Three “matchups” that will decide the series:
Beyond both being defensive-minded, these two teams differ in just about every way possible. The starkest contrast between them is pace; the Sixers rank 4th in NBA at 99.8 possessions per game, while the Heat rank 26th at 95.6.
The Sixers want to get out and run behind Ben Simmons while the Heat will try to sit on the rock and turn the game into a dogfight. Instead of using that defense to create easy transition offense, they slow it down and try to take you out of your rhythm and that’ll be their game plan all series long.
The Sixers have more offensive talent across the board than Miami, which means it will benefit the Heat to limit these games to as few possessions as possible. If they can find a way to frustrate Ben Simmons and score in the half court they’ll be able to slow the pace to a crawl and level the playing field. The key for the Sixers is simple: get a stop, outlet to Ben, and get running—the Heat don’t have the firepower to hang around in an up-and-down game.
2. Embiid vs Orbital Fracture
Embiid is already ruled out for Game 1 and I’m not expecting him to be ready for Monday’s Game 2 either. Being that he’s the best defensive or offensive player on either team, his availability drastically alters the series outlook.
If Embiid returns by Game 3 I don’t think it poses an issue for a Sixers team that should leave Philly tied 1-1 at worst. Miami struggles on the road (18-23) and simply won’t pull out two straight in the Wells Fargo Center against a team as hot as this—Embiid or not.
Where the concern comes in is if Embiid missed Games 3 or 4. Naturally, Miami is a much different team when playing in South Beach. If they could steal one on the road and face two home games against an Embiid-less Sixers, there’s a real possibility they return to Philly up 3-1.
While I fully expect Joel Embiid to return for Game 3 at the latest, if he misses more time than that then this series becomes a pick ‘em.
3. Experience vs. Inexperience
I typically hate to talk about things like “chemistry” or “experience” because they’re hard to quantify, but in this case the chasm of experience between these two teams—playoff or non-playoff—is massive.
The Sixers two best players are 24 & 21 years old, while the average age of they’re roster is two full years younger than Miami’s. Additionally, the only players with actual postseason experience are JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli.
The Heat have a player in Dwayne Wade who alone has more playoff experience than the entire Sixers roster and a head coach (Eric Spoelstra) who’s been in four NBA Finals himself (winning two). On top of that, virtually every player on the roster has played in the playoffs over their past few seasons of appearances. You could argue that Miami has the most playoff experience of any team in the East.
For a while, suggestions that the Sixers could compete at this level this soon in the Process were met with criticism over their lack of playing experience, let alone playoff experience; it’s finally time to see if that makes a difference for this team. While they’ve been fearless and loose throughout their 16 game win streak, the playoffs are a different beast. We know that Miami won’t be fazed by the stage of this game whatsoever; the Sixers—on the other hand—will be in uncharted territory.
Three players to watch from Miami:
1. Goran Dragic
Dragic is probably best known by Sixer fans for inexplicably being selected over Ben Simmons as an All-Star replacement for John Wall, but Dragic is Miami’s best player. He leads them in scoring and assists and while he’s not overly athletic, he uses good size and change of direction to probe into the lane at will.
He has the potential to be a real thorn in the side of the Sixer defense; outside of Covington—who has the potential to lock him down—there isn’t anyone that can keep Dragic from getting his. He’ll be leaned on heavily by Spoelstra and if he’s unable to get going it’ll be a long series for Miami offensively.
2. Hassan Whiteside
Whiteside isn’t as involved with this team as he has been in past seasons (minutes per game are down from 32 to 25) but given the matchup with Embiid (and his absence), he becomes a key factor in this series.
Whiteside gives Embiid a tougher matchup than any of the other Eastern Conference centers would have, and if anyone is capable of taking Embiid out of rhythm for a game here or there it’s him.
On top of being a tough defensive matchup, while Embiid is sidelined in the beginning of the series I would imagine that the Heat will use Whiteside’s size advantage early on over the Sixers—who lack a true center outside of Joel. Holmes, Amir, and Ilyasova will all draw this assignment throughout the game and Whiteside will undoubtedly be salivating at that opportunity.
3. Dwayne Wade
What should scare Sixer fans the most is Miami’s bench. Not only is it the deepest in the league but it’s loaded with players who can change the game in a heartbeat. While there are a few guys I could have slotted here, it’s hard not to mention the future Hall of Famer who has carried the Heat organization to three NBA titles throughout his career.
Wade is more than capable of hopping in a time machine and carrying this Heat team with a few vintage Flash performances. He still averages 12 points in just 22 minutes, and if the game is tight late then he’ll have the ball in his hands.
As arguably one of the most clutch players of his generation, Wade has plenty of magic left in him. Sixers witnessed that firsthand when he hit a game-winner against them earlier in the season.
If Dragic keeps the offense flowing, and Whiteside slows down Embiid, then Wade is the guy who can carry the Heat over the top for an upset.
I don’t think this series will be the cakewalk that some have painted it to be. Not only is Miami capable of giving us fits with their defense, but they’re the antithesis of the Sixers in terms of experience. Spoelstra will give Brett Brown all he can handle in terms of rotations and defensive wrinkles, and I think this young team will be susceptible to the occasional lapse in poise and focus that most young teams lose in the playoffs. With that said, I think as long as Embiid returns by Game 3 the Sixers will have too much talent not to pull this out. Embiid & Simmons are the two best players in the series, and the trio of Reddick, Saric, and Covington is about as formidable of a supporting cast the league has to offer. Miami will find a way to split Games 1 & 2 in Philly, while the Sixers will split 3 & 4 in Miami when Embiid returns. With the series tied 2-2, I think the Sixers return home coming off 2 days rest and comfortably beat the Heat in Game 5 & 6.
Sixers in 6 — but I wouldn’t be surprised if they need the full 7.