Sixers outduel Heat down stretch to clinch No. 7 seed in East

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Friday, April 19, 2024

PHILADELPHIA -- Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers have dealt with their fair share of postseason disappointments. And for much of Wednesday night's Eastern Conference play-in tournament game against the Miami Heat,it looked like they would have another one on their hands.

This time, however, things were different. Nicolas Batum hit six 3-pointers, including five in the second half, and scored 20 points, and Embiid, after struggling for most of the game, scored 11 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter tohelp the Sixers overcome a double-digit halftime deficit and win 105-104.

Philadelphia secured the seventh seed and a date with theNew York KnicksonSaturday night, while the Heat will face the Chicago Bullson Friday for the eighth seed and a first-round meeting with the East-leadingBoston Celtics.

"It means a lot," Embiid said after the game. "Being down a lot ... we stuck together. It shows you that. I don't play my best, I don't get to my spots the whole game until the fourth quarter and we still found a way to win.

"They like to make it nasty and we can do it, too, and we made it nasty, too."

"Nasty" was a perfect word to describe how this game played out. It was a frenetic 48-minute slugfest between two battle-tested teams with superstars hoping to make deep postseason runs -- and the chance to be the No. 7 seed, on the opposite side of the bracket as the Celtics, presented a far better opportunity to do so.

Embiid and Tyrese Maxeywere among several players who said Wednesday's gamehad the feel of a Game 7, and that was certainly the atmosphere that surrounded it.

It also felt, at times, like it had the weight of a Game 7 for the 76ers, who have a lengthy résumé of playoff failures in this building in recent years. That includes season-ending losses in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Atlanta Hawks in 2021, Game 6 of the East semifinals against the Heat in 2022 and Game 6 of the East semifinals against the Celtics last year, when the Sixers blew a 3-2 series lead.

And while several factors contributed to a different outcome, it began with Embiid, who let out a roar and a massive fist pump at center court after giving Philadelphia a 93-91 lead with 2:33 remaining. Embiid then converted an and-1 on the next possession to once again give the 76ers the advantage following a Tyler Herro 3-pointer.

With 36 seconds to go, Embiid was double-teamed on the wing and fired a pass into the paint to Kelly Oubre Jr., who converted an and-1 layup to give Philadelphia a lead it would never relinquish. Embiid finished with five assists.

"It wasn't easy," Nurse said of Embiid's performance. "I thought they certainly did a great job, built in a huge scheme to make things difficult for him. But he made some big plays. He hits a trail 3, throws a great pass to Kelly there to [get us] the basket that we really needed. I don't know how many assists he had, but he probably had a good number. ... I thought he kicked some out for 3s that guys were hitting."

But he wasn't alone. Philadelphia was a disaster in the first half, outscored 17-2 in points off turnovers while committing 12 of them and shooting 3-for-18 from 3-point range. In the second half, the 76ers made a concerted effort to take better care of the ball. Batum, meanwhile, made a concerted effort to find open holes in Miami's vaunted zone defense, resulting in his six 3-pointers, a season high.

Batum also spent time guarding Jimmy Butler, who went 5-for-18 and scored 19 points while playing through a knee injury he suffered late in the first quarter.

While Batum's shooting was a huge reason Philadelphia got back into the game, it was his block of a potential tying 3-pointer by Herro with 26.2 seconds left that ensured the 76ers would eventually, after knocking down some free throws late, come out on top.

"We were expecting that play, like for them to go around and catch it and go right, and straight like wide-open," Batum said. "That's exactly the play [the coaches] showed me a minute before. So I was expecting it."

Wednesday's game was exactly as gritty and difficult for both sides as could have been expected, given all that was on the line. And now Philadelphia, which improved to 32-8 this season with Embiid on the court, gets a Knicks series that will feature a lot more games like this one.

But for a 76ers team that has won nine in a row after Wednesday night's roller-coaster ride, they're simply thrilled to be into the postseason after an unpredictable season that included Embiid missing over half of it due to injury and needing this winning streak to host a play-in tournament game.

"They're tough," Maxey said of the Knicks. "They start at the head of the snake at Jalen Brunson. We got to find ways to slow him down. Thankfully we got a few people we can kind of throw at him. And we have Joel down there protecting us.

"But they're an extremely grimy team. They play hard and physical, they're tough, and that's their identity. So for us to go in there and try to get W's and try to win this series, we have to match that. And not just match, but we have to overcome that, and be better than that, and be extremely physical as well. I think we know what we have to do. And they kicked our tail in the regular season, so it's time to go in there and fight."

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