The Miami Heat are heading to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in three years after beating the Philadelphia 76ers, 99-90, in Game 6 Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center. Miami made devastating runs to start the third and fourth quarters to extend its lead, while the 76ers struggled offensively all night behind a stoned Joel Embiid and a calm James Harden.
Miami’s Jimmy Butler continued his playoff assault, leading the team in scoring (32 points) while playing his normal brand of lockout defense. The real story for the Heat, however, was Max Strus, who set the tone early with his shooting, passing and rebounding. Strus finished with 20 points and hit four 3-pointers. Miami was ahead of Philadelphia all night, with spectacular execution from both sides.
Embiid, who finished with 20 points on 7-of-24 shooting, was more aggressive on offense but just couldn’t get going against the Heat’s suffocating defense. He fell to the ground several times throughout the game and looked visibly tired from being on the pitch for 44 minutes. Harden got off to a good start but was silenced in the second half and finished with just 11 points on nine shot attempts on the night. He also didn’t attempt a free throw in almost 43 minutes and didn’t score a goal in the second half.
The Heat advance to face the Celtics-Bucks series winner, and they’ll have home-court advantage in the conference finals by winning the No. 1 seed.
Here are some takeaways from Thursday’s game.
The Strus was loose
Basically an afterthought on the Heat’s roster to start the season, Strus was huge on Thursday night when the Heat needed him the most. Not only was he able to knock down shots and create gravity by drawing defenders into the perimeter, but he also leveraged the attention to throw great passes to his teammates for easy baskets. He finished with a record plus-23 in nearly 40 minutes.
It was a bold move for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to bench Duncan Robinson to start the playoffs, but Strus proves exactly why it was the right move. He’s shooting better than Robinson this season, and Strus brings more physicality on the defensive end, which he showed throughout the playoffs. Thanks to the Heat for developing guys like Strus and Gabe Vincent, who got a lot of experience during the regular season due to all the injuries on the team, which prepared them to perform on the most big game scene.
Jimmy Buckets, indeed
There are few players who elevate their game from the regular season to the playoffs more than Jimmy Butler. The Heat leader had a quiet second quarter, but broke out in the first, third and fourth to finish 13-for-29 from the field and a plus-16 for the game. Whenever Miami has needed a boost in the playoffs, Butler has had it on one side or the other — usually both.
Say what you will about Butler’s status in the superstar hierarchy during the regular season, but he’s proven time and time again that he’s on a very short list of players who can rightfully be a championship team’s best player. . The guy is just a winner.
Harden’s Disappearing Act
Harden looked pretty good going into the game, going 4 for 7 from the field en route to 11 points and five assists in the first half. The second half, however, was a different story. As the Heat continued to build their lead, Harden took just two combined shot attempts in the third and fourth quarters, and the helpless 76ers offense simply couldn’t muster enough punch. Harden had more second-half turnovers than field goal attempts, which drew boos from the home crowd and only added to his existing reputation for shrinking in the biggest post-season games.
With a deal at the Feb. 10 trade deadline, Daryl Morey has reunited with his Houston Rockets superstar while he waits for a running mate to partner with Embiid. It’s safe to say Harden hasn’t lived up to expectations in the playoffs, and especially not in Thursday’s playoff game.
The 76ers are going to have an intriguing decision on whether to extend Harden this offseason ().
Don’t sleep on the heat
Few No. 1 seeds have received as little fanfare as the Heat this season, with many fans and pundits picking the Celtics-Bucks series winner to advance to the NBA Finals. But Miami has proven, even without key offseason acquisition Kyle Lowry (who suffered a hamstring injury), that the team is capable of winning any postseason series thanks to its disciplined, focused and energetic approach from both ends of the pitch. Philadelphia has two of the league’s top scorers, in theory, and the Heat have given them absolutely no breathing space in all six games.
Miami will likely struggle offensively and lean heavily on Butler against Boston or Milwaukee, but you’re kidding yourself if you think they can’t get back to the NBA Finals for the second time in three seasons.