The red-hot Philadelphia 76ers opened the playoffs Saturday night without All-Star center Joel Embiid.
One could argue the Miami Heat didn’t have its $98 million starting center either.
On a night one thought Hassan Whiteside would have the opportunity to shine – especially in a series the Heat badly need him to – he did very little and the Sixers ran past Miami 130-103 to take Game 1 of its Eastern Conference quarterfinal series at the Wells Fargo Center.
Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2016 draft and a Rookie of the Year favorite, led the way for the Sixers with 17 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds as Philadelphia rallied in the second half to win its 17th consecutive game and improve to an NBA-best 24-2 at home since Christmas.
The Heat, meanwhile, lost for the 13th time in its last 15 road games. The 130 points and 18 three-pointers by the Sixers were the most given up by the Heat ever in a playoff game.
J.J. Redick led the Sixers in scoring with 28 points (four three-pointers) and Marco Belinelli, a late addition to the roster after the Hawks bought out his contract in February and Philadelphia signed shortly after, added 25 points (four three-pointers) off the bench.
“It’s not about him,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra explained of why Whiteside played only 12 minutes and 26 seconds and didn’t play again after Kelly Olynyk replaced him with 7 minutes and 54 seconds remaining in the third quarter. “The whole second half, this series and this game it’s going to go quickly. There’s a lot of subs both ways. There’s not a lot of time based on the flow or the matchups [to make adjustments]. It’s not necessarily an indictment of his first four minutes [of the second half]. But we all have to be collectively better [for Game 2] on Monday.”
It wasn’t just Olynyk who played more than Whiteside. Rookie Bam Adebayo (20 minutes, 31 seconds) did too. Whiteside, whom the Heat were counting on to help defend the paint and combat the No. 1 rebounding team in the league, finished with two points, six rebounds, two blocks and two turnovers.
“I think coach wanted some change,” Whiteside answered when asked why he thought he played so little. “K.O. was playing well. Of course, I would love to be out there rebounding and blocking shots and be out there with my teammates. But I think K.O. was playing well so coach just wanted to get him out there.”
Whiteside, who has been critical in the past of Spoelstra when his minutes have been curtailed and went on a profanity-laced rant after a recent loss to Brooklyn, expressed his frustration to Spoesltra on his way to the bench, using a few choice words before sitting down.
“He just wanted to change it up,” Whiteside said of what was said as he went to the bench. “I trust coach. I trust his decision-making. We didn’t get this one. They shot amazing from the field. We didn’t get this one, but we move to Game 2.”
With Embiid out, the Sixers started veteran Amir Johnson (6-9, 240) at center to begin the game, but went with 6-10, 235-pound forward Ersan Ilyasova at center and a faster lineup to start the second half.
Sitting Whiteside didn’t do anything to slow the Sixers. After he went out, Philadelphia expanded what was a 69-63 lead into a 93-78 lead early in the fourth quarter. It grew from there.
“The game has to be more on our terms,” Spoelstra said. “Even in the first half that was probably still more on their terms. Ball control, getting to coherent offense, getting to what you want to without turning it over. Obviously they scored almost 30 in transition off our turnovers. That’s tough to handle with their speed. So we have to take care of the basketball and get what we want. I think they flattened us out in early in possesions. Then we have to execute with a little bit more coherency and detail and discipline down the stretch.
“The defense that we’re accustomed to showing also would help us get some of our own in transition. In the second half, we just let the floodgates go. You do have to credit them. They shot the ball – the heck out of it. Redick and Belinelli were coming off full speed on screens and we did not show the kind of force of physicality. We were late to the game on those plays time and time again. Look, that’s something that has got to change Monday. That’s it.”
Heat All-Star point guard Goran Dragic, who has been battling a bone bruise in his right knee for the past month, had his own struggles. He was 4 of 14 from the field and finished with 15 points, four assists and four turnovers in 31 minutes. Josh Richardson was 1 for 7 with four points, four assists and two steals.
Kelly Olynyk had 26 points to lead the Heat.
Losing the opening round of a playoff series isn’t a death sentence for the Miami. The Heat has come back to win eight of 19 previous playoff series in which has lost Game 1.
Before the Sixers dominated the second half, Miami did a lot of good things in a building a 60-54 lead over the first two quarters. Olynyk and James Johnson, who closed with 13 points, three rebounds and four assists, were leading the charge. Johnson, though, didn’t score in the second half.
After Dragic buried a three to increase the Heat’s lead to 63-56 with 11:02 left in the third quarter, Philadelphia went on to outscore the Heat 34-15 in the third quarter, holding Miami to 5 of 19 shooting (26.3 percent) in the period.
Before the first NBA playoff game played in Philadelphia in six years got started, the always pleasant Philly faithful greeted the Heat with deafening boos and by shouting “SUCKS!” after each player in Miami’s starting lineup was introduced.
Wearing a mask similar to the one worn in Phantom of the Opera, Embiid rang a miniature version of the Liberty Bell before the Sixers players were introduced and the fireworks began.
“Just incredible,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said of the Philly crowd. “At the start of the game you feel it and the Joel goes out and rings the bell and you feel it. There’s only one other venue in the country to me that even competes with us. Golden State gets really loud. The Philadelphia fans, apart of the vocal side and the volume, there’s this complete passion. You can just see it. To have our fans be treated to this season – and there’s way more to go, way more to grow – what an opportunity to give back to them.”