The J-Rich Revenge Game? Sixers Close Out Heat to Go Up 3-2
J-Rich > Jimmy Buckets
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NBA Playoffs First Round: Sixers lead Heat 3-2
So much buzz around this Sixers-Heat series had centered around Jimmy Butler playing his old team -- and of course, Butler had done his fair share of bzzzzzzz-ing there himself -- that you almost forgot there was a guy on the other side of that trade. Josh Richardson, Heatle of four seasons, had enjoyed a solid but unextraordinary start to his Sixers playoff career in the series' first four games: averaging about 13 per on low-40s shooting, and mostly keeping the likes of Kendrick Nunn and Goran Dragic in relative check (as well as Butler himself for stretches, particularly while Simmons was out). With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons capturing the headlines for their performances and Tobias Harris leading the team in scoring (and shots), J-Rich's series subplot didn't seem likely to evolve into an A story.
Last night, though, in the first really close game of the entire series, we really needed someone to step up. Embiid was getting hard-doubled in the post, Simmons wasn't up for shooting (more on him in a minute), and Tobias Harris seemed surprisingly unwilling to take primary defender Duncan Robinson one on one. That left Richardson as our best scoring option down the stretch -- and while that's a pretty scary sentence to offer about a team in the playoffs, for at least one night, the dot-connector was up to the task. He scored 13 points in the fourth quarter, including two absolutely enormous buckets in the final 90 seconds, to give him a team-high 26 for the night, as the Sixers were able to close out the Miami Heat and take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
The first of Richardson's two gigantic baskets came with the score tied at 98-98 and the Sixers basically playing hot potato around the perimeter. Embiid got the ball in the post with 14 seconds on the clock, got the hard double and kicked out to Ben, who had his driving lanes immediately cut off and dished to Tobias, who danced with Robinson behind the three point line for five seconds before finally deciding to pass to J-Rich — a good three feet behind the arc on the wing, with the clock a few ticks away from expiring. Richardson had no choice but to chuck it, over the outstretched arm of a lunging Andre Iguodala. Luckily, the hurl found the inside of the back rim and nestled in, putting the Sixers up three with 1:08 to go.
After Butler split a pair of free throws at the other end, Richardson dribbled the ball up himself this time, with Iguodala again his primary defender. Embiid came up to set a high screen, but J-Rich trotted with his dribble in the other direction, seemingly determined to take the former AI9 one-on-one. And that's what he did: After a couple fakeouts and stutter-dribbles, Josh rushed to his spot on the wing and quickly swooped back for a long, contested fadeaway -- Iguodala sticking with him the whole time, able to bother the shot but not quite get a finger on it. Swish. The not-Wells Fargo Center crowd went ballistic as Heat coach Eric Spoelstra used his last timeout, while J-Rich grinningly soaked in the adulation, and Kyle O'Quinn rushed out to the court to pick him up by the chest like he was Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing.
The Sixers ultimately won 106-101, an enormous home win to ensure that at the very worst, Philly would get a chance to close out the Heat at home in a Game Seven. And wouldn't you know it: Our old buddy Jimothy guaranteed on the way out that that's exactly what the Sixers would have to do. In the tunnel en route to the visitors’ locker room, Butler could be seen having words with a Sixers fan holding up a HEY JIMMY, BETTER GET TO THE GYM EVEN EARLIER THIS SUMMER sign. "I was just telling him, see you back here on Sunday," Jimmy later detailed of his exchange, referring to the date of a possible Game 7. "Is that a promise? F--k yeah that's a promise. Ain't no way we're losing in our house on Friday. No way, no how. We ain't worked this hard all season to go out like that. Naw, we'll be back here real soon."
Sam Hinkie has a new company that has nothing to do with sports, and Mark Eversley of the Sixers Front Office Collaborators got new jobs, and we talk about them both. We discuss the anxiety of news and not going outside, who Ben Simmons should watch, and Mike gives some early draft takes.
Aside from Josh and Jimmy, the player that everyone wanted to talk about after the game was, of course, Ben Simmons. He had gotten probably the biggest cheer of his Sixers career when he was introduced pre-game, and that buzz continued to every time he touched the ball in the early first -- just dribbling the ball up on the Sixers' first possession, the crowd whipped itself into a frenzy, raising in anticipation as he approached the arc like he was definitely gonna pull up for a three again. He didn't, of course -- and indeed, he didn't really shoot at all in this one, minus a turnaround jumper in the third that he shot with the clock expiring that barely even found iron. He still had a decently strong stat line on the night (15-10-9 on 6-12 shooting, with good defense on Butler) but it wasn't the ultra-aggressive Simmons we saw in Game Four, certainly.
"Yeah, I didn't really want to force it as much tonight," Simmons explained after the game. "I thought it was more important to get my teammates involved, establish Jo in the post, lock in on defense, and try to really impact the game that way, rather than shooting 20-something times." He was then asked if he could hear the fans cheering for him early, and how much they wanted him to shoot the ball. "Yeah, yeah, I heard them," Ben answered. "I mean, to be honest, I've heard them all season. The fans here are great, and I appreciate how much they want to support me. But if I shot the ball every time they wanted me to shoot, I'd be putting up more shots than James Harden. And Russell Westbrook."
Nothing all that surprising about that, I suppose, and Brett Brown had understandably little desire to engage questions about his star point guard not shooting again. ("Look, Ben's great -- did you see his final stat line, Keith?" Brett cut off an early question. "Anyone wanna ask about that? No? OK, let's move on.") The rest of us can save worries about that for another day, as we celebrate finally winning consecutive games in this series, and hope we can pull a miracle second road win out this Friday in Miami to gear up for a second-round match with the Bucks (who of course swept the Magic in their first-round series) and make a liar out of Jimmy Butler (again). Sixers in 6: That's the motto, now and forever.