PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia 76ers entered Wednesday night as the only unbeaten team at home in the NBA.
It turned out, however, the Miami Heat had just the thing to trip the Sixers up: zone defense.
Miami employed the zone liberally Wednesday night, using it on 39 possessions, per Second Spectrum — more than any team in a single game this season — as the Heat built a 16-point fourth-quarter lead before hanging on to win 108-104 at Wells Fargo Center in front of a sellout crowd of 20,715 fans who went home after a loss for the first time this year.
“Move the ball,” Joel Embiid said when asked how to beat the zone. “Make shots.
“I feel like in the fourth quarter, I was a little bit aggressive and my teammates found me. In the first half, that wasn’t the case. We have to do a better job at being locked in from the beginning.”
The last time these two teams played in this building, on Nov. 23, the Heat played zone defense on only one possession. That game was uncompetitive, with Philadelphia running Miami out of the building, leading by 20 at halftime and winning by 27.
Wednesday night, though, was a very different story. To combat Embiid’s massive size advantage in the middle, the Heat employed a zone on 40% of their defensive possessions — and held the Sixers to 12-for-32 shooting (38%), including 7-for-21 from 3-point range.
To put that number in context, the Sixers entered Wednesday night having taken 31 shots all season against a zone defense.
On the 59 possessions the Heat played man-to-man defense, the Sixers shot 26-for-58 (45%). More importantly, their average distance from the basket per shot, per Second Spectrum, was 12.3 feet — compared to 19.7 feet against the zone.
In other words: the Sixers settled for one jumper after another and didn’t make enough of them.
“I think that we ended up overthinking it too much,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “I think that we have been quite good against the zone this year, with the fifth-best offense against the zone, so they tell me.
“I feel like it put us on our heels, and I don’t think that we responded the way that I thought we would, and I think it crept into our defense. It watered us down on both sides of the ball, and finally, we got some life going in the fourth period.
“It was as much a mentality, mood swing, as it was anything. I think that structurally, we got the ball inside and we were 12-for-39 from the 3. It watered down our mood.”
That certainly appeared to be the case throughout. Though Embiid finished with a gaudy stat line — 22 points, 19 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal and 2 blocked shots — in 35 minutes, he shot just 8-for-19 from the field, including 1-for-5 from 3-point range, and often was left on an island in the middle of the zone waiting to get the ball.
He was just 3-for-10 from the field through the first three quarters, before a late barrage helped propel the Sixers back into the game after trailing by as many as 16 early in the period.
“In the first half, I don’t even remember myself being in any action or getting the ball,” he said. “[The zone defense] was in the scouting report. We knew they were going to do it, we were prepared for it, but I guess we didn’t act on it. We didn’t do what we talked about.”
The Heat, meanwhile, did do what they talked about. Miami, which now has handed the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and the Sixers their first home losses of the season, led the league in zone defensive possessions last season, per Second Spectrum. The Heat also now lead the league in them this season with 107 after running it so often Wednesday night.
It also helped that Bam Adebayo, Miami’s breakout star center, had a huge bounce-back performance after a rough go against the Sixers last month, finishing with 23 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks in 33 minutes, including repeatedly snaking past Embiid on drives for layups.
“You can see how the growth of his game and his being assertive and offensive-minded helps our offense,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That’s not just about shooting 16-foot jump shots, but it’s about being aggressive.
“The last time we played them, they totally flattened us out offensively, and his tough shots and baskets in the paint are much different than where he was even five weeks ago, and that will continue to be better.”
Jimmy Butler, meanwhile, had a happier ending in his second game back in Philadelphia after leaving the Sixers in a sign-and-trade to join the Heat this summer. But while he was happy with the result, Butler — who finished with 14 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists — wasn’t ready to say the zone defense will be a permanent solution against Philadelphia.
“We threw a zone in there, it worked well for us, but let’s not pretend like they didn’t miss some shots that they can make, that they made at the end of the game,” Butler said.
The 76ers will probably have to contend with it again Friday, though, when they host the Dallas Mavericks. Per Second Spectrum, no team has run a higher percentage of zone defense than the Mavericks since 2013-14.