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Even if Joel Embiid is healthy, the Philadelphia 76ers will likely be underdogs against the Miami Heat. The Heat has the best record in the Eastern Conference, holds the home court advantage in the series and may have the perfect defender to tackle Embiid (Bam Adebayo) without having to sacrifice anything else at either end of the floor.
Obviously, Embiid’s absence puts the 76 in an even bigger hole. Before the series began, the best case scenario was his return to Game 3, where he came out with a concussion and played with a torn ligament in his thumb and a broken pilgrim. But even this return date was not certain. How the 76ers handled his absence in the first two games of the series would set the tone for what’s to come and whether they have a chance by the time he can play.
In the first game, the 76ers tried a fairly traditional alternative to Embiid, staring and using DeAndre Jordan for a total of 17 minutes. The 76 were outdone by 22 points in those minutes, meaning they outdid the Heat by six points over 31 minutes in a game they lost by 16 points.
After the match, Doc Rivers defend Jordan’s starting decision, by saying that the squad wanted it rolled, that they wanted to protect Paul Reed from outrageous trouble and that, “We’ll keep running it whether you like it or not.”
Rivers’ public statements are one thing, but the reality is another. The 76ers only managed to use it for 17 minutes and Match 1 and those minutes will likely cost them any chance of overcoming the annoyance. Obviously, Rivers is very familiar with Jordan from her shared time with the Clippers. But Jordan played only 214 minutes with the 76 players after they gave up the Lakers and were outperformed by 7.4 points for every 100 possessions he had on the field. He also never played in the first round series against the Raptors.
All this means, if things go badly at the start of Game 2, and that seems like a strong possibility, Team 76 will have no choice but to try to win the little ball. But are they equipped to pull it off?
Can the Philadelphia 76ers win a small ball?
Embiid’s dominance meant that the 76ers didn’t have much time to try out the small ball units. During the regular season, they just played 18 minutes With James Harden and Tyrese Maxey on the floor together there is no traditional center. However, they do have a few different things that could work in their favor in Game 2 (or later if Embiid can’t come back).
The first is that Bam Adebayo is relatively small for a midfield and does not generally play with his back to the basket. His size, mobility, and offensive role make it very easy for a Team 76er to escape with someone like Tobias Harris, Paul Reed, or even George Niang defending him. The Heat Adebayo is surrounded by ball builders and off-ball shooters, so this type of cross-matching doesn’t create any ripple effects with negative matches elsewhere.
Another possible outcome is Harden’s mastery as a lone scorer.
It was the initial offensive structure that opened Prime Harden in Houston with Clint Capella as Pick ‘n’ Roll partner and three other spaces for shooters around him. However, the Rockets gradually moved away from this form, eventually trading the Capela, leaving the Harden defenseless with four pitchers spaced out from the ground. He has always been more efficient as a goalscorer in isolation, and arguably his most effective seasons as an offensive mover came when he isolated more than twice as much as he was finishing possessions as a ball player.
The 76ers have allowed Harden to stoop into isolation more than he did in Brooklyn, but he’s still far from the balance he played in his last two seasons in Houston. And while the Harden we’ve seen this year is nowhere near as effective as Harden’s peak, he’s still much more effective as an isolation scorer. Much the same is true of Tyrese Maxey, in terms of efficiency. In addition, 76 players scored only 1.06 points per possession during the regular season on the property as Jordan set screen for Harden, a level lower than what they all managed on their own.
It may seem counterintuitive to give Harden and Maxi less To work with the attack and remove the complexity from it (especially against one of the best defensive teams in the league). But it might be a legitimate advantage for the 76ers, especially if it helps level an offense without a major fulcrum. It can also help put the best defenders of Miami’s periphery in the wrong trouble (both Harden and Maxey charge a much higher rate of fouls in isolation than in pickup periods).
Like I said before, Rivers may end up with small ball units by default when Jordan’s minutes lead to another early holeshot for the 76ers. But moving crime toward solitude and away from capture requires conscious choice. That might not be enough, but for a team that needs some leverage to pull it off, this sounds like a pretty big team.
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