• Heat-76ers: Complete series coverage
PHILADELPHIA – Maybe the bubble run wasn’t an accident.
The Miami Heat return to the Eastern Conference Finals where they face either the defending champions Milwaukee Bucks (who lead their streak 3-2) or the Boston Celtics. On Thursday, the Heat eliminated the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series, turning a one-point game into a comfortable win after a 19-4 run early in the third quarter.
Here are some notes, numbers, and footage of the 99-90 win that propelled the Heat to the Conference Finals for the ninth time in the franchise’s 34 seasons:
1. Big Game Jimmy
Jimmy Butler’s offensive play has what some could consider a fatal flaw. Among 217 players with at least 200 non-paintball field goal attempts during 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 that bad in the postseason, and he didn’t have to do much from the outside to average a series-high 27.5 series points. After shooting 5 for 16 in Game 1, he averaged 30 points on 54% shots in the last five games and capped that run with 32 points on 13 for 29 in Game 6.
Butler scored in a variety of ways, including pick and roll:
It was a performance (at a familiar gym) that saw both his current and former teammates praise Butler’s ability to make it big in big games.
“I didn’t know how good Jimmy was until I got here.” said PJ Tucker. “I thought he was a good player. I didn’t like him that much. I thought, ‘He’s fine.’
“He’s showing me more than I ever thought possible… 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 shy away and they don’t really want it. And he wants every part of every moment. He’s not afraid at all. And he gets to the point [fearlessness] into many different types in our team. It really gives them confidence in a weird way, but it does.”
“I still don’t know how we let him go,” Joel Embiid said of Butler. “I wish I could still go into battle with him.”
2. Minimum contracts, maximum contributions
A guy doesn’t win a series. And while the Heat brought in Kyle Lowry to help Butler in backfield last summer, the veteran point guard only played 56 (mostly ineffective) minutes in Miami’s two losses and has been struggling with a hamstring injury that could further limit him. (The good news on that note? With Dallas forcing a Game 7 with Phoenix, Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals isn’t until Tuesday.)
Bam Adebayo was great defensively, especially in terms of keeping Embiid out of the paint. Tucker was similarly critical with his defense and timely attack. But going back to the start of this season, these two (and Butler) were obviously expected to make important contributions.
Max Strus and Gabe Vincent? Not as much.
Both boys were on two-way contracts last season. Both have minimum offers this season and neither has guaranteed money for next year. But they each started in all four of the Heat’s wins in that series.
Strus, who has been a starting XI since late March, has averaged 39 points and 21 rebounds in his last two games, netting the first two double-doubles of his career.
You can invite high-priced free agents (like Butler) to guide you, but the ability to develop the likes of Strus and Vincent is really what separates the league’s best franchises from all others.
“They’re everything the Miami Heat organization is about,” Butler said of Strus and Vincent. “You play hard. You are not in the least bit selfish. And above all, they want to win.”
3. Barely harden
For the third time in the series, the Heat kept the Sixers under a point per possession. Embiid played injured and was unable to catch the ball near the basket due to the way the Heat were defending him.
The Sixers have another star, but James Harden couldn’t move up, scoring just 11 points in Thursday’s 4-for-9 shooting. Philly was just a point down 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 small run late in the third quarter. And at that point, Harden seemed happy to bow to the guy who was barely acting earlier in this series.
“We executed our offense,” Harden said. “The ball just didn’t come back to me.”
The Heat shrank the ground against Harden for most of that series, showing him a crowd when in isolation or coming 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 postseason is coming to an end, with Harden yet to prove that like Butler, he can make it big in big games. And it’s kind of insane that when his team’s season was on the line, Harden was outclassed by the guy – PJ Tucker – who used to stand in the corner watching him dribble with the Rockets.
4. The new PJ Tucker
Tucker, who has finished bottom in the league in usage rate for three straight seasons (2018-19 to 20-21), has no regrets about his offensive role in Houston.
“It was really easy,” he said, “and nobody could guard it and it was one of the best offenses of all time. That was pretty cool.”
But in his first season in Miami, he showed that he can do more offensively. Not only did he double his scoring average from last season, he also posted a career-high for assist percentage, tallying assists on 10.7% of his teammates’ field goals while on the court.
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’re trying to do above all is be open to players and opportunities and not put a cap on them,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said ahead of Game 6. “And honestly we’ve had so many injuries, especially in December and January, we needed his playmaking.
“He was really able to keep us afloat and we were able to come up with some coherent moves that really helped our shooters and our editing game and everything that makes sense. If you’re a really high IQ defensive player, you can usually put more on your plate offensively.”
“I have the freedom to just play,” Tucker added. “I like opening up to guys. I like squirting Max early on, get him going. And it’s part of my role on this team to be able to do that.”
Tucker had just one assist Thursday, but as previously mentioned, he beat Harden 12-11, with a highly un-Houston Tucker bucket coming from a handoff and roll with Strus:
Now Tucker could be up against the team he won a championship with less than 10 months ago.
“Destiny, right?” Tucker said of that possibility. “Is that what you call it? It’s like fate.”
5. Sixers went fishing
This series might have ended 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 would suggest) to be one of the top four teams in your conference.
But if you have the guy who came second in the MVP vote and then trade for the second highest-paid player in the league, you’re all-in at a championship. The Sixers are far from that goal and have yet to make the conference finals in five trips to the playoffs with Embiid.
“I came to the conclusion at the end of that game,” said Sixers coach Doc Rivers, “that we just weren’t 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 then things will get interesting as 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 Philly.
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John Schuhmann is a senior statistics analyst for NBA.com. You can email him here, his archive can be found here and Follow him on Twitter.
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