PHILADELPHIA — Maybe the bubble run wasn’t a fluke.
The Miami Heat are going back to the Eastern Conference finals, where they will face either the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks (who lead their series 3-2) or the Boston Celtics. On Thursday, the Heat eliminated the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series, turning a one-point game into a comfortable win after a 19-4 run to start the third quarter.
Here are some notes, numbers and film from the 99-90 victory that put the Heat in the conference finals for the ninth time in the franchise’s 34 seasons:
1. Big Game Jimmy
Jimmy Butler’s offensive game has what, for some, could be a fatal flaw. Among 217 players with at least 200 field goal attempts from outside the paint in the regular season, only Jalen Suggs (32.9%) and Anthony Davis (34.5%) had a lower effective field goal percentage on those shots than the Heat’s star (36.9%).
But Butler’s jumper hasn’t been so bad in the postseason, and he didn’t need to do a ton from the outside in order to average a series-high 27.5 points in the series. After shooting 5-for-16 in Game 1, he averaged 30 points on 54% shooting over the last five games, capping that run with 32 points on 13-for-29 in Game 6.
Butler scored in a bevy of ways, including in the pick-and-roll:
It was a performance (in a familiar gym) that had both his current and former teammates lauding Butler’s ability to come up big in big games.
“I didn’t know how good Jimmy was until I got here,” P.J. Tucker said. “I thought he was a good player. I didn’t think he was that good. I thought, ‘He a’ight.’
“He’s showing me more than I would have ever thought … His heart, how he’s never scared of the moment. And that in itself is a talent, because I’ve played with guys who are really good, but when they get in those big moments, they shy away and they don’t really want it. And he wants every part of every moment. He’s not scared at all. And he puts that [fearlessness] into a lot of different guys on our team. He really gives them confidence, in a weird way, but he does it.”
“I still don’t know how we let him go,” Joel Embiid said about Butler. “I wish I could go into battle with him still.”
2. Minimum contracts, maximum contributions
One guy does not win a series. And while the Heat brought in Kyle Lowry last summer to help Butler in the backcourt, the veteran point guard played only 56 (mostly ineffective) minutes in Miami’s two losses, dealing with a hamstring injury that could continue to limit him going forward. (The good news in that regard? With Dallas forcing a Game 7 with Phoenix, Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals won’t be until Tuesday.)
Bam Adebayo was terrific defensively, especially in regard to keeping Embiid out of the paint. Tucker was similarly critical with his defense and timely offense. But, going back to the start of this season, those two (and Butler) were obviously expected to be key contributors.
Max Strus and Gabe Vincent? Not so much.
Both of those guys were on two-way contracts last season. Both are on minimum deals this season, and neither has guaranteed money for next year. But they each started in all four of the Heat’s wins in this series.
You can bring in high-priced free agents (like Butler) to lead you, but the ability to develop guys like Strus and Vincent is really what separates the league’s best franchises from all the others.
“They are everything that the Miami Heat organization is about,” Butler said of Strus and Vincent. “They play hard. They’re not selfish in the least bit. And more than anything, they just want to win.”
3. Hardly Harden
For the third time in this series, the Heat held the Sixers under a point per possession. Embiid was playing hurt and, with the way the Heat were defending him, unable to catch the ball anywhere near the basket.
The Sixers have another star, but James Harden was unable to step up, scoring just 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting on Thursday. Philly trailed by just one point at halftime and in the second half, Harden was scoreless, shooting 0-for-2 and adding four assists and three turnovers.
After the Sixers fell into a double-digit hole, Shake Milton went on a little run late in the third quarter. And at that point, it seemed that Harden was happy to defer to the guy who was barely playing at the start of this series.
“We ran our offense,” Harden said. “The ball just didn’t get back to me.”
The Heat did shrink the floor against Harden for most of this series, showing him a crowd when he isolated or came off a screen. And in some cases he made the right play. But in Game 6, he was probably too passive for a guy who makes $44 million.
So another postseason comes to a close with Harden still yet to prove that, like Butler, he can come up big in big games. And it’s kind of wild that, with his team’s season on the line, Harden was outscored by the guy — PJ Tucker — who used to stand in the corner and watch him dribble with the Rockets.
4. The new PJ Tucker
Tucker, who ranked last in the league in usage rate for three straight seasons (2018-19 through ’20-21) has no regrets about his offensive role in Houston.
“It was really simple,” he said, “and nobody could guard it and it was one of the best offenses ever. So that was pretty cool.”
But in his first season in Miami, he’s shown that he can do more offensively. Not only did he double his scoring average from last season, he also registered a career high for assist percentage, recording assists on 10.7% of his teammates’ field goals while he was on the floor.
That wasn’t necessarily part of the plan when Tucker arrived. But when the Heat needed him to expand his role, they found something.
“What we try to do more than anything is just be open to players and possibilities and not put a ceiling on it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said before Game 6. “And quite frankly, we had so many injuries, particularly in December and January, we needed his playmaking.
“He was really able to keep us afloat and we were able to get to some coherent actions that really helped our shooters and our cutting game and all that, which makes sense. If you’re a really high-IQ defensive player, usually you can add more to your plate offensively.”
“I got the freedom to just play,” Tucker added. “I like getting guys open. I like getting Max shots early, get him going. And it’s a part of my role on this team to be able to do that.”
Tucker had just one assist on Thursday, but as noted, he outscored Harden 12-11, with one most un-Houston-Tucker bucket coming off a handoff-and-roll with Strus:
Now Tucker might face the team he won a championship with less than 10 months ago.
“Fate, right?” Tucker said of that possibility. “That’s what they call it? It’s like fate.”
5. Sixers gone fishin’
This series may have turned out differently if Embiid didn’t miss the first two games or was 100% healthy for the other four. And there’s no shame (at least not as much shame as social media would have you think) in being one of the four best teams in your conference.
But when you have the guy who finished second in MVP voting and then trade for the second-highest-paid player in the league, you’re all-in on a championship. The Sixers fell well short of that goal and still have yet to reach the conference finals in five trips to the playoffs with Embiid.
“I came to the conclusion at the end of this game,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said, “that we were just not good enough to beat Miami.”
This was supposed to be a two-year run with Harden and Embiid, but the former didn’t exercise his player option when he was traded from Brooklyn. He could still exercise it before June 30, but if he doesn’t, things get interesting, because he certainly hasn’t looked like a player that should get another max contract.
Asked about the contract option, Harden said, “I’ll be here” without specifying the method by which he’ll return to Philly.
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