The Heat are the first team headed to the conference finals after a 99–90 win over the 76ers on Thursday. The final score didn’t indicate the gap between the two clubs in Game 6. Miami dominated the start of the fourth quarter, taking a 92–72 lead about halfway through the period and crushing any hopes of a Game 7. Jimmy Butler led the Heat with 30 points, while Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey each scored 20 in a losing endeavor for Philadelphia. Here are three thoughts on Miami’s decisive victory.
The Heat’s Defense Belongs in the Conversation
Miami held Philadelphia to a 98.9 offensive rating in Game 6, an elite showing that choked the life out of the Sixers’ offense. Yes, Embiid was hampered by injury, but he was also hounded by Heat forward Bam Adebayo. Embiid made only seven of his 24 shots, and as a team Philadelphia hit only 41.4% of its field goals. In regards to their defense, the Heat aren’t often discussed in the same category as Milwaukee or Boston, but so far this postseason they’ve harassed the likes of Embiid, James Harden and Trae Young.
Adebayo was brilliant Thursday, denying Embiid in the post and making him work on every possession. Guard Max Strus refuses to be attacked in switches, while Butler and forward P.J. Tucker remain first-rate defenders, both on and off the ball. Even with the benefit of hitting five more three-pointers than their opponent, the Sixers couldn’t find any rhythm offensively. And it was their downfall in the biggest game of their season.
Where Did James Harden Go?
After his 31-point effort in Game 4, many wondered if James Harden was “back.” But in Game 6, he was outscored by Strus, who was once undrafted, and Tucker, who turned 37 last week. Harden was essentially a no-show in the series finale, failing to score in the second half, and finishing the game with as many turnovers (four) as field goals made. The Sixers traded for Harden to give Embiid a superstar running mate, somebody who could make his life easier in the playoffs. Heck, Ben Simmons didn’t shoot, but at least he played defense. Harden didn’t offer enough on either end of the floor, and his Game 6 performance now joins his litany of disappointing playoff moments. Embiid clearly still needs help if he’s going to make the conference finals in his career, let alone the championship round. It’s more than fair to question if Harden is the long-term answer next to him.
The Heat Keep Passing Tests
Can the Heat slow down Young? Check. Can the Heat win a game against Embiid? Check. Can Butler score efficiently in the playoffs? Check. Can Strus hold up as a starter? Check. You ask the question, and the Heat have provided a satisfactory answer so far during the postseason. Miami likely won’t be favored in a series against the Bucks or Celtics. Still, the Heat have passed every test handed to them in the playoffs with flying colors. Whether or not Miami’s performance is sustainable or a result of its opponents will still be questioned in the coming days. The Heat are going to be handed another very difficult task if they want to make the Finals for the second time in three years. So far, they’ve proven they can handle whatever is in front of them. With its win Thursday, Miami has earned another chance to shut up its critics.