game-high 28 points.
Joining Redick were a couple of playoff-tested veterans whom the Sixers added within a couple of weeks of each other at midseason. Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova combined to go 7-for-11 from three-point range and 42 total points. After a rough first half, Ilyasova replaced Amir Johnson to start the third quarter and proceeded to score 10 points, as the Sixers seized control of the game, outscoring the Heat 34-18 in the period.
“Tonight was a statement,” said Robert Covington, who anchored a smothering Sixers defense in the second half. “We came in, that first half was kind of up and down, but the second half we kind of locked in.”
The performance from the veterans took some weight off the shoulders of Simmons, who punctuated the run with a crossover, two-hand-dunk combo late in the quarter.
One thing we learned during the Sixers’ 16-game win streak to end the regular season was that this is a team that is a lot deeper than its freakishly gifted headliners. After Embiid went down with a broken orbital bone, the team reacted by winning eight straight games and outscoring opponents by 14 points per night.
In Game 1, we saw a different version of that team on the court, but, then, that is the mark of a good one: the ability to adapt to the situation and keep on rolling. As you watched what the Sixers did to the Heat in the second half, as well as the way that they did it, it was hard to shake the feeling that this is going to be a short series.