Their old friend Jimmy Butler was back in the City of Brotherly Love for the first time since leaving the Sixers and joining the Heat in a sign-and-trade deal this offseason. Philadelphia had followed a 5-0 start to the season by going 5-5 over its previous 10 games, leading to renewed questions about the way its roster fit together.
But then Saturday night’s game began. And by the time it was over, the Sixers had secured a 113-86 victory over the Heat, one that sent a loud and clear message to the rest of the NBA: They’re going to be just fine.
“We all stepped up,” Philadelphia point guard Ben Simmons said. “We’ve had too many games where we waited too late, until the fourth and third quarters, and I think with this game we showed throughout the whole game we can hold that [energy].”
The Heat were the unfortunate recipients of that effort. It isn’t often a 27-point margin of victory undersells the performance by the victor. This game, however, was one of them. The Sixers led wire to wire, and led by as many as 41 points. All five starters finished with a plus/minus of at least plus-28, and four of them scored in double figures — led by a season-high 32 points from shooting guard Josh Richardson, who was playing in his first game against his old team as well. Overall, the five-man lineup of Simmons, Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Joel Embiid outscored Miami 33-10 in only 11 minutes on the floor together.
And the one starter who didn’t score in double figures — Simmons — hounded Butler relentlessly to start the game, getting him out of sorts and allowing Philadelphia to immediately jump out to an early lead it didn’t look back from.
It was a game that perfectly encapsulated the vision for this team that general manager Elton Brand had when he put it together this summer. Richardson, Harris and Horford, all of whom have struggled to shoot the ball to start the season, went a combined 25-for-35 from the field, and 9-for-13 from 3-point range. The Sixers controlled the boards, forced turnovers and hit open 3-pointers.
But what particularly stood out was the way Philadelphia smothered Miami defensively. It was reminiscent of the performance the Sixers had in the season opener against the Boston Celtics. Like Boston in that game, Philadelphia’s defense forced Miami to play far faster than it wanted to. With so much size and speed across their lineup, the Sixers shrink the court in ways no other NBA team can — and it takes some getting used to.
“They’re definitely unique,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The way they protect the paint is really unique, and you really have to work your offense with a little more energy, a little more commitment, a little more calories burned.
“The last couple games, we’ve been getting great looks on the initial trigger,” Spoelstra continued. “Against a team like this, with that kind of size, you’re going to have to be a little more aggressive, while still being patient. It’s a balance that you have to have.”
The Heat didn’t have it Saturday night — in large part because the Sixers didn’t let them.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) November 24, 2019
And make no mistake: This is a game Philadelphia was fired up to play. Embiid had declared earlier this week that, despite this being the season during which the Sixers plan to manage his body and minutes throughout the regular season, he was going to play both Friday night against the San Antonio Spurs and Saturday against Miami.
Embiid was not going to miss the first meeting with Butler. And after Embiid threw down an emphatic reverse slam to make the score 11-2 early in the first to force Spoelstra to call the first of two timeouts in the period to try to stem the tide, Embiid walked to center court to raise both arms skyward and did a shimmy with a huge grin on his face.
These are the types of games Embiid lives for. And, as he often does, he delivered in it — and posted on Instagram after it.
But he was far from alone. Richardson had missed the previous two games with a hip flexor issue, but shook it off to easily have his best game as a member of the Sixers. Some of that was because of some unsustainable shooting on some difficult attempts, but he also was flying around and active at both ends of the floor, helping to force Kendrick Nunn to go 3-for-10 and Duncan Robinson to go 0-for-6, as well as the two Heat players combining to go 0-for-7 from 3-point range.
“They have so many guys that can switch and do so many things well,” said Butler, who finished with 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting. “Tonight, they made a lot of shots, and we didn’t. They got in the open floor and played the type of basketball we want to play from the very beginning of the game.”
There is plenty for the Sixers to still sort out. Even on a night when everything was clicking so well for them, they got only a combined 19 points from their bench players, who were a combined 7-for-27 from the floor and 3-for-13 from 3-point range. One hot shooting night doesn’t erase the overall spacing issues that the starting unit must still sort out. Embiid still spends a lot of time floating around the perimeter and taking difficult fadeaway midrange jumpers rather than higher-percentage looks at the rim.
Still, for all of the concern that has once again surrounded this team, Philadelphia’s starting lineup has now played together for 81 minutes across seven games — and has outscored its opponents by a staggering 29.4 points per 100 possessions, the best of the 47 lineups that have played at least 50 minutes together this season. It’s a reminder of the immense potential this group possesses if it can actually get all five of these guys on the court together on a regular basis.
Before Saturday night’s game, Spoelstra had declared this a chance for the Heat to “find out where we’re at.” The Sixers, who hadn’t had their starting lineup together for over a week, looked at it the same way.
“I am [excited],” coach Brett Brown said. “It hasn’t been a lot of minutes [together yet], but to get them all back now and play them all against a team like Miami, I’m excited about it.”
The Sixers then went out and gave Brown plenty more to be excited about.