The postseason is no time for silver linings, but that is where we are going to start. This was a boxing match, plain and simple. It was evident early on that the Heat were not the ones that were going to back away. The question was how the Sixers and their impossible rookie would respond. The way they answered it is the kind of thing that can reverberate into the future.
The Sixers lost, and we’d be remiss if we did not acknowledge it as the most important part of the equation. They are headed on the road and, two games in, this best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal is now evened up. They say that a playoff series doesn’t really start until somebody wins one on the road. Well, this one has started now, and the Sixers are too new at this for any of us to know how they will respond.
We do know this, though: If they respond the way they did to the Heat’s all-out assault as it unfolded in Game 2, then things will turn out OK when it is all said and done.
Throughout Game 2, you saw the fluid reality of the NBA postseason unfold. While Brett Brown started the lineup that had sparked the Sixers second-half rout in Game 1, the Heat stuck with big man Hassan Whiteside and a rotation similar to the one they deployed in the series opener. Whether or not Miami coach Eric Spoelstra was sending a message by deciding to go big against the Sixers’ smaller, quicker interior, it certainly foreshadowed the game that was to come.
For 48 minutes, the Heat threw everything they could muster at the Sixers, in particular, Ben Simmons. They used their big men to body him and deny the inbounds after makes. They had Justise Winslow pick him up full court and pressure the ball all the way down it. In the second half, James Johnson got in on the act, grappling with Simmons off the ball like there was a loose puck in the corner.
“He’s going to learn more about himself in this playoff than anything the regular season teaches you,” Brown said of Simmons. “For a very large majority of our NBA season, we went through defenses that never left the paint. Their pickup points were back at the foul line as Ben was dribbling up the floor. Tonight, the whole thing changed. I would say it was like 95-5 [percent] in the regular season, where they didn’t really guard him and 5 percent they would get out and try to chase him. And tonight they did.”
It wasn’t just Simmons who felt the full force of the Heat’s desperation — at one point, Josh Richardson took down Dario Saric with a foul that was half-hack, half-tackle — but Simmons was unquestionably the focus of it. At one point in the first half, the interplay between he and Winslow seemed in danger of boiling over, Simmons sending the defender to the court with a forearm shiver while driving to the hole, Winslow popping up with his chest puffed out and clapping his hands at the whistled offensive foul.
“We played Game 1 like a regular-season game,” the Heat’s Dwyane Wade said. “Tonight was a playoff game.”
From the jump, it was a fistfight. At first, the Sixers did not seem ready to fight it. They scored just 13 points in an ugly second quarter that moved approximately at the pace of a snail. The Heat ground their way to 34 points in the period and took a 14-point lead into halftime.
“There’s a way you have to play in the NBA playoffs from a toughness standpoint and a physicality standpoint,” Brown said, “and that was shown tonight.”
In the second half, though, the Sixers responded, and they did on the wings of their 6-foot-10 rookie. Simmons came out of the locker room with the same aggressive approach he’d employed throughout the first half.
He took the ball the length of the court off a miss and finished strong through the body of Johnson at the other end to cut the deficit to 56-46. He dribbled around Johnson and finished a reverse layup over Whiteside to make it 58-48. With 4:40 left in the fourth quarter, he took the ball in the post with Johnson at his back and, rather than forcing something, kicked the ball out to Saric, who drove to the rim to set up an Ersan Ilyasova put-back that pulled the Sixers to within two points.
“They were a little bit more physical,” Simmons said, “but at the same time, we’ve got guys who can throw bodies as well.”
In the end, they came up short. Still, it’s hard to worry. Two nights after shooting 64 percent from downtown in one of the most prolific long-distance performances in playoff history, the Sixers spent much of Game 2 regressing to the mean, watching open looks rattle out at an astonishing pace. That won’t be the case every night, same as their 18-for-28 wouldn’t. If anything, this was an over-correction.
Wins are more important than educational experiences, but you get the sense this one will be worth something.
“To me, it’s the reality of NBA basketball,” Brown said, “and it only gets harder. … This game equals the NBA playoffs.”