It wasn't easy, but Heat oust Sixers to key showdown with Celtics
"Now we move onto a series that everybody will be excited about,'' said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
No one had been more excited than the 76ers, who extended their opening round for 95 minutes 50.7 seconds before Miami clinched its 97-91 win to finish them off in Game 5. Did they create any clues that will help the Celtics overtake the Heat's home court advantage in Round 2? The most obvious weakness was a clunky half-court offense (an unbalanced 30 threes attempted overall, and 29.4 percent shooting from the field in the fourth quarter) that enabled Philadelphia to remain within a couple of possessions over the last five minutes.
Spoelstra doesn't anticipate much carry-over. "The Celtics are much different,'' he said in comparing them to the up-tempo Sixers. "They beat you with precision, with veteran experience, with the execution of their offense. They don't necessarily play with this speed and quickness -- they carve teams up. You don't normally face teams like the Sixers, who very often play small, and everybody arguably is among the quickest players at his position.''
After hearing Miami emphasize the need for a strong start -- "it's a mindset,'' demanded Spoelstra -- the Sixers once more ran out to a 16-5 start. Within five minutes the Heat had reclaimed a 27-23 advantage thanks to 11 first-quarter points off the bench from point guard Mario Chalmers, who had 20 overall to emerge as an asset moving into the next series. But Miami couldn't create anything more than a 10-point lead, and then couldn't held it for very long. Elton Brand (22 points) continued to impress, and Andre Iguodala (22 points on 14 shots and 10 rebounds) made three huge shots in the fourth quarter before missing a jumper inside the arc with 10 seconds remaining in what had been a three-point game.
So what did it all mean? It will be noticed up north that LeBron James (5 of 13 for 16 points with 10 rebounds and eight assists) and Dwyane Wade (26 points on 25 shots among his 11 rebounds and seven assists) both earned technical fouls in the second half of a tight closeout game -- a potential weakness certain to be explored by the antagonistic Celtics.
James earned his technical in the third quarter after an alarmingly quiet opening half in which he went 1 for 6 for three points. When he felt himself heating up after downing a three (delivered by Wade) to push the Heat ahead 58-55, he urged his teammates to join him in defending the Sixers and putting a forceful end to this once and for all.
But it wasn't so easy, as little was in this series. The Sixers successfully defended a pair of back-to-back James breakaways, stripping him of the ball as he went up for the second attempt. James didn't get back on defense, watching instead from outside the three line as Iguodala finished a second-chance dunk, after which James swiftly earned a technical foul that pushed Philly up 61-60 midway through the third.
But here was the interesting part. After sitting through a calming timeout, James would push Miami ahead 12-6 to end the quarter. He passed out of the post to Wade for a layup, put back an offensive rebound and canned a three and a two off the dribble. This was one example of the gains Miami made by continuously having to fight through Philadelphia, as Spoelstra saw it.
"What I liked is that we were pushed at different times in this series,'' said Spoelstra. "It's not always going to be pretty, but we showed some resolve in these games. We showed some improvement in those areas.''
Wade's technical came after he had slid on his backside near referee Tony Brothers following an unsuccessful drive down the lane. Jrue Holiday (imagine a 20 year old being the choice to shoot a last-minute elimination free throw) made the technical to create a one-possession game with 51.2 seconds remaining, after which Iguodala nailed a jumper to make it 92-91.
That's when another strength was revealed. His name is Joel Anthony, and not only did Miami's backup center block two shots in the final six minutes, but he also found himself with the ball under the basket from Chalmers with 16.8 seconds remaining and that one-point lead to protect. After a hard foul he could not have looked more steady at the line while pushing the advantage back up to 94-91.
"I don't think he knew what situation he was in,'' said Wade with a smile. "He was just doing what he normally would do. He didn't overthink it.''
Anthony's plus-minus impact on this series was overwhelmingly positive for Miami. There will be calls for him to be promoted to the starting lineup against Boston, but Spoelstra suggested that he prefers the spike in energy he receives from Anthony (as well as Chalmers) off the bench. "He does that every game -- the energy, the athleticism,'' said Spoelstra. "He does inspire the other guys to play harder. That is so unique in this league for a guy that doesn't put up 20 points a game.''
The Heat will be accused of regressing over the last couple of games, and who knows what roles injured Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem -- who were supposed to be their top role players this season -- will be able to perform against the Celtics. But then Boston has its own large questions involving the state of Shaquille O'Neal and the production of its own unsteady bench. Put it altogether and perfection won't be the target for either team when the next round starts here Sunday. Either side will be more than happy to win by any means handy.