The message from Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to his players in the time leading up to Thursday night’s Game 3 showdown with the Philadelphia 76ers at AmericanAirlines Arena has been simple: Continue to play with an edge.
“The playoffs aren’t about comfort,” Spoelstra said Wednesday as the first round series shifts to South Florida tied at 1 after Dwyane Wade’s heroics and a better defensive effort lifted the Heat to victory Monday in Game 2.
“Winning during the playoffs is not comfortable. We had a great edge to us in Game 2, much more so than Game 1. They had an incredible edge and force to them in Game 1 so we know what we can probably expect from them in Game 3. The margin for error in a series like this is very small. You have to bring great force, but there also has to be things done with real focus and discipline.”
After four thrilling regular season games and two intense playoff meetings, it doesn’t appear Spoelstra is going to have to play any mind games to get his team up for the rest of this series.
The physical nature of Game 2 – like the snapshot of Heat forward Justise Winslow barking obscenities at Sixers rookie Ben Simmons after drawing a charge – and the way the game ended, with Goran Dragic angering all of Philadelphia with a late layup at the end of a 113-103 win, has Game 3 primed to be a doozy.
And then of course there’s the matter of Sixers All-Star center Joel Embiid, who could be cleared following a 10-game absence to lineup across from nemesis Hassan Whiteside. Although the Sixers have listed Embiid as doubtful, the Heat are preparing to see him sooner rather than later.
The way Winslow sees things, the physicality and trash talk in this series, which is already high, figures to rise to another level again – especially if Embiid returns.
“[The dislike] increases every game. Every possession it increases,” Winslow said. “We both know what's at stake. We're trying to get to that next round by any means necessary.
“I know some of those guys. But between the lines I don’t like them. I don't like them at all. Nothing personal, nothing dirty, but it’s going to be physical, it’s going to be a lot of back and forth especially if Jojo is out there.
“It’s fun. That’s what you want as a competitor. It almost has that pickup [game], outside feel to it. I just love the physicality and just the competitive nature both teams have shown.”
One thing Sixers forward Robert Covington clearly didn’t like was Dragic putting an exclamation point on the Heat’s win in Game 2. After he scored unguarded on a layup with 1.2 seconds to go, Dragic was booed by Philly fans and yelled at by players on the Sixers bench.
“It definitely matters because you can just dribble it out,” Covington said. “We don’t understand why he did it.”
Said Dragic: “I don't care. The first game we were down 30 and they were still running inbounds plays after timeouts with seven seconds left in the game. It's the playoffs. I'm doing everything it takes.”
Even though the Heat held the Sixers to 41.7 percent shooting from the field and 7 of 36 on three-point shots in Game 2, there is one area Spoelstra wants to see a dramatic improvement from his defense in Game 3. That’s second chance points.
For the second game in row, Philadelphia grabbed 17 offensive rebounds. Thus far, the Heat has been outscored 45-18 in second chance points. The Sixers, the No. 1 rebounding team in the league this season, figure to only get better at dominating on the glass when Embiid returns.
“They’re burying us, they’re absolutely burying us on the glass,” Spoelstra said. “That has to change. Their [advantage in points in the paint right now] I believe are 102 to 68. I know you don’t win a lot of game doing that.”
How does the Heat solve it?
“It has to do with film,” James Johnson said. “We're watching film and what they're getting their second opportunities from. They have great catch and shoot players, and sometimes we have both guys contesting and it just creates a lane for the big man to go crash the boards. We’re figuring it out, moving rotations and we’ve just got to stop that bleeding on the offensive rebounds.”
On the flip side, Miami knows it can’t rely on Dwyane Wade, the hero in Game 2 with 28 points, to dominate at age 36 in every game in this series. Offensively, others have to step up.
“I'm not worried about encores,” Wade said. “I’m just worried about trying to help this team win. I've had my day in the sun where I needed to show you all scoring 30 or 40 night after night. I did that, we won a championship. Right now it’s just about being a leader and giving this team what they need on different nights. So I don't know what [Thursday] is going to being or what’s going to happen, but I want to be able to walk away knowing this team has won a basketball. That’s the only focus of mine.”