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Nicolas Batum Ruined My Night

Nicolas Batum #40 of the Philadelphia 76ers smiles during the game against the Miami Heat during the 2024 NBA Play-In Tournament on April 17, 2024 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA — I admit: I got cocky. At halftime of the Miami Heat-Philadelphia 76ers play-in game, with the visiting Heat up 12, I started sending some mildly taunting texts. I don't even think I was wrong to do so. A season after Miami made the goddamn NBA Finals as an eight-seed, nothing felt impossible, even as the team limped into the playoffs once more at the bottom of the Eastern Conference bracket. After a slow start to Wednesday's do-or-play-again-on-Friday game, the Heat took control, forcing Philadelphia into 11 turnovers and a 14-of-42 shooting performance in the first half. Things were looking good for the most annoying team in basketball, and a date with the New York Knicks loomed.

Then, Nicolas fucking Batum happened.

I knew Batum, now 35 years old, was still in the league, but I didn't quite remember that he's on the Sixers until he checked in, and I didn't think much of him hitting a single three-pointer in the first half. Looking back on it, that was my mistake. I could have dealt with the Heat losing to a Joel Embiid masterclass, or Tyrese Maxey continuing his domination of Miami. Hell, if Tobias Harris had put it together to beat Miami on Wednesday, I would have at least understood. (He didn't, and instead had a hilarious stretch of nine seconds where he managed to miss five [CORRECTION: four! Maxey missed the fifth] shots in a row; the Sixers crowd booed him harder than it booed any Heat players.) But Nicolas Batum? I wasn't mentally prepared for that.

It all started in the third quarter, or the "turd quarter," as Miami fans have come to call the Heat's usual capitulation right after halftime. The Sixers had managed to keep the lead from ballooning in the first four-plus minutes of the third, and Batum hit a three, his second of the game, with 6:38 to go in the quarter to bring it down to single digits, 59-51. That this came right after Caleb Martin missing two straight free throws to earn the crowd free chicken, a la Boban, only helped the already hyped-up crowd reach a new level. (The crowd was extremely loud throughout, first in its displeasure over the Philadelphia performance, and later in jubilation as the Sixers came back.) That was the first moment where I felt like this was going to be a rough night out.

A quick 5-0 run by Buddy Hield followed Batum's three, and then the two teams traded buckets for a little bit before what, in retrospect, was the key shot of the game. With the Heat hanging on for dear life with a 61-56 lead and four-and-a-half minutes left in the third, Batum struck again. Maxey dribbled into the paint, drawing a triple team including, crucially, Tyler Herro, who came in from the wing to try to block Maxey off from the hoop. That left Batum wide open at the corner, and Maxey found him easily. Batum made no mistake with the opportunity, because this was the Nicolas Batum Game and that's just what was going to happen:

Credit to the Heat, who were still able to bring a five-point lead into the fourth (even as Batum hit yet another three with over a minute left to bring the Sixers back to a two-point deficit), but the crowd was fully back in, and the Sixers smelled blood. Kelly Oubre Jr. opened the fourth with a quick layup, and then Embiid hit a game-tying three-pointer. What was once a 13-point lead and a comfortable evening in enemy territory for yours truly turned into a nightmare real quick. Who else but Batum, then, could have handed the Sixers their first lead since the first quarter? With the score tied at 76, Batum hit his fifth three-pointer of the night with just under nine minutes left. After a pair of Herro free throws, Batum did it again, extending the Sixers lead to 82-78 and sending the people around me, save for the few Heat fans in attendance, into delirium:

For good measure, the Frenchman also got a tip-in with just over four minutes to go, keeping Philly in it after Miami had taken an 89-86 lead. Oh, and he even did it on the other end, blocking a late Tyler Herro three-pointer, turning the last 30 seconds into a free-throw parade that eventually gave the Sixers a 105-104 win:

I know that Batum didn't win the game by himself. Embiid shook off a pretty terrible first three quarters to put up 11 points in the fourth. Oubre Jr. put up nine of his own in the final frame, though his biggest contribution might have been landing awkwardly on Jimmy Butler's knee early on; Playoff Jimmy wasn't the same after and ended only with 19 points. He might have an MCL injury that could keep him out for a significant amount of time. On the other side, Herro was horrendous, going 9-of-27 while trying to pick up Butler's slack, and Bam Adebayo battled early foul trouble and his usual passivity to finish with just 10 points on nine shots, and no free throws. There were plenty of reasons for Miami's collapse after a comfortable start.

But I will remember this play-in game for Nicolas Batum. It's particularly demoralizing to watch someone whom you barely remembered as a factor become the factor in person. With every awkward looking shot release that swished through the net, my fun times got just a bit less delightful. Do I regret sending one of my Sixers fan friends a text mockingly quoting the "10-9-8-76ers" song? Yeah, a little, but no one in attendance or watching on TV could have expected that Philadelphia would roar back on the wings of Batum. I don't even think Batum himself expected it, but credit where credit is due: He was ready with the biggest shots and a game-sealing block. Philadelphia is off to the first round against the Knicks thanks to their veteran role player turning into Prime Klay Thompson for a half, and now Miami must win another do-or-die play-in game just for the right to face the nuclear weapon that is Boston Celtics. And all that might be without Jimmy Butler. It looked so much different at halftime, but when the Nicolas Batum Game comes calling, all bets are off.

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