The Sixers, as Doug Collins reminded us in a moment of refreshing and controversial candor earlier in this series, are not nearly as good as the Heat. Their best player is, depending on situation factors, Lebron or Dwyane Wade. Our best player, according to Charles Barkley, is Thaddeus Young. This is an enormous problem for us.
This problem, already sizable, has been compounded by Thad’s performance in the first-round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs. He has struggled in this series, and in the last couple games in particular reached near Evan Turner-like levels of invisibility and diffidence (while Turner has, on the other hand, been occasionally terrific). After scoring 38 points and notching 17 rebounds in 57 minutes of work in the series first two games, Thad logged 42 minutes in games three and four and in this time posted a combined six points and seven rebounds on 2/12 shooting.
His win score tells an even more damning tale. After putting up a ws48 (win score per 48 minutes) of 12 in game one (the average power forward posts a 10.3, the average small forward a 7.3), Thad posted a 0 in game two, fell into the negative range with a -7.6 in game three, and rebounded slightly with a soft 6 in game four.
So on balance, he’s hurt the Sixers in this series –though, in his defense, he’s dealing with a sore groin and the occasional defensive attention of the underratedly defensively attentive Lebron James. He’s taken more shots than anyone on the team, hit only 36 percent of them, rebounded spottily, and while he’s missed only three free throws, two of those came in a big fourth quarter spot in the winnable game one.
Despite Thad’s struggles though, if the Sixers are to hold out any hope of even winning another game for the rest of this series, we need to get him going. If he isn’t our best player –and I’m pretty sure that, for a host of reasons that fall just outside the scope of this post, he isn’t– he’s at worst top three, is still almost definitely our most purely “talented” player, and is, given the matchups in this series, for the time being at least our most important one.
The Heat are a very good defensive team and most of their success in this area hinges, like their success in pretty much every single other area, on the fact of Lebron James and Dwayne Wade being very good wing defenders. Their weakness in this area though, like their weakness in pretty much every single other area, hinges on the fact that Lebron James and Dwayne Wade are only two people and –for a host of rules about matter and human bodies that fall outside the scope of this post– are only capable of covering two places at any one time.
The key to beating the Heat isn’t to shut down Lebron of Wade, or even necessarily to slow them down: it’s to beat the living hell out of everyone who isn’t them. To take advantage of every scoring opportunity you get against Mike Miller. To grab every rebound you compete for against James Jones. To say really mean spirited things to Joel Anthony (just go with it). The Sixers have, to an extent, done this. Their three leading scorers in the series, Holiday, Brand, and Williams, have spent next to no time locked up by one of the Heat’s MVP candidates and have consequently combined to average almost 42 ppg in the series.
Thad too though is in a position to take advantage of the Heat’s imbalanced roster. While he spent some time matched up against Lebron in games one and two (and what looked like increased time against him in three and four, which, coupled with the sore groin, pretty well explains his struggles) he also, due to the uniquely top heavy construction of the Heat, spent some time matched up against guys who probably shouldn’t be in the NBA right now. The problem with Thad wasn’t that he didn’t exploit these matchups as much as, especially game four, he didn’t even seem to try.
Generally speaking, when Thad enters “bad Thad” mode (I’m using bad in its original sense here, not the Michael Jackson sense), he leans really heavily on the outside shots he’s never in his career hit often enough to justify his taking them. Not the case in this series. He’s for the most part stayed right around the basket (Look at the shot charts for games one, two, three, and four). The problem is that he’s simply just missed shots. After shooting well over 70 percent around the rim in the regular season, Thad is 12-29 from point blank range against Miami. I wince just typing this, but the solution to these low percentages, given his fairly savvy shot selection, is just to shoot his way out of it.
In game five, he will get ample opportunity to turn misses into makes against the Joel Anthonys and Juwan Howards of the Miami roster. The Sixers hopes of playing a game six will depend, in no small part, on how fully he takes advantage.