• Heat-76ers: Full Series Coverage
PHILADELPHIA CREAM – Maybe the bubble race was no accident.
The Miami Heat return 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 knocked out the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series, turning a one-point game into a comfortable victory after a 19-4 run to start the third quarter.
Here are some notes, numbers and footage from the 99-90 win that put the Heat in the conference finals for the ninth time in the franchise’s 34 seasons:
1. The Big Jimmy Game
Jimmy Butler’s offensive game has what, for some, could be a fatal flaw. Of 217 players with at least 200 field goal attempts out of 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 star of the Heat (36.9%).
But Butler’s jumper wasn’t all that bad in the playoffs, and he didn’t need to do a ton from the outside to average 27.5 points in the series. After shooting 5 for 16 in Game 1, he averaged 30 points on 54 percent shooting over the past five games, capping that streak with 32 points on 13 for 29 in Game 6.
Butler scored in multiple ways, including in the pick-and-roll:
It was a performance (in a familiar gym) that had current and former teammates praising Butler’s ability to stand out in big games.
“I didn’t know how good Jimmy was until I got here,” PJ Tucker said. “I thought he was a good player. I didn’t think he was that good. I thought, ‘He a’ight.’
“He shows me more than I ever thought…His heart, how he’s never afraid of the moment. And that in itself is a talent, because I’ve played with guys who are really good, but when they get into those big moments, they hesitate 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] in a lot of different guys on our team. He really gives them confidence, in a weird way, but he does.
“I still don’t know how we let him go,” Joel Embiid said of Butler. “I wish I could keep fighting with him.”
2. Minimum contracts, maximum contributions
A guy doesn’t win a streak. And while the Heat brought in Kyle Lowry last summer to help Butler in the backcourt, the veteran point guard played just 56 (mostly ineffective) minutes in Miami’s two losses, dealing with injury. to the hamstrings which could continue to limit it in the future. (The good news in that regard? With Dallas forcing a Game 7 with Phoenix, Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals won’t happen until Tuesday.)
Bam Adebayo was terrific defensively, especially keeping Embiid out of the paint. Tucker was also critical with his timely defense and offense. But, going back to the start of this season, these two (and Butler) obviously had to be key contributors.
Max Strus and Gabe Vincent? Not really.
These two guys were on two-way contracts last season. Both are on minimum offers this season, and neither has guaranteed money for next year. But they each started in all four Heat wins in this series.
Strus, a starter since late March, had 39 points and 21 rebounds over the last two games, recording the first two double-doubles of his career.
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 top franchises in the league from all the rest.
“They’re everything the Miami Heat organization talks about,” Butler said of Strus and Vincent. “They play hard. They are not selfish at all. And more than anything, they just want to win.
3. Barely harden
For the third time in this series, the Heat held the Sixers under one point per possession. Embiid was playing injured and, with the way the Heat were defending him, unable to catch the ball 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 made a short run late in the third quarter. And at that point, it looked like Harden was happy to defer to the guy who was barely playing at the start of this series.
“We led our offense,” Harden said. “The ball just didn’t come back to me.”
The Heat have shrunk the ground against Harden for most of this series, showing him a crowd when he isolated himself 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 making $44 million.
So another playoff is coming to an end with Harden yet to prove that, like Butler, he can be big in the big games. And it’s kind of crazy that, with his team’s season on the line, Harden was outclassed 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 UAT for three consecutive seasons (2018-19 to 20-21) has no regrets about his offensive role in Houston.
“It was really simple,” he said, “and nobody could keep it and it was one of the best offenses ever. So that was pretty cool.
But in his first season in Miami, he showed he could do more offensively. Not only did he double his scoring average from last season, but he also had a career-high assist percentage, registering assists on 10.7% of his teammates’ field goals so that he was on the ground.
It 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’re trying to do more than anything is just be open to the players and the possibilities and not put a cap on it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said before Game 6. “And frankly, we had so many injuries, especially in December and January, we needed his game.
“He was really able to keep us afloat and we were able to come up with some consistent action that really helped our shooters and our cutting game and stuff, which makes sense. If you are a very high IQ defensive player, you can usually add more to your plate offensively.
“I had the freedom to just play,” Tucker added. “I like guys to be open. I like to take pictures of Max early, get him going. And it’s part of my role in this team to be able to do that.
Tucker only had one assist on Thursday, but as noted, he beat Harden 12-11, with the most anti-Houston-Tucker bucket after a transfer with Strus:
Now Tucker could face the team he won a championship with less than 10 months ago.
“Fate, right? Tucker talked about that possibility. “Is that what they call it?” It’s like fate.
5. Sixers went fishing
This series could have gone differently if Embiid hadn’t missed the first two games or was 100% healthy for the other four. And there’s no shame (at least not as much as social media makes you think) in being one of the top four teams in your conference.
But when you have the guy who finished second in MVP voting and then trades for the second highest paid player in the league, you’re all-in for a championship. The Sixers are well short of that goal and still haven’t reached the conference finals in five playoff trips with Embiid.
“I came to the conclusion at the end of that game,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said, “that we just weren’t good enough to beat Miami.”
It 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 didn’t look like a player who should get another max contract.
Asked about the contract option, Harden said, “I’ll be here” without specifying the method by which he will return to Philadelphia.
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John Schuhmann is a senior statistics analyst for NBA.com. You can email him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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