Miami Heat know there is no simple plan to slow down 76ers’ Joel Embiid

EditorLast Update :
Miami Heat know there is no simple plan to slow down 76ers’ Joel Embiid

MIAMI — In a one-game battle with such big stakes, there aren’t many combinations of coaches NBA fans would be more eager to see match wits as Erik Spoelstra and Nick Nurse. Both are among the best tacticians, particularly within a single game, that the league has to offer.

There is a limit to what can be done with two days rest, one practice and a morning shootaround, though.

“We are who we are,” Spoelstra, the Miami Heat coach, said Tuesday. His team plays Nurse’s Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night in the 7-8 Play-In game in the Eastern Conference. “We have to be great at what we do. And they’re going to try to be great at what they do. It’s not as if we can reinvent who we are at this point with one practice.”

The winner advances to the playoffs as the seventh seed and will play the New York Knicks, an excellent team with some offensive question marks, in the first round. The loser will have to play the winner of Wednesday’s Chicago Bulls–Atlanta Hawks game Friday night for the right to play the Boston Celtics, by far the league’s best team in the regular season. Both the 76ers and Heat have legitimate reasons to think they can compete with the Celtics, but winning Wednesday’s game would go a significant way toward any hope of either team making a long playoff run.

For the 76ers, they were second in the East when Joel Embiid suffered a knee injury that cost him 29 games over nearly two months. He returned to play in five of the 76ers’ final seven games of the season, getting up to 36 minutes in one. The two teams played four times this year, but Embiid played in just one, on April 4. To further complicate drawing conclusions from this season, Bam Adebayo, one of the league’s best defenders, who you would expect to stay on Embiid as often as possible, spent just 24 possessions on Embiid in that game. It was so strange that the 76ers finished minus-19 in Embiid’s 33 minutes while the Heat were minus-29 in Adebayo’s 29 minutes. If the two are separated that much Wednesday, something bizarre will have happened.

Of course, Adebayo and the Heat have amassed plenty of time guarding Embiid over the years, but this is a slightly different version of the reigning MVP. Embiid averaged 5.6 assists per game this season, with his previous high at 4.2. He assisted on an estimated 32.4 percent of his teammates’ buckets while he was on the floor; he topped out at 22.9 before this year.

In the 2019 Eastern Conference final, Nurse, then the head coach of the Toronto Raptors, constantly mentioned how his team had to both help to prevent Giannis Antetokounmpo from getting into the paint and then recover to the shooters that he found once his lane to the basket was closed off. It is no surprise, then, when Nurse got a physical, multi-skilled big man to work with, he made sure Embiid could sling the ball around to his teammates so that defenses would have to make the same effort he asked of his Raptors years ago.

“It’s essentially trying to guard two (players) every position because you try to give as much help as you can with a guy like him, and he’s able to knock down shots,” Heat swingman Caleb Martin said. “And obviously just expanding his game, getting off the ball at the right times, makes it difficult.”

Since returning from the injury, Embiid has operated more as a screen and shooter, primarily working with the speedy Tyrese Maxey, than in the post. Despite the plus-minus, Embiid still had 29 points in the game against the Heat earlier this month.

“It pulls your defense in a different way. You invert it (with the defensive big man away from the paint), obviously,” Spoelstra said. “And if you’re not extending your defense to the 3-point line with him, he’ll make you pay, just as he did in the first half the last time we played him. He can do it in all facets. So in a one-game sample, he could do it in the post if he needs to. He can do it from out there. Can do it in pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops, all of that. It has to be our best, most swarming version defensively (with) whatever game he’s bringing to it.”

In the four games Embiid played in the 2022 Eastern Conference semifinal between the two teams, the 76ers big man averaged just 19.8 points on 42.6 percent shooting from the field. The Heat will take that again, even if it comes with eight trips to the free-throw line. However, Embiid was coming back from a fracture of his orbital bone and a concussion, and also playing with a different primary pick-and-roll partner — James Harden.

That brings Maxey into the equation. Maxey averaged 27.3 points in four games against the Heat this year, but that was on relatively poor efficiency, to be expected given three of those games were played without Embiid. He exploded for 37 points and 11 assists in the game with Embiid, shooting 15-for-26 from the floor.

Martin spent the most time on Maxey of any Heat player this season, with Philadelphia scoring just 64 points in 60 possessions during that matchup. (Terry Rozier III, who is out Wednesday because of a neck injury, spent more time on Maxey his year than Martin, but he was on Charlotte for two of the five games he played against the 76ers. Maxey shot just 38.9 percent from the floor with Rozier on him.)

“It changes a whole lot because they’re two different players,” Heat reserve big man Thomas Bryant told The Athletic about guarding Embiid with Maxey as his partner in the two-man game versus Harden. “With Tyrese, he’s a young player, very active, very quick-twitch (athleticism) with him. He makes it a little bit more difficult on the pick-and-rolls.”

It is a combination as old as professional sports: speed and finesse plus power. You can only take so much away, assuming Embiid is more healthy than not.

“Really just got to make it difficult for him on his catches,” Bryant said. “Can’t let him have too much air space. Try to get into him a little bit more, make him move, make him burn a calorie or two.”

(Photo of Joel Embiid and Caleb Martin: Jim Rassol / USA Today)