DeAndre Jordan, center rotation takes on big importance as Joel Embiid-less Sixers drop Game 1 at Heat

MIAMI – Whenever Coach Doc Rivers is asked who is leaving for the Sixers, it normally does two things. First, he’ll talk about how the focus on the starting lineup is an overrated subplot, that the closing lineup is way more important. And Rivers will also refuse to reveal the answer, saying everyone will find out half an hour before the game when the starters are released.

Usually the claim that the starting formation is overrated is valid. In a 48-minute game, things like depth, star player rotation and, yes, closing formation matter just as much. But Game 1 in Miami was one of the few times that interest in the starting lineup felt legitimate. The Sixers were playing without Joel Embidand how the center position was rotated in his great absence was of major importance at the start of the second-round series.

When the starting lineups were announced, DeAndre Jordan got the call. And the Sixers got off to a bad start in the series, falling 106-92 to Miami.

THE SCORE OF THE BOX: Series 106, Sixers 92

“We talked to our guys, they wanted the big roll,” Rivers said. “I thought in the second half that’s how he has to play every night. Those first four or five minutes were great from him, that’s what we need. We also like Paul ( Reed), but we don’t need Paul in trouble, and that’s why we don’t want to cast him.

“We love DJ (DeAndre Jordan), we’re going to keep throwing it whether you like it or not. That’s what we’re going to do because our guys believe in him.

If Rivers follows through on that quote, he’s putting his least favorite Game 2 scenario to bed. Rivers said he thought about making the switch to begin with. Paul Millsap at half time and asked all the key players on the team. According to Rivers, “for a man” his players wanted to start the second half with Jordan.

Ever since Embiid started affecting games and winning from when it made its NBA debut in 2016, the Sixers’ backup center served as their organizational equivalent of Defense Against the Dark Arts. It’s a seemingly minor role that has always been of great consequence because the base skill has been extremely difficult to obtain, no matter how many options are rotated.

This season has been no different. Rivers basically has five options available to him to fill the position: Jordan, Reed, Millsap, Charles Bassey and a small ball option with Tobias Harris and George Niang like the de facto four and five. It’s a hot issue when he’s limited to eight to 10 minutes per game, with Rivers’ press conferences adding fuel to the fire. And in the first round against Toronto, Rivers went to Reed and that wasn’t a problem for a couple of weeks. A net rating of plus-2.2 in 60 minutes wiped out the story.

Not for long, however. Embiid’s injury turned center depth into a full game story. So how did the Sixers fare?

Jordan has been an unpopular option as he hasn’t been a positive player since Chris Paulis the last season with the Mowers. That hasn’t changed in Philadelphia. Per Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are outscored by 13.5 points per 100 possessions with Jordan on the floor.

That hasn’t changed in Miami. The Sixers were outscored by 12 points in the first 4 1/2 minutes of the game. And there was a Bam Adebayo alley-oop when Jordan got caught in no man’s land.

The Sixers sat Jordan for the rest of the half and worked their way to a one-point halftime advantage. It is important. But the half also featured some of the issues with the Sixers’ other four options at center backup. Reed gives the Sixers more energy than Jordan, a chance to hold on in the switches and legitimate defensive play. The Sixers outscored Miami by four in nine minutes, which felt like an accurate representation of his game.

But there’s a reason he only got nine minutes. Reed is an agent of chaos, but that also means you have to take the good with the bad. Reed committed five fouls in 13 minutes, which would be good if Embiid was playing. But relying on Reed to play deep in a game is tough.

With four fouls, he fell for a fake pump from Adebayo and left the floor on a mid-range jumper he had challenged.

“Man, it’s tough man. It’s tough,” Reed said. “I’m an aggressive player, so I go out there, give it 125%. And sometimes, you know, it just doesn’t work for me, like tonight. One thing I have to learn is to let them mark, but it’s like pride.

Reed is in a tough spot, being asked to do something that doesn’t come naturally to him. The same can be said for the rest of the Sixers centres. Rivers also tried Millsap and small ball formation in the first half. This latter group (Niang and the other four starters) pushed the Sixers into the lead, with Niang having some of his best moments on the defensive end.

“I liked it,” Rivers said of the smallball group. “You must try to choose the place. I thought they stayed with Bam much longer in the second half because I really believe in our small ball in the first half. I liked this training, this training gave us the desire to finish half-time. It’s a lineup we need to work on, though.

The only player who ultimately failed to shoot was Bassey, the rookie. And if you’re wondering if there’s too much emphasis on center position, the Sixers lost for other reasons. They shot the ball badly and went 6 of 34 from beyond the arc. And while Miami’s tenacity and ball pressure is a legitimate challenge, the Sixers have created plenty of decent looks attacking some of the Heatlittle defenders. In game 1, Niang, Danny Green and Tyrese Maxey masonry shots they normally do. They will shoot better in the series.

The Sixers also badly lost the possession game, and if they’re going to steal a game from Miami, James Harden it must be better. A 1-to-1 attendance-to-revenue ratio isn’t going to cut it. The Sixers have had some success on offense Tyler Herro and create advantages with Harden, but he couldn’t keep the offense afloat in the second half.

And the Sixers also allowed the Heat to rebound 38.5% of their misses during the competitive portion of the game, according to Cleaning The Glass. A third-quarter possession rush in which the Sixers allowed three straight offensive rebounds ignited what had been a quiet crowd in Miami. Part of that was down to playing the undersized Reed at center and the Sixers sitting in a 2-3 zone.

The Sixers came to Miami looking for a realistic split. They will have a chance to land one with a better showing on Wednesday when their adjustments need to go beyond the center position.

But the central position is always of crucial importance. Jordan finished minus-22 in 17 minutes, and while that number doesn’t just fall on his shoulders, it’s unacceptable. None of Rivers’ options provide a perfect solution in place of Embiid, but if either center is also outplayed in Game 2, the Sixers will return to Philadelphia with almost no margin for error.

(Photo by DeAndre Jordan and James Harden: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)


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