Prediction: 56-26 record, second seed in East. So far: 20-9, #5.
Joel Embiid’s stat line looked good Wednesday night, as he finished with 22 points and 19 rebounds in a 108-104 home loss to the Heat.
But Embiid, perhaps even more so than his teammates, was frustrated by Miami’s 2-3 zone that prevented him from taking full advantage of his low-post skills and quick feet.
The most difficult stretch came in the second quarter, which the Heat closed with a 27-7 run to turn a 12-point deficit into an 8-point halftime lead.
Embiid managed just one basket on a put-back dunk in 8-1/2 minutes during the period.
Asked afterward if the Sixers were prepared for the zone, Embiid replied, “It was on the scouting report. I feel like, um, I mean, we weren’t aggressive enough.”
And then he said, “In the first half, I don’t even remember being in any action or getting the ball.”
Indeed, Embiid was 2 for 7 from the field with just six points in 16 first-half minutes, though he was active on the boards by grabbing five of his 11 rebounds on the offensive end.
But rather than putting the blame on his teammates or coach Brett Brown, as he appeared ready to do, Embiid then backed off.
“We knew they were going to do it,” he said. “We were prepared for it, but I guess we didn’t do what we talked about.”
Was it a sign of maturity by the Sixers’ 25-year-old center? Probably.
Rather than criticizing the opponent — as he did when calling former Celtics big man Aron Baynes “man bun” in reference to Baynes’ hairstyle during the 2018 playoffs — Embiid credited Miami for what it did at both ends of the floor.
The Heat clearly scouted the Sixers well, as evidenced by playing Ben Simmons to pass — which he did — on Philly’s final offensive possession.
When a team is packing in its zone, Embiid would beat one defender, only to have another slide over to halt his path to the rim.
As a result, Embiid spent too much time on the perimeter, hitting just 1 of 5 attempts from 3-point range for a team that went 12 for 39 from behind the arc. Embiid was 7 for 14 on 2-pointers.
The Sixers moved the ball better in the fourth quarter, when they rallied and nearly overcame a 16-point deficit with a little over seven minutes to go, in part due to some fullcourt pressure out of desperation.
“With the zone, you’re always trying to go inside-out,” Brown said. “You’re always trying to find a hole and there are many gaps.”
The Sixers struggled to find them for most of the evening.
“We ended up having our best offense when we set an angle screen and played downhill,” Brown said. “As a coach, at times, you don’t feel like you’re helping your guys if that’s all you got. You want to get Joel Embiid the ball in the middle of the floor, down along the baseline.”
It didn’t happen nearly enough.
It’s amazing to me how NBA players tend to look like they’re seeing a zone for the first time when you know they went against plenty of zones in high school and college.
Early in the 2001-02 season, which was the first in which the league allowed zones, the Sixers’ makeshift starting backcourt of Speedy Claxton and Raja Bell — Eric Snow, Allen Iverson and Aaron McKie were injured — acted as if the early-season zone it faced was something from another planet.
Even Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown couldn’t solve the zone that night.
As for the current Sixers, while Brett Brown said he’d been told his team had been ranked No. 5 in the NBA in the 49 possessions they faced a zone entering the game, this is a copycat league.
Brown should expect to continue seeing zone, starting with Friday night’s home date with the Mavericks. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has played plenty of zone over the years, particularly in an effort to hide the now-retired Dirk Nowitzki late in Nowitzki’s stellar career.
If the Sixers can shoot better from outside and attack the zone via player and ball movement, the zones should disappear. Until then, get used to a steady diet of them.
Tom Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org; @TomMoorePhilly