Sunday, May 22, 2022

NBA playoffs: Two simple adjustments 76ers need to make as they try to steal Game 2 vs. Heat

The Philadelphia 76ers don’t have long to dwell on their 14-point Game 1 loss to the Miami Heat, as Game 2 is set for Wednesday night. Though they’re hopeful Joel Embiid can return at some point during the series, the Sixers will again be without their All-Star center in Game 2, as the big man continues to recover from a concussion and broken orbital bone that he suffered against the Toronto Raptors in the first round. 

With that said, here are two simple adjustments that the Sixers can make to give themselves a better shot in the second game of the series. 

1. Less DeAndre Jordan

This one seems somewhat unlikely, given that Doc Rivers has already committed to not only playing, but starting, DeAndre Jordan in Game 2, despite (extremely) underwhelming results in Game 1. 

“We like DJ, we’re going to keep starting him whether you like it or not,” Rivers said to media members on Monday night. “That’s what we’re going to do because our guys believe in him. It’s funny, at halftime, we asked all our key guys, we were thinking about it, because I thought Paul Millsap gave us decent minutes, and to a man that’s where they wanted to go.”

Again, this commitment comes after Jordan was downright bad in Game 1, as told by both statistics, and the simple eye test. At this point in his career, the 33-year-old Jordan spends the majority of his time on defense looking like his feet are stuck in cement. Like this: 

Offensively, Jordan offers nothing outside of being a lob threat. He can’t stretch the floor. He isn’t a great post passer. He doesn’t devastate the offensive glass. He can finish an alley-oop if the ball is spoon-fed to him, and that’s it. While discussing Game 1, my CBS Sports colleague Sam Quinn summarized Jordan’s contributions pretty succulently:

In fairness to Rivers, his options with Joel Embiid injured were fairly limited. He could have dusted off another relic in Paul Millsap. He could have relied on unproven youngster “B-Ball” Paul Reed. He could have gone small with Tobias Harris at center. All three options performed better than Jordan during his minutes. The Sixers held their own with Reed (minus-3 in 13 minutes) and Millsap (minus-2 in six minutes). They thrived with Harris (plus-8 in roughly eight minutes). But Philadelphia lost the game in the 17 minutes Jordan spent as their center. The 76ers lost those minutes by an astonishing 22 points, eight more than their 14-point margin of defeat.

That’s the thing. Rivers doesn’t have great options when it comes to filling in for Embiid – which is another discussion entirely. The team currently uses five roster spots on centers, but still doesn’t have a reliable backup option for a player in Embiid who has been known to miss time. That’s an indictment on the front office more than it is on Rivers, as Rivers can only work with the hand he was given. 

With that said though, it truly seems like any option would be better than Jordan at this point. Start Paul Reed, and if he fouls out, worry about that then. Maybe give Charles Bassey some minutes. Rivers’ reluctance to play Bassey in the postseason is understandable given his lack of experience, but it seems really unlikely that he could be worse than Jordan at this point. Or, even go small and use Tobias Harris or Georges Niang as a small-ball center.

Though they’re not great, Rivers does have other options, and he needs to tap into them. Hopefully for the Sixers, Embiid is able to return for Game 3, and this won’t be as big of an issue. But in the meantime the Sixers obviously want to avoid falling into an 0-2 hole. That brings up to the second easy adjustment they can make to try to prevent that from happening. 

2. More James Harden 

James Harden wasn’t bad in Game 1. He finished the game with 16 points (on 5 of 13 shooting), nine rebounds and five assists in 34 minutes of action, and he likely would have had more assists if his teammates were able to knock down some shots.

But while Harden wasn’t downright bad, he wasn’t great either. Pedestrian is probably a good word to describe his performance. If he was an average rotation player, his output would have been acceptable. But, he isn’t an average rotation player, he’s James Harden – multiple time scoring champion, future Hall of Famer, one of the 75 best players in the league’s history. A guy that’s making $44 million this season, and will be looking to ink an enormous new contract over the offseason.

The Sixers traded a hefty haul for him to be the secondary option alongside Embiid – and a guy that could take over the offense when Embiid is on the sideline, like he is now. That’s why his 16 points on 13 shot attempts just isn’t acceptable. Even if he isn’t the player that he once was when it comes to explosion and athleticism, which clearly seems to be the case, Harden still needs to give the Sixers more. 

With Embiid out, the Sixers are at their best when Harden can consistently attack the defense and make it collapse, and that’s just something he didn’t do in Game 1, as his average field goal attempt distance in the game was 19 feet. He also attempted just four free throws in the game. 

Miami’s defense deserves a lot of the credit when it comes to Harden’s pedestrian performance in Game 1, as the Heat made things especially difficult on him. Without Embiid, the Heat can afford to focus more of their defensive attention on Harden, and that’s exactly what they did. P.J. Tucker pressured Harden all the way up the court from the beginning of the game, which slowed Harden’s pace, and then the Heat threw secondary defenders and different looks at him consistently. It was an effective game plan, but one that Harden is going to have to be more productive against in Game 2 if the Sixers want to have a chance of winning.  

If I’m Doc Rivers, I’m telling Harden that I want at least 20 field goal and 10 free-throw attempts in Game 2. If you’re going to go down, you might as well go down swinging. 

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