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Grotz: Nicolas Batum and gritty Sixers survive Heat with gutsy effort

PHILADELPHIA — It was the way the Sixers finished their 105-104 victory over the Miami Heat in the NBA’s 7-vs.-8 play-in Wednesday night that says a lot about what you can expect in their best-of-7 first-round series against the New York Knicks.

Smart, disciplined, methodical, the Sixers turned over every stone the way a veteran team does, and it punched their ticket to Madison Square Garden, where they oppose the second-seeded Knicks starting Saturday night. They couldn’t have done it without Nicolas Batum, who scored 20 points off the bench, bombing 6 of 10 shots from beyond the arc on an otherwise cold shooting night for the Sixers. Joel Embiid added 23 points, and Tyrese Maxey 19.

“He was big time for us,” an exhausted Maxey said of Batum. “We needed somebody to make some shots against the zone and that got us going. It was extremly hard just because of the different things they do and the attention on myself and (Embiid). Nico hit some big shots and Buddy Hield hit a big shot. Guys really stepped up tonight. Nico was probably the star of the night.”

The Heat on the other hand gave it a pretty good shot but just didn’t have enough guys to get the job done. They have one more shot to stay in the tournament, Friday against the survivor of the 9/10 game between Chicago and Atlanta late Wednesday.

All season, in all types of drama, the Sixers got the job done the hard way. It looks like the playoffs will be no different.

You couldn’t have asked for a better start from the Sixers as they immediately funneled the offense through Embiid, who worked Bam Adebayo, the Heat’s only big, into foul trouble in the first quarter.

Embiid skillfully drew two fouls that put Adebayo on the bench with 6:55 left in the first, the free throws grabbing a 9-2 lead. You could hear the groans all the way from South Beach when Kevin Love replaced Adebayo.

Kyle Lowry, who almost hit the floor on a hard early screen from Adebayo, made it 12-4 with a triple. Then he hustled all the way down the floor to foul Jimmy Butler. With just seconds left in the first quarter, Buttler

Hard to believe it but by the end of the first quarter the Sixers trailed by a point. They couldn’t figure out the 2-3 zone that kept the ball out of Embiid’s hands. The Heat made Embiid work on every dribble, every pass, every shot. By halftime the Sixers were in a 51-39 hole, settling for and often missing jump shots. The Sixers committed a dozen turnovers in just the first half. Butler four of the Heat’s nine steals along with 10 points and four boards.

“I didn’t think that we were moving, cutting, driving,” Sixers coach Nick Nurse said. “Especially driving the ball. I was telling (Maxey) the entire time, make one pass, get it back and put his head down and go and collapse the defense. That was huge. He did it, Kelly (Oubre) did it a couple times, Nico did it and even Buddy (Hield) started hitting the gaps of the zone. We scored 66 in the second half. That’s a lot in this game.”

The third quarter was a missed-shot fest. But finally, Nurse got the Sixers to realize that all the defensive attention on Embiid made the Heat vulnerable to 3-point shots. The Sixers drilled five triples in the third, including three by Batum to get within two, though they trailed by five entering the final frame.

Batum was effective because Butler was giving up the shots by dropping back into double teams. The Sixers found a rhythm elevating the tempo against a Heat team that was hustling, just not getting the bounces. After the game it was revealed that Butler, who finished with 19 points, played the last three quarters on a sprained MCL that occurred when Oubre Jr. bit on a pump-fake and fell hard on the leg of Butler.

The Wells Fargo Center rocked when Embiid, who had just 10 points in the first half drilled a triple to tie the game at 74 early in the fourth quarter. Batum had a fan club when he bombed another trey to give the Sixers a 79-76 lead with 8:43 left. With Embiid taking a rest, Batum’s sixth triple gave the Sixers a four-point lead.

Butler, who had  appeared to be in discomfort from a first-half collision with Oubre Jr., who bit on a pump-fake and fell hard on the leg of Butler. But his fifth steal accompanied by a layup and a triple by Tyler Herro got the Heat within one point with six minutes remaining. At that point, Nurse wisely called time and reinserted Embiid.

The Heat pushed Batum off his spot, just slightly, and began challenging a fatigued Embiid at the basket.

Back and forth it went, the Sixers trading today’s bumps and tomorrow’s bruises with the Heat, neither side backing down. Two veteran teams experienced in postseason battles duked it out. Nurse said the Sixers must ramp up the physicality in the Knicks series.

Just when Embiid looked like he was ready for a nap, he drilled a triple, and then on the next possession, added a jumper off an offensive rebound and completed an and-1 with 1:42 left to give the Sixers a two-point lead.

The Heat tied it and Embiid missed a shot on a drive and the tip. But Tatum coaxed a backcourt violation out of Herro, and Embiid got his sixth assist dishing the ball to Oubre for a layup. With 36 ticks left, the Sixers led 99-96.

The Sixers came dangerously close to a 5-second inbounds violation inside of 15 seconds that would have given the Heat a chance at a three-point ball to tie it. But Batum got the ball to Lowry, and the Sixers sealed it at the free throw line. The Sixers all 12 free throw attempts in the fourth quarter and were 21-for-23 from the stripe on the day.

There were tense moments down the homestretch, but Batum came through snuffing a Herro three-point attempt in the final minute. The Heat argued that time should have been time added to the clock after another Herro 3-pointer produced the final score with 0.3 seconds left. Replays showed the clock ran out as the ball bounced out of bounds, allowing a gritty and savvy Sixers effort to bounce up to New York.

After the game, Embiid kept punching Maxey, playfully it seemed. He also hit him with some tough language.

“He was saying, ‘Good game, good game,’” Maxey said with a grin. “He said some other things, too.”

Say what you want about the Sixers. They’re alive and well in the playoffs.

To contact Bob Grotz, email rgrotz@delcotimes.com.


Source: Berkshire mont

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