Up Next

NBA

The real playoffs began when the Heat threw the first punch

Bullied by Miami in Game 2, Sixers enter Game 3 needing to fight back

It started with the Miami Heat picking up Ben Simmons defensively in the backcourt, putting a body on him early in the Philadelphia 76ers’ offense.

It continued with Heat guard Justise Winslow coming off the bench to bump with the star Sixers guard, which threw Simmons off his rhythm in the second quarter.

And it peaked with Heat forward Kelly Olynyk throwing what appeared to be a deliberate forearm to the head of Simmons and somehow escaping a technical foul — or any type of retaliation.

For many of the young Philadelphia 76ers, their playoff debut began with their impressive 27-point win over the Heat in Game 1 on April 14. But the real playoffs began in Monday’s 113-103 Game 2 loss, when the Heat decided to throw the first punch and continued to pummel the Sixers throughout the game with little resistance.

For the Heat, the physical nature of playoff basketball will be the blueprint to the team’s playoff success. For the Sixers, the only hope for a deep playoff run is for the players to learn to deliver the first blow or, at least, to punch back.

“Their physicality was elite,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said of Miami’s defense. “Those guys were bending us backwards. … To me, it’s the reality of NBA basketball, and it only gets harder.”

So expect the Heat to play up to their playoff tradition: the elbows, the pushing and shoving and the trash-talking that once defined this franchise during the postseason.

This is far from 1997 Heat forward P.J. Brown auditioning for a spot in the WWE by lifting and tossing Charlie Ward like a rag doll.

But this was a statement that the path to a deep postseason run by the Sixers won’t be by simply playing the freewheeling, pass-happy style of basketball that’s been the team’s trademark.

The physical nature of Game 2 meant more stoppages of play, which meant the Sixers weren’t able to run as much as they would like.

“They probably feel like they have the blueprint to beat us,” said Sixers guard J.J. Redick. “If you’re physical, you’re going to foul, the game is choppy and is played at their pace. We have to figure out a way to play at our pace.”

Making shots might help. After making 64.3 percent (18 of 28) of their 3-pointers in Game 1, the Sixers were just 7 of 36 in Game 2. Robert Covington missed eight of his nine 3-pointers, Dario Saric missed seven of 10, Redick missed six of seven and Marco Belinelli missed six of eight.

“I think we let them get where they wanted [in Game 1] and if you let them do that, they’re going to punish you,” said Heat guard Josh Richardson. “We took it upon ourselves to come out tougher and make things hard on them.”

Everyone expects this is how the series is going to be played. If you’re the Sixers, the question is who delivers the response.

Amir Johnson is the obvious choice, or maybe Ersan Ilyasova, but the Sixers could ill afford to lose either of those bigs to fouls.

The answer is Joel Embiid, who continues to recover from an orbital fracture. Embiid, who expressed his frustration with sitting on his Instagram page immediately after the Game 2 loss (the post has since been removed), practiced with the Sixers on Tuesday and was limited in practice on Wednesday. He is doubtful for Game 3. Now that the Sixers have lost home-court advantage in the series, Embiid’s importance is huge.

“When you seek to be a whole team,” Brown said, “we need Joel Embiid.”

The only Sixers player who didn’t appear affected by Miami’s physical play was the guy who was the biggest target, Simmons. He had 24 points (hitting 10 of 17 shots), nine rebounds and eight assists while using his body to throw Miami defenders off-balance.

“This is the first time where [contact] has been let go a little bit more, which is good,” Simmons said. “I enjoy it.”

Now it’s up to his teammates to adapt to it, and Brown will be continuously delivering that message until the start of Game 3 on Thursday night.

“There’s a way you have to play in the NBA playoffs from a toughness standpoint,” Brown said. “This game is a snapshot of what you should expect.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.