It’s true that the Miami Heat dominated most of last night’s Game 2 against the Sixers, only wobbling late in the fourth quarter before being steadied once again by Dwyane Wade. It’s true that Wade was spectacular, and hewed much closer to the 2010 version of himself than the player he’s been recently. It’s also true that imagining the Heat and Wade reproducing last night’s performance three more times is tough to do.
Game 2 felt like a 99th percentile game for Miami, in which everything went exactly right for them. After getting torched for 130 points in Game 1, the Heat came out viciously engaged on defense, and spent the first half bullying the Sixers into submission. All those screens and pin downs that were producing wide-open looks from three in Game 1 were blown up by sheer defensive effort, and no Sixers player was allowed a comfortable second with ball. Philly scored only 13 points in the second quarter.
Ben Simmons had it particularly rough, getting mugged up and down the floor by the likes of Justise Winslow and James Johnson, who forced Simmons to shoot 3-of-8 in the first half. He was dealing with this shit almost every possession:
Meanwhile, Wade was out of his mind. He all but singlehandedly built the Heat’s 14-point halftime lead by going 8-of-9 from the field to score 21 points in the first half. He cooled off in the second, scoring just seven points, but showed up late with a few clutch plays to save the Heat as they were beginning to come apart.
And that’s the rub: Despite how perfectly executed Erik Spoelstra’s defensive game plan was, and despite Wade’s unexpected and revelatory performance, the Heat were really circling the drain late in the game. Their double-digit lead felt oddly tenuous throughout the second half, and the Sixers were a bucket shy of snatching it away late in the fourth.
The thing about playing redlined, full-court defense for the entire first half of a playoff game is that it can wear the defenders out just as much as it does the guys who are being harassed. You could see the Sixers, and Simmons in particular, taking advantage of their increasingly fatigued opponents as the game went on. The Sixers grabbed 10 offensive rebounds in the second half, and Simmons started going straight through the chest of whatever tiring defender was put in front of him. He scored 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting in the second half, and at all times seemed poised to stamp Game 2 as The Ben Simmons Game. Wade put a stop to all that with his clutch steal-and-dunk, but I’m not sure if it bodes well for the Heat’s chances that after playing so well for much of the game they had to be rescued at the last minute by their 36-year-old bench player.
Unfortunately for the Heat, they’ve got an even bigger problem to worry about. Joel Embiid has cleared concussion protocol and seems, uh, eager to return to the court. If you’re a Heat fan, you might be able to convince yourself that Ebmiid’s return will perversely benefit Miami’s defense—Hassan Whiteside will suddenly become useful, and they should have a few less multi-screen possessions to fight through—but then you’ll remember what Embiid is capable of doing for his own defense. Miami’s offense hasn’t looked great in either of the first two games, and the addition of Embiid will only make it harder for them to wade through the Sixers’ swarm of long, athletic defenders.
It feels like the Heat have a much harder road ahead of them than any team that just flipped home-court advantage should. More than anything, that’s a testament to just how deep and talented this Sixers team has become. It takes maximum effort to beat even a diminished version of this squad, and now the Heat will likely have to deal with them at full strength.