On Monday night, the Miami Heat were not at their best in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Philadelphia 76ers – but it was still good enough.
Despite playing without starting point guard Kyle Lowry and hitting 9-for-36 from 3-point range, the Heat defeated the 76ers 106-92 at FTX Arena in front of a sellout crowd of 19,620.
“You don’t want to put context to anything,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said when asked whether there was more pressure to exploit the Sixers’ absence of Embiid. “You want to maintain an awareness of the current moment. It’s basically just about doing whatever it takes to get to the next game, or the current one. That is all we will discuss. We haven’t discussed, ‘Hey, we need to win tonight.’ That, I believe, provides a new level of context and pressure.
“It’s just a matter of going out and devising the greatest game plan possible to win that game. And that is precisely what we will concentrate on for the next 48 hours — on Game 2.”
Miami’s Game 1 performance was one to forget. It shot only 43% from the field and was led by star player Jimmy Butler’s mediocre effort (15 points on 5-for-16 shooting).
The 76ers, on the other hand, were far poorer. They went 6-for-34 from 3-point range, committed 15 mistakes that resulted in 22 points for the Heat, and were outrebounded 47-37, including 15-9 on the offensive board — which aided the Heat in racking up 13 more shots.
“Very similar to the [first round versus] Toronto, in that we told our players they couldn’t have more boards or force turnovers because they couldn’t have more shots,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said.
“We have a little margin for error, and we cannot afford to give a team 13 more shots on the road without Joel and expect to win a game.”
Philadelphia will be without Embiid for at least one more game due to an orbital fracture and concussion sustained in Game 6 against Toronto. However, the 76ers confessed they let a winnable game slip away, even more so with Lowry out again with an ailing hamstring and them shutting down the Heat offensively.
“Obviously, we’re not trying to miss shots, but things we can control include rebounding and not giving the ball over,” said James Harden, who finished with 16 points on 5-of-13 shooting, four free throws, five assists, and five turnovers. “Those are factors under our control, and once we play the next game, we’ll have a higher chance of winning.”
Additionally, there was widespread dissatisfaction with the way Miami used their toughness to exert control over the game. In Embiid’s absence, Miami All-Star centre Bam Adebayo dominated, ending with 24 points on 8-of-10 shooting, 12 rebounds, and four assists in 33 minutes.
The 76ers were especially displeased with their third-quarter performance. The Heat dominated the boards and raced back into the lead after trailing by one at halftime, in part because Philadelphia allowed a few missed shots to cloud its judgement.
“I believe we got the looks we wanted,” said Tobias Harris, who added 27 points on 11-for-18 shooting in 36 minutes. “Occasionally, it occurs. This is a make-or-break league.
“We’d repeat those looks the next game as well. We just need to be prepared and project the same sort of looks that we may get. We just have to create them.
“They didn’t fall for us tonight, and I believe it sapped some of our defensive energy. Hopefully, those shots will be available the next game, and we will capitalise.”
DeAndre Jordan, Embiid’s replacement in the starting lineup, was minus-22 in 17 minutes. Paul Reed, the backup, was effective in his 13 minutes, scoring four points, grabbing nine rebounds, and dishing out four assists – but he also racked up five fouls.
Jordan will start Game 2 on Wednesday and for the remainder of Embiid’s absence, Rivers said, noting that he performed much better in the second half than he did in the first, when the 76ers instantly fell behind.
“We like DJ, and whether you like it or not, we’re going to keep starting him,” Rivers said. “We’re going to accomplish it because our players believe in him. It’s interesting because at halftime, we questioned our key players about it because I felt Paul Millsap gave us some nice minutes, and to a man, that’s where they wanted to go.”
The 76ers expressed confidence that, based on what they learned in Game 1, they can level the series in Game 2 before hosting Games 3 and 4 on Friday and Sunday.
“Obviously, we’re missing Joel, but we have no control over it,” Harden added. “We have to go out there and be men and be great, which I am certain we will.”