PHILADELPHIA — If there is any city that can truly appreciate the value of good subs, look no further than that of Philadelphia – though almost all of its citizens would call them “hoagies,” of course. On Saturday night, the delectable subs that Philadelphia sports fans were enjoying the most during dinner time were those who came off the bench in the form of professional basketball players as the Sixers won their first playoff game in six years.
Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli, two players not on the Sixers as late as the beginning of the second week of February before being signed by the team two weeks apart after contract buyouts from Atlanta, combined for 42 points off the bench, providing long-range shooting and toughness inside – as well as a spark to the squad after the team went down seven early in the third quarter – to help lead the 76ers to a 130-103 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first round series to begin the NBA Playoffs this weekend.
Belinelli had 25 points while Ilyasova had 17 points and 14 rebounds, two of the five Sixers players who scored at least 17 in the contest. While Belinelli had the Sixer faithful on the edge of its seats with his hair-trigger release and willingness to shoot the nanosecond he receives any pass, Ilyasova’s impact was felt on both ends of the court, including making three of his four 3-pointers and forcing the Heat to limit the playing time of center Hasaan Whiteside in an attempt to better defend the perimeter.
Despite that adjustment from Miami, which included playing forward Kelly Olynyk more minutes, the Sixers ended up making 18 of their 28 3-pointers, including one late in the fourth quarter by Belinelli from the right wing, when an errant pass from point guard Ben Simmons that seemingly was headed out of bounds turned into a remarkable, fadeaway three that made the Wells Fargo Center crowd roar once more during a dominant second half.
“Those two had significant games,” said 76ers head coach Brett Brown. “Some of the circus shots that Marco makes is ridiculous. He’s the best player I’ve coached shooting off balance, and he seems to just find the rim. And those two players, they made some threes. Ersan [is] versatile, able to guard multiple bigs, from Whiteside to Olynyk. Obviously, the shooting stands out. But, yeah, the inclusion of those two has certainly changed our world.”
Brown made a change to begin the second half after the Sixers found themselves down 60-56 at halftime, starting Ilyasova to begin the third quarter instead of starting center Amir Johnson. One of the better defensive teams in the NBA, Miami had one of its better offensive first halves all season, scoring 60 points while making 7-of-14 from three-point range as the up-and-down pace, which normally should favor the Sixers, was not much of a deterrent to the Heat – at least in the first 24 minutes.
The young Sixers, a number of them playing in their first-ever NBA playoff game, also had some playoff jitters, committing 10 first-half turnovers, with five of those coming from point guard Ben Simmons, whose profligacy somewhat overshadowed his first-ever half playoff basketball in which he also had 10 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
“We were unhappy with [Miami’s] threes…and we were unhappy with our turnovers,” said Brown. “We felt like if we can defend better, especially as it related to the three-point line, and if we can care for the ball because 10 turnovers, and if you double that, you’re not winning any playoff game, that we would be in pretty good shape.
“I believe we had one turnover the entire second half, and I give Ben Simmons a tremendous amount of credit for making an adjustment to his own game in the second half,” Brown continued.
Simmons finished just a rebound away from a triple-double, with 14 assists and nine rebounds to go along with his 17 points as Philadelphia did commit just one turnover in the final two quarters of play as a team.
As Philadelphia was taking care of the ball offensively in the second half, it also turned the screws on the Miami offense, as the Sixers went on a 15-0 run after Miami’s Goran Dragic hit a three-pointer to begin the third quarter to extend the Heat’s lead to 63-56. J.J. Redick, who scored a game-high 28 points, hit a three on the next possession, then Ilyasova scored the game’s next five points, including a three-pointer which gave Philadelphia the lead for good at 64-63. Ilyasova had 10 points and six rebounds in the third quarter alone.
“I just tried to be aggressive,” said Ilyasova, who recorded his third career double-double in the NBA Playoffs. “Sometimes when you spread the floor the way that we did and, sometimes when you make shots, you have the advantage. I think they had a small on me at the time and I just tried to punish them and get on the offensive glass.”
In the second half, Philadelphia shot 57 percent (26-for-46) and made 11 of their 18 threes, turning a seven-point deficit into a laugher by the midway point of the fourth quarter as they extended its winning streak to 17 games.
“They hit a lot of shots. They hit a lot of shots,” said Heat forward Kelly Olynyk in describing Philadelphia’s turnaround in the second half. “Credit to them, they made plays. Play after play after play. We kind of got a little discombobulated on the other end and kind of got off of our game a little. We were trying to play catch-up the whole time, and then you do things that you don’t normally do since you’re making up ground.”
Olynyk led the Heat with 26 points while Dragic added 15, but the Heat appear to not have the firepower to continue to get into shootouts with the Sixers if they hope to take the series, especially with Joel Embiid’s continued absence meaning Philadelphia will continue to push tempo relentlessly.
“[The Sixers] play really, really fast,” Olynyk said. “A lot of stuff in transition and they just got those shooters coming off staggered screens non-stop at full speed. It’s tough to guard. When they have four shooters out there with Ben [Simmons] handling the ball, it’s tough to help and pack the paint. They play really fast and execute really well.”
Game 2 of the series takes place on Monday, with Embiid, out of the lineup since suffering an orbital bone fracture and a concussion in a collision with teammate Markelle Fultz in a game on March 28 against New York, targeting a return for that or for Game 3 in Miami on Thursday.