The most shocking thing about the Sixers' Game 1 victory over the Miami Heat, in their first playoff appearance since 2012? How much it felt like just another Sixers' win.
Sure, the stakes were higher, the crowd was more wired, and the first half was tougher than in most, if not all of the Sixers' 16 straight wins to end the regular season. But as the Sixers grabbed the lead and gradually widened it over the course of the third quarter, things started to get kinda ... well, casual. It's hard to feel like the second season has really started for these Liberty Ballers when they're coasting their way into garbage time with a 20-plus-point lead halfway through the fourth.
These Sixers are real. We all worried a little that there was a chance we'd get to the postseason, and all of a sudden the truth would hit: Wait a minute, this isn't a playoff team, this is a bunch of overachievers led by an untested rookie and still missing their best player! Partway through the first, it seemed altogether likely, as the Heat jumped out to a double-digit lead and the Sixers looked briefly overmatched. But the team calmly fought back, the Heat maybe tightened up a bit, and the game went from live-or-die-on-every-possession to actually even a little boring by the fourth quarter, as Philly imposed their will on the situation and Miami had nothing to answer with.
The other biggest takeaway from this game: Life really is better with shooters. For the first time in the Process era, the Sixers finished higher than 24th in three-point shooting for the season in 2017-18 with their 36.9 percent rate -- a number which jumps two points to 38.9 percent, which would be second-best in the entire league, if you only take their numbers following the addition of Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli. After so many years in which the clanking likes of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Jerami Grant were asked to be floor-stretchers for this team, the Sixers finally have gunners everywhere.
And wow, did it show Saturday night. The Heat were pretty hot from downtown themselves, particularly in the first half, but cooled off as the game went on -- ending 12 for 26 from deep with players like Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow even missing some pretty clean looks. That's still a pretty solid number, but it's nothing on the Sixers' 18 of 28, a stunning 64 percent conversion rate. It was a good game for the Colangelos' resume, certainly, as three of their biggest pickups for this season -- Ilyasova, Belinelli and JJ Redick -- went a combined 11 of 19 from three, scoring a combined 70 (!!) points on the night -- but Hinkie finds Dario Saric and Robert Covington also combined to bomb 6 for 10, making their second-half starting lineup (with Ilyasova replacing Amir Johnson at the five) almost unstoppable.
Goddamn, even Furkan Korkmaz went 1 for 1 from downtown. Furkan Korkmaz hit a three for the Sixers in a playoff game! What world is this?
And of course, a great deal of all of it was orchestrated by Simmons. The presumed Rookie of the Year struggled a little to find his spots in the half-court -- the Heat mostly know how to play him to cut off his easiest angles to the basket, though he still got loose for a couple comically easy dunks -- and he finished 5 of 13 from the floor, albeit a decent 7 for 10 from the line. But he also had 14 assists, grabbed nine boards -- would've gotten that triple-double in his playoff debut if there was any other real reason to play him the final three minutes of the game -- and was brilliant on defense, generally looking like the most indomitable player on the court. I've said it I don't know how many times this season, but it remains forever hilarious that this dude is not even our best player.
Speaking of that other guy: He should be coming back sooner than later. Embiid told ESPN that he hadn't been cleared to return to action yet, but that he feels great and that he has "a pretty good chance [of coming back] for Game 2 or Game 3." That might be optimistic player talk -- and Brett Brown has said the big man has cleared concussion protocol, but still won't play Game 2, while remaining unwilling to set a firm return date. But Embiid has been pretty good about being honest with the media about his health progress lately, so hopefully it's not totally unreasonable to expect he's close to total recovery.
It might be a little bit of an adjustment for the Sixers once Embiid returns -- their shooting is due to regress some anyway, and Embiid will make it a little tougher for them to play four-out around Ben Simmons, particularly if his own stroke is understandably a little rusty after being out about three weeks. But he should also fortify the Sixers' defense in the halfcourt, and make it tough for Miami to score 60 in a half again as they did Saturday night. Remember, half of that 16-game winning streak came with The Process leading the way -- they won the last five games where he was fully healthy by an average margin of nearly 16 points -- so it's not like the Sixers only self-actualized and broke off this hot streak after JoJo went down. They'll still need him to make any deep kind of playoff push.
And really, if you're a Heat fan, you have to feel a little like you let your best chance to get an advantage in this series get away. Miami looked like the readier, more locked-in team for the first half, and could've really had the Sixers scrambling and second-guessing themselves if they'd maintained that through the second half. But they let the game slip through their fingers in the back end, and now they're down 1-0 in the series with the return of one of the 10 best players in the game looming for Philly. The Heat won't fold -- Erik Spoelstra and Dwyane Wade-led Heat teams never do -- but they've got to be kicking themselves pretty hard for the wasted opportunity.
But a moment on Wade: I was really proud of the way the Sixers handled him in this game. He posted pretty good numbers for a reserve -- putting up 11 on 4 for 7 shooting, with four boards and four assists -- but Philly kept him from seizing control of this game by mostly not falling for his shenanigans. They stayed down on his pump fakes, kept with him on his spin moves and changes of direction, and generally corralled him in the half-court -- no easy task. The box score doesn't reflect the large handful of possessions in this one where Wade tried to shake or just out-wile his man for about 15 seconds, then gave up the ball when nothing materialized, forcing his teammates to scramble to put something else together under a dwindling shot clock. Keeping Wade's volume down is just as important to Philly as limiting his effectiveness; if the former Flash never scores more than 11 in this series, it'll be incredibly difficult for Miami to win.
You don't want to get too cocky about this matchup after one game -- particularly not one where the Sixers essentially hit two out of every three triples they attempted, a performance Philly would be extremely fortunate to be able to duplicate at any further point this postseason. The Heat will be heard from in this series.
But most of the scenarios that ended with the Heat winning this series started with Miami winning Game 1, and now they'll have to deal with a self-validated Sixers squad who knows their leader is coming back soon, and has unlocked some of the lineups they can still use to exploit Spoelstra's crew in his absence. That now-17-game winning streak might not find its way to 20, but you have to feel pretty good about Philly's ability to win three of their next six -- all they have to do now to advance in this series and officially put the rest of the Eastern Conference on notice. Hell, even our local beat writers are acknowledging it's time for them to start trusting the process, so what excuse could you possibly have for not doing so at this point?