MIAMI — Ben Simmons dressed quickly after he became the first rookie to record a triple-double in the NBA playoffs since Magic Johnson. The visiting locker room in Miami can get as humid and thick as the South Florida air outside. And after the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Heat 106-102 Saturday afternoon to take a commanding 3-1 series lead in this first-round matchup, it was extra crowded, and extra hot, backstage.
Simmons read the situation just as he reads the court — quickly and effortlessly — put on his dark gray shirt and headed to the much cooler podium room before most of his teammates were back at their lockers. Veteran move for a 21-year-old.
It’s easy to forget how young these Sixers still are sometimes with the way they’ve been rolling over the past two months. Philadelphia has now won 19 of its past 20 games (including a 17-game win streak). But none of those wins was as improbable as the game they flat-out stole from the Heat on Saturday night.
“I was shocked that we won this game,” Sixers coach Brett Brown told ESPN after the contest. “The fourth quarter was good to us. But the first three periods were terrible.
“It’s unheard of to win a game with 27 turnovers. A playoff game, let alone a game. But we found a way to win in the fourth period. The exciting thing is … we have so much more to grow and give. We have so much more to grow and give.”
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons struggled with turnovers, but they helped lead a fourth-quarter turnaround in Miami. Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty
Brown’s eyes lit up as he repeated that last line. He was an assistant coach in San Antonio when the Spurs were building their dynasty around Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. He often has talked to his players about how they’ll need to learn to win and grow together — just as those three future Hall of Famers did. There is no substitute for experience. No coaching that can harden and sharpen a team like the playoffs.
But the more these playoffs go on, and the more these Sixers’ talents keep shining against this veteran, savvy, hard-nosed Heat team, the more you start to wonder if Philadelphia might just be precocious enough to win now.
When asked whether he knew his team was ready to win a game like this yet, Simmons said without missing a beat: “Yes. I do it in ’2K’ all the time.”
It was the kind of thing a 21-year-old would say without any hint of self-consciousness.
Told of Simmons’ remark, Brown laughed and said, “Ah, youth.”
But maybe that’s why this is working so far. You see, these Sixers are eminently more talented than those old Spurs teams. Simmons and Joel Embiid are generationally significant talents. Dario Saric would be the best player on many other teams. Only Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell fit the Spurs’ mode of overlooked college players who developed to become valuable pieces on a contender.
“I think he [Brown] looks at it like I’m the Tony of the team and [Embiid] the Tim,” Simmons said. “But I think he knows now that we’re two different players, and now it’s coming together the way it’s supposed to. We’re learning, we’re learning.”
They certainly are. The Sixers were downright awful for three quarters Saturday, turning the ball over 24 times. Miami took advantage with 28 points off those turnovers.
Embiid wasn’t shooting well (2-for-9 through three quarters, 2-for-11 for the game), clearly bothered by the protective mask and visor he has to wear throughout the playoffs after breaking a bone in his face March 28.
“I can’t really say anything, because I knocked down shots the other night and then tonight it was a little more foggy than usual,” Embiid said. “I was sweating, and I do sweat a lot, so every time I was running down the floor, I was like dripping to the max. At some point, I think I threw it to the bench and was just like, ‘Give me another one.’
“But that’s the only way I can stay on the court and play, so I just got to do it, no matter if it affects my vision. I still feel like I can have an impact, even if I’m not knocking down shots.”
So in the fourth quarter, Embiid focused on the defensive side of the ball and absolutely dominated with five rebounds and three blocks.
“Jo was unbelievable at the rim,” Brown said. “He was great defensively.”
Simmons essentially did the same thing on the offensive end, controlling the game like a point guard well beyond his years. In the fourth quarter, the 6-foot-10 Australian scored nine of his 17 points, grabbed five of his 13 rebounds and polished off his first playoff triple-double — after recording 12 triple-doubles during the regular season.
With their two stars leading at both ends, the Sixers settled into a remarkably poised groove in the fourth quarter, turning the ball over just three times and holding the Heat to just 19 points in the final frame.
“They’re good. They’re special,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “They put the right team together. Sometimes the playoffs become too big for certain guys. Some guys don’t know how to match the intensity of the playoffs. They already play to that intense level. They have an edge to them.
“I give a lot of credit to their point guard and leader, Ben. He does a great job of getting them settled.”
High praise from a three-time champion who already has willed his team to one win in the series — and nearly did again Saturday, with 12 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter.
The 76ers became the first team since the 1986 postseason to win a game in the playoffs with at least 27 turnovers. In the end, Miami might just be giving the Sixers the test they need to grow up ahead of schedule.
“There’s no other team like Miami that’s this physical,” Simmons said. “I think after this, we’ll be ready for anything.”