Amir Johnson was sitting at his locker in a pair of compression shorts when he nodded up at a television glowing in silence above his head. On the screen, the Timberwolves and Nuggets were locked in a close-quarters battle in what was essentially the season’s first playoff game, the winner getting the Western Conference’s eighth and final postseason berth, the loser getting a jump start on summer vacation.
As it happened, Johnson was in the midst of a conversation with a locker room visitor about the nature of playoff basketball — specifically, the tendency of the game to slow in tempo, the end lines closing like a clamp on each other as teams trade half-court possessions.
“Especially in close games,” Johnson said, flicking his head toward the overtime game on the television, where the Timberwolves were leading the Nuggets, 107-106, after 52 minutes of action. “Like this game here.”
How that reality interacts with the Sixers’ style of play is one of the more pertinent questions that will begin to be answered when they take the court at the Wells Fargo Center for their first playoff series of the post-Process era Saturday night. During the regular season, no team in the Eastern Conference played a faster brand of basketball than the Sixers. Their Pace Rating — a metric that estimates the number of possessions a team averages in 48 minutes of game clock — was 102.2, higher than any other team except the Pelicans, Lakers and Suns. The Warriors finished right behind them at 101.8.
Similar to Chip Kelly’s offense during his time with the Eagles, Brett Brown’s derivative of the Spurs’ legendary scheme uses tempo and spacing to keep defenders on their heels. According to NBA data, the Sixers generated a quarter of their offense in the first six seconds of the shot clock during the regular season, a total eclipsed only by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Only two teams in the Eastern Conference scored more points in transition.
The impact that the Sixers’ style of play can have on defenders is best illustrated by an interaction that JJ Redick had with a former teammate during a late-season win over the Pistons. At one point during the 115-108 victory, the two teams were gathered around their benches during a timeout when Jameer Nelson locked eyes with Redick from across the court and mouthed the words, “You guys play so fast.”
But the conventional wisdom says that playoff basketball becomes more of a half-court game. In last year’s postseason field, the four fastest teams from the regular season each saw their Pace Rating fall in the playoffs. As a group, though, the average pace rating of the 16 playoff teams rose from 97.1 in the regular season to 98.4 in the postseason.
That’s still a slower brand of basketball than the Sixers like to play. And in the Heat, they’ll face an opponent that is among the most plodding teams in the NBA, with a 97.8 pace rating that ranks 26th. The four regular-season games between the teams featured a Pace of 100.18, among the slowest of any opponent the Sixers faced.
“When we look at the teams that have hurt us, [the Heat] have things that hurt us,” Brown said. “Their notion of being able to play longer in a 24-second shot clock. They aren’t reliant on a one- or a two-pass thing — they are happy to go side to side and play until they get something they like. They still look at early offense in transition, but if they don’t get something quick, they are happy to play basketball in a half-court environment, which is very playoff driven. They are purposefully with what they do in a half-court offense.”
The Sixers cannot afford to get dragged into a half-court game, especially with Joel Embiid out for Game 1 and perhaps longer. In their eight games without the big man, they have been playing even faster than usual, and blowing teams out of the gym.
“I think you have to think lots about running after makes, running after misses, trying to turn people over, trying to go with a bench that isn’t too skinny,” Brown said. “It’s hard to connect the dots with we’re going to have eight guys and only have shooters on the floor, which you really want to do more than not and still play with a torrid pace that we play. We need to impose our will on Miami. We can’t be sort of either afraid of the style or easily dictated that you are not going to play that way.
“Obviously, they are going to want to show us down and show Ben Simmons an incredible crowd and Ben’s going to have to play against five guys and then fan out to pretty hot three-point-shooting team. It’s no secret about how we play and how we’ve won games, and therefore it’s no secret on how I would guard us and what I think other people will do. We need to maintain a pace. We need to play fast.”
It’s a formula that has worked all season. How will it work in a seven-game series? We’ll get our first look Saturday in Game 1.