76ers vs. Heat score, takeaways: Miami advances to conference finals; James Harden, Joel Embiid fall shorts

The Miami Heat are headed to the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three years after defeating the Philadelphia 76ers, 99-90, in Game 6 on Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center. Miami went on devastating runs to start the third and fourth quarters to extend its lead, while the 76ers struggled offensively for the entire night behind a banged-up Joel Embiid and a quiet James Harden.

Miami’s Jimmy Butler continued his postseason assault, leading the team in scoring (32 points) while playing his normal brand of lockdown defense. The real story for the Heat, however, was Max Strus, who set the tone early with his shooting, passing and rebounding. Strus ended with 20 points and hit four 3-pointers. Miami was one step ahead of Philadelphia all night long, with spectacular execution on both ends.

Embiid, who finished with 20 points on 7-of-24 shooting, came out more aggressively on offense, but simply couldn’t get going against the Heat’s suffocating defense. He fell to the floor multiple times throughout the game and looked visibly tired being on the court for 44 minutes. Harden got out to a solid start, but was silenced in the second half and finished with just 11 points on nine shot attempts on the night. He also didn’t attempt a free throw in nearly 43 minutes and was scoreless in the second half.

The Heat advance to play the winner of the Celtics-Bucks series, and they will have home-court advantage in the conference finals by virtue of earning the No. 1 seed.

Here are a few takeaways from Thursday’s game.

The Strus was loose

Basically an afterthought on the Heat roster to begin the season, Strus came up huge on Thursday night when the Heat needed him the most. Not only was he able to knock down shots and create gravity by attracting defenders to the perimeter, but he also leveraged the attention to throw great passes to teammates for easy baskets. He finished as a game-high plus-23 in almost 40 minutes.

It was a bold move for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to bench Duncan Robinson to start the playoffs, but Strus is proving exactly why it was the right decision. He’s shooting better than Robinson has this season, and Strus brings more physicality on the defensive end, which he’s displayed all postseason long. Credit to the Heat for developing guys like Strus and Gabe Vincent, who got plenty of experience during the regular season due to all of the team’s injuries, which prepared them to perform on the game’s biggest stage.

Jimmy Buckets, indeed

There are few players who raise the level of their game from the regular season to the playoffs more than Jimmy Butler. The Heat’s leader had a quiet second quarter, but erupted in the first, third and fourth to finish 13 for 29 from the field and a plus-16 for the game. Every time Miami has needed a boost this postseason, Butler has come through on one end or the other — usually both.

Say what you will about Butler’s status in the superstar hierarchy during the regular season, but he’s proven time and time again that he belongs on a very short list of players who can legitimately be the best player on a championship team. The guy is just a winner.

Harden’s disappearing act

Harden looked pretty good to start the game, going 4-for-7 from the field en route to 11 points and five assists in the first half. The second half, however, was a different story. As the Heat continued to build their lead, Harden took just two shot attempts combined in the third and fourth quarters, and the helpless 76ers offense just couldn’t muster enough oomph. Harden had more turnovers in the second half than field goal attempts, which elicited boos from the home crowd and only adds to his existing reputation of shrinking in the biggest postseason games.

With a deal at the Feb. 10 trade deadline, Daryl Morey reunited with his superstar from the Houston Rockets expecting a running mate to pair with Embiid. It’s safe to say that Harden didn’t live up to expectations this postseason, and particularly not in Thursday’s elimination game.

The 76ers are going to have an intriguing decision on whether to extend Harden this offseason (more on that here).

Don’t sleep on the Heat

Few No. 1 seeds have received as little fanfare as the Heat this season, with many fans and experts picking the winner of the Celtics-Bucks series to advance to the NBA Finals. But Miami has proven, even without key offseason acquisition Kyle Lowry (who’s been out with a hamstring injury), that the team is capable of winning any postseason series due to its disciplined, focused and energetic approach on both ends of the floor. Philadelphia has two of the league’s top scorers, in theory, and the Heat gave them absolutely no space to breathe in the six games.

Miami will likely struggle offensively and rely heavily on Butler against either Boston or Milwaukee, but you’re kidding yourself if you think they’re not capable of getting back to the NBA Finals for the second time in three seasons.

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