With ‘energy,’ engagement problems in Sixers’ Game 5 blowout loss, what can they count on?

Another second-round Game 5 for the Sixers, another night that defied satisfying answers.

The year after his team lost a 26-point lead to the Hawks at home, head coach Doc Rivers fielded questions following a 35-point road defeat to the Heat that leaves the Sixers on the brink of being eliminated.

“They were just more physical,” Rivers said. “We didn’t run anything. We didn’t run our stuff very well. We played at a snail’s pace. … Everything they did tonight was harder and better. Their stuff was better than what we ran, their energy was better, their toughness was better. I haven’t said that very often about us. And that’s on all of us. That’s on me to make sure they’re ready, and that’s on them to be ready. Tonight we were not.”

Rivers wished the game could be categorized as forgottentable, clearly. But he understands that’s not how the playoffs work.

“Even at the beginning of the third quarter, we made a shot, cut (the deficit), it looked like we had a chance,” he said. “And then they run off eight points in a row off turnovers, long rebounds, god-awful transition defense.

“I want to watch the tape or burn the tape. I’m not sure which one. I’ll probably watch it, because I have to, and then I’ll burn it. But we’ll be ready next game. We have to be.”

The Sixers’ most reliable formula for success this year has been Joel Embiid greatness. That’s carried them to wins before and after Ben Simmons was in Sixers limbo, and it’s frequently led the team to feel — justifiably so — that it will inevitably find a way.

But, with a masked Embiid struggling physical as he plays through a right orbital fracture and torn ligament in his right thumb, it’s less certain that he can paper over weaknesses and punctuate clutch victories. James Harden pulled off his own version of that in Game 4, breaking a series of quiet second halves with a 16-point fourth quarter that included four three-pointers.

Harden got just 21 regular-season games as a Sixer after the massive deal that sent Simmons to the Nets. And the two March games he sat with the goal of responsibly managing his left hamstring happened to be against the Heat. Thursday night’s Game 6 will be his 10th alongside Embiid in the playoffs. The pair has been strong in that small sample size. The Sixers have a plus-15.8 net rating with Harden and Embiid together during the regular season and plus-8.7 during the postseason, per Cleaning the Glass.

Still, it’s valid to wonder what exactly the Sixers can lean on as a team after a dreadful loss and with two straight wins now mandatory.

“First is our energy — our energy on the floor,” Tobias Harris said. “When we’re physical and we’re connected as a group — that’s defensively, mainly — that’s where we’re at our best, where we’re able to get the ball out in transition and run. Our energy … has always been key for us on both sides of the basketball. Moving the basketball, getting to the paint, kicking out, shooting threes, getting downhill for layups is when we’re at our best. So those things all come through the course of the game.

“And for us today, we let them go on a little run early on in the game. I don’t think that we were engaged mentally enough to kind of come out of that — to come out of that run and kind of fix ourselves to make a run for ourselves. Those are all things that we know we can do, that we have done this year, and that we have to get back to the next game.”

The Sixers conceded a 23-9 edge Tuesday in points off turnovers. After ranking fourth in turnover percentage in the regular season at 12.9, the Sixers’ turnover rate this series is 17.0. With no Simmons and Matisse Thybulle’s offensive development insufficient for him to receive a big bump in playoff minutes, it’s often stung when the Sixers have made that allow the opponent to attack on the open floor. They’re light on disruptive defenders.

Led by Jimmy Butler, who’s averaged 32 points over the past three games and hasn’t committed more than three turnovers in an outing this postseason, it’s felt like the Heat have registered the vast majority of the fast-break highlights in Miami. And, even if Heat fans don’t tend to have the FTX Arena seats full at tip-off, there’s been an abundance of crowd-thrilling plays.

For Harden and the Sixers, offense has been effortful this series.

“It’s difficult … when you’re playing against a set defense every possession,” Harden said. “We had 19 points in that first quarter. We didn’t get any stops, and that’s the start of the game. That’s going to carry over. … It’s difficult to play against a half-court defense of possession by possession, especially on the road. If we get stops, now, instead of playing against a half-court defense every possession, maybe it’s every once in a while. I feel like that was key for tonight.”

Harris and Embiid are the only players who appeared in the Sixers’ 36-point Game 5 loss to the Raptors in 2019 left on the roster.

Butler was fantastic in that series’ Game 6 at Wells Fargo Center and the Sixers earned themselves a Game 7 that ended cruelly with Kawhi Leonard’s quadruple-bouncing buzzer-beater.

This time around, Butler will be determined to prevent the Sixers from having a fourth shot at figuring it all out in Miami.

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