Weary Sixers fall in Miami

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Miami 108, Philadelphia 99 – Box Score

With less than 20 games left in the regular season, every game is critical at this point. Facing a Miami team directly behind them in the standings though, Thursday night’s game in South Beach carried an added bit of importance for the Sixers. Ultimately, whether it was due to it being the third game of a 4-game road trip, the famous nightlife in the city where the heat is on (to use a Philadelphia native’s phrase), or simply an off night in a long NBA season, the Sixers just didn’t have the energy to turn it up in the fourth quarter and come away with the victory.

Philadelphia led by 1 heading into the final frame, but a few minutes into the fourth, the Heat went on a 10-1 run to pull away. The Sixers struggled with their usual unforced turnover difficulties (18 on the game, 1 above their season average), and exhibited low energy on the defensive end. Miami went off for 35 points in the fourth quarter, as the Sixers couldn’t string the necessary stops together to make a game of it down the stretch. It certainly didn’t help that the Heat were on fire from the outside, shooting 14-26 from behind the arc, or that Dwyane Wade once again made it look like he found the Fountain of Youth in his return to Miami, scoring 16 points off the bench. Seriously, does this look like the guy people have been calling washed up for months, if not years?

Often this season, when the Sixers have been struggling to this degree, they’ve leaned on Joel Embiid to play like an MVP-caliber talent and rule the day. Lately though, the big man has been struggling, as it appears he’s hit a wall in the face of the largest workload of his life. The Athletic’s Rich Hofmann noted that Embiid has now played more minutes this season than his past four years combined.

The 1,650 minute threshold carries additional significance. As pointed out by Bobby Marks, it was the necessary mark set by the team within Embiid’s rookie extension to bypass the injury clause; Embiid now needs to reach the mark in at least two of the next three seasons.

Clearly, the front office viewed this workload as evidence of a successful season; Embiid has reached it with a month left. But he looks a little worse for wear as a result. After Dwight Howard scored 30 two nights earlier, Hassan Whiteside worked his way against Embiid for 26 points on 9-12 shooting. Embiid had no steals or blocks, unusual for a man as generally active as him defensively. On the offensive end, Embiid shot just 5-18 from the field, with many of his jumpers simply coming up short, clear evidence of not having his legs.

That’s not to pin the loss on Joel; I’m just pointing out that so often he’s been good enough to lift everyone else up, and that hasn’t been there lately for perfectly understandable reasons. The rest of the supporting cast needs to play better. Aside from J.J. Redick, who scored 18 points on 4-6 shooting from three, even the guys who contributed something had a “yeah, but” aspect to their night.

Dario Saric led the team with 20 points, continuing his torrid shooting stretch by knocking down 4 of 7 three-pointers. Yeah, but he led the turnover brigade with 6 giveaways.

Ben Simmons had a well-rounded line of 10 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks. Yeah, but he had 5 turnovers himself.

Robert Covington was the team’s best defender, coming away with a game-high 4 steals and a outstanding block to deny a Heat lay-up in transition. Yeah, but he shot an absolutely putrid 0-10 from the field.

Either Embiid needs to play like an All-NBA player, or the rest of the team has to be nearly flawless. Neither thing occurred Thursday night and the Sixers dropped their second game of the road trip as a result. They’re now tied in the season series with Miami (the next tiebreaker will be conference record) and hold a one-game advantage over the Heat in the standings, while sitting 1.5 games back of 5th-place Indiana. Every game matters. Fortunately, Sunday in Brooklyn should prove as an easier way to close out the road trip before heading back to Philadelphia.

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