MIAMI — The morning after the Sixers reclaimed control, Ben Simmons sat in an empty AmericanAirlines Arena and offered an early reflection on his first foray into the NBA postseason.
“I wish it was like this all season,” Simmons said, spinning a basketball in his hands. “I’m enjoying it. It’s very competitive, and that’s the kind of basketball I like to play.”
During the run up to their first-round playoff series against the Heat, the Sixers faced plenty of questions about their level of preparedness for the postseason. They were legitimate questions, given an unprecedentedly youthful core that features three first- or second-year players among the starting five. At halftime of Game 2, there was even more reason to wonder, as the Sixers had just been outscored 34-13 in a physical second quarter that seemed to epitomize playoff basketball.
Now, with the Sixers holding a 2-1 series lead, those questions seem close to being answered. Since that second quarter collapse in Game 2, they have outscored the Heat by 32 points. Of the series’ 12 quarters, the Sixers have outscored the Heat in nine of them, including three out of four of their 128-108 win in Game 3.
A few observations heading into Saturday’s Game 4:
Points over pace
While the Sixers scored 128 points, Game 3 was actually played at a slightly slower pace than Game 2, according to NBA.com. The two big differences for the Sixers were a) They did not spend a quarter regaining their wits in the face of the Heat’s physical defense, as happened in the second quarter in Game 2, and, b) They hit shots, knocking down 18-of-34 from three-point range and finishing with a .658 true shooting percentage that was the third-highest of any NBA playoff game this postseason (true shooting percentage combines and adjusts for two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws).
Apart from their pace, the Sixers’ three-point shooting has been their greatest offensive hallmark all season, increasingly so since the additions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova in February. Belinelli, in particular, has been a revelation this postseason, averaging 20.7 points per game while shooting .435 from three-point range. He’s played more than anybody could have anticipated, averaging 32 minutes per game in the series after averaging 26.3 per night in 28 regular-season games for the Sixers. He has actually played two more minutes than JJ Redick.
The Sixers, who went 18-for-28 from downtown in Game 1, are just the fourth team since the inception of the three-point line to have two games of .529 or better shooting percentage on 28-plus three-point attempts in the same postseason, joining the 1996-97 Rockets, 2016-17 Cavs, and 2015-16 Cavs, the latter of whom did it in three games.
For a couple of weeks, it looked as if Markelle Fultz might be able to rescue a good story out of the ashes of his lost rookie season. But after some promising moments at the end of the regular season, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft is in danger of losing his spot in the postseason rotation. In the second half of Game 3, Brown went with T.J. McConnell as his backup point guard, a switch he also made in Game 2 after Fultz struggled on the defensive end of the court. Brown went back to Fultz in the first half, but the rookie again looked out of his element.
The rotation shuffling might not have a big impact on the Sixers’ fate this postseason, given that Simmons was on the bench for less than eight minutes of Game 3. But it does offer a reminder that the Sixers will have some interesting decisions to make in their backcourt this offseason. While Fultz was a capable backup point guard in the 14 games he played at the end of the regular season, he was drafted because of his ability to co-exist with Simmons in the backcourt. Thus far, he has not demonstrated that ability, given his reluctance to shoot. He has attempted just one three-pointer in 276 minutes of action in the regular season and playoffs, and is shooting just 39.0 percent from the field and 52.0 from the foul line.
Meanwhile, Redick will be a free agent after playing this season on a one-year deal. Fultz’s unresolved shooting woes this season would seem to complicate the decision-making process for how to proceed at the two-guard position for 2018-19.
For now, though, there appears to be plenty of basketball left to play.