The Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat feels like more than a regular playoff matchup. The contrast of the two teams go beyond their on-court styles; there’s a fundamental difference between how these teams got here.
The Sixers champion The Process — a strategic, multi-year teardown that took the common “lose now to win later” approach to extreme levels. Their decision was bold, ugly, and, ultimately, successful. They’re now led by two generational talents in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and those talents just led the Sixers to their first 50-win season in over a decade.
The Heat, on the other hand, are defined by their unwillingness to give up. When LeBron James left, they re-upped Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and pushed for another run with a trade for Goran Dragic. When Bosh was lost to bad health and Wade walked (or was pushed out the door, whichever one you prefer), the Heat took fliers on hungry journeymen instead of selling off pieces. Miami doubled down on their investment by retaining those journeymen. Now they find themselves in a familiar setting: a dogfight, where they’re clearly the underdogs.
Will The Process be (further) validated, or will Miami’s strong culture prevail?
- Season series: tied, 2-2
- Average score: 102-101, PHI
- PPG leaders: Dario Saric (19.3), Dwyane Wade (17.0)
- RPG leaders: Dario Saric (8.8), Hassan Whiteside (9.5)
- APG leaders: Ben Simmons (7.3), Goran Dragic (4.3)
- SPG leaders: Ben Simmons (2.3), Josh Richardson (1.8)
- BPG leaders: Richaun Holmes (2.0), Hassan Whiteside (2.8)
**minimum of two games played**
- 107.4 offensive rating (11th; 101.0 vs MIA)
- 102.0 defensive rating (3rd; 102.7)
- 5.4 net rating (4th; minus-1.6)
- 102.2 pace (4th; 100.18)
- 52.9 rebounding percentage (1st; 53.5)
THE CORE: Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz, Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova
- Joel Embiid hasn’t been officially cleared yet, but it’s hard to imagine he won’t play in this series
- One of Amir Johnson or Richaun Holmes will get consistent minutes. Johnson has been starting place of Embiid, though Holmes gave Miami fits with his rim-running and shot blocking. We’ll see.
HOW THE STARTERS FARED
Philly’s super-sized starting unit (Simmons-Redick-Covington-Saric-Embiid) was nothing short of elite. In 600 minutes, this group posted a 117.1 offensive rating, 95.7 defensive rating, and a plus-21.4 net rating. They were easily the most productive starting unit in the league, and it isn’t until you set the minute baseline at 200 minutes until you find a better (moderately) high-minute group (Minnesota’s starters + Tyus Jones instead of Jeff Teague).
Against the Heat, however, the starting unit struggled. In 34 minutes, they performed well offensively (109.7 offensive rating), but the defense fell off a cliff (117.1 defensive rating). Miami mostly did two things against the starting unit: used Philly’s aggression against them, and attacked Dario Saric in space whenever they could. It’s easy to say Saric needs to be better — he certainly does — but he simply doesn’t move all that well. Hiding him needs to be a priority.
LINEUP TO WATCH: Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Amir Johnson
Philly’s current starting group, with Amir Johnson in place of Embiid, posted a plus-23.5 net rating in 19 minutes against the Heat this year. The sample is admittedly small, but it’s worth noting how this group bludgeoned Miami on the glass. They generated an almost-impossible 73.3 rebounding percentage, and ended virtually every defensive possession after one shot (93.8 defensive rebounding percentage).
Even at this stage of his career, Johnson is an elite screener and a smart positional defender. Those things help Philly, but his lack of scoring ability could make the unit easier to scheme for. You can’t switch a Simmons-Embiid pick-and-roll because either guy can post you up. That isn’t the case with Johnson in the game — or at the very least, that’s something you can live with. The threat of the pick-and-pop isn’t there either.
Still, if the offense doesn’t dip too much, this unit can hum.
THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES
1. Push the pace
The Sixers are an interesting case study. They play at the fourth fastest pace in the league. Only the Pelicans average fewer seconds per possession after a made shot, via tracking data at Inpredictable. They rank in the top 10 in transition possessions per game, percentage of possessions in transition, and transition points per game. But yet … they aren’t that good at running. They’re 21st in points per transition possession, 22nd in turnover rate, and 25th in field goal percentage.
You won’t confuse the Sixers with the Warriors in terms of precision or grace. However, they can still overwhelm teams because they push the ball, and push the ball, and push the ball.
All. The. Time.
They also have Ben Simmons, who can do stuff like this whenever the heck he wants.
The Heat don’t want to run. They’ve played at a snail’s pace for most of the year. Their grind-it-out style, on both ends of the court, can wear out opponents in similar fashion to most uptempo teams. Getting Miami out of their comfort zone is the first step to beating them.
2. Get JJ Redick going
One of the biggest reasons the Sixers struggled to score against Miami this year was the cold shooting of Redick. In their four meetings, Redick averaged 15 points on 35.6 percent shooting from the floor. He converted a shade under 27 percent of his threes on nearly eight attempts per contest. A couple of odd findings on that front:
- Via NBA.com tracking data, Redick went 0-for-12 on “open” threes, defined as shots where the nearest defender was 4-6 feet away
- Redick shot much better in Miami. He drilled 42.7 percent of his triples in Miami, but only 12.5 percent in Philly
Four-game samples are small enough. Most shooters are better at home than they are at the road. For his career, Redick shoots slightly better at home (41.9 percent vs 41.1 percent). Some positive regression should be in order. Still, Philly will need to make a concerted effort to get him touches. Find him in transition. Get him running in Floppy sets. Run him off flares. Make sure he gets rolling.
3. Take care of the ball
The Sixers mostly execute like a team beyond its years. If there is one blip you can attribute to youthfulness, it’s their turnover rate. Philly gave up the pill on 16.5 percent of their possessions this season, the worst mark in the NBA. They’ve been a middle-of-the-pack team — 18th to be exact — in that regard since the All-Star break. That isn’t great, but that should be good enough against a Miami team that struggles to score. Limit chances for easy buckets, and the Sixers should be able to control the series.
X-factor: Meek Mill
Actually, I’m not really kidding. Meek Mill is set to be released next week. Normally this would have literally no impact on a basketball game. It shouldn’t. But if you watched the Eagles run out of the tunnel to Meek’s music before this year’s Super Bowl, you couldn’t help but feel something. There was a certain aura about it. Sure enough, they went on to knock off the Patriots en route to their first ever Super Bowl title.
The thought of Meek Mill’s release sparking a Finals run would be insane. It would also be, like, the 37th weirdest thing to happen in this country over the last two months. Heck, what if D.J Khaled comes out with some new music to combat this somehow? Do you know how loud those ad-libs would be?
The *actual* X-factor: Markelle Fultz
Gone are the days where TJ McConnell would be forced to keep Simmons-less lineups humming. He’s essentially been replaced by rookie Markelle Fultz, and the results have been pretty darn good.
Fultz has put up humble numbers (7.1 points, 3.8 assists in 18.1 minutes), but he’s given Philly a level of dynamism they’ve been missing. His lightening-quick first step and slithery handle allows him to get downhill whenever he wants. He also sees the floor well enough to hit shooters on kick-out passes, and dump the ball off to bigs if the help comes too aggressively.
Watch here as Fultz reads the ICE defense, recognizes the blip of miscommunication, then fires a dart to the corner for a triple:
The Heat haven’t seen Fultz at all — he didn’t play in any of the four matchups. They aren’t unaware of his general strengths and weaknesses — expect them to go under all of his screens – but Fultz still has an opportunity to crash the party. If he can maintain or extend leads while Simmons is on the bench, Philly should have no issue winning.
- 104.5 offensive rating (20th; 102.7 vs PHI)
- 104.0 defensive rating (7th; 101.0)
- 0.5 net rating (17th; plus-1.7)
- 97.76 pace (26th; 100.18)
- 50.2 rebounding percentage (15th; 46.5)
THE CORE: Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Hassan Whiteside, Kelly Olynyk, Wayne Ellington, Justise Winslow, Dwyane Wade
HOW THE STARTERS FARED
Miami’s current starting group — Dragic-Johnson-Richardson-Johnson-Whiteside — only started in two of the four meetings. In 29 minutes, they performed at an elite level defensively (98.6 defensive rating), but couldn’t get the ball in the hoop on accident (90.2 offensive rating). The biggest reason for the struggles: Philly effectively walled off the paint. Their shot breakdown:
- 8-of-16 in the restricted area
- 4-of-1o in the paint, non-restricted area
- 4-of-14 from mid-range
- 1-of-9 on corner threes
- 6-of-11 on above-the-break threes
Twenty-six shots in the paint, 34 shots outside of the paint. Even with the uptick in three-point volume, that isn’t close to Miami’s ideal formula. Philly did and does a great job of shrinking the floor on drives. In the event that a Heat guard was lucky enough to turn the corner, they were met with a sea of arms:
LINEUP TO WATCH: Goran Dragic, Wayne Ellington, Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk
We didn’t see this lineup against Philly, but it was Miami’s most productive lineup among their 14 combos that played at least 50 minutes. They blitzed teams offensively (123.2 offensive rating), nearly posting a 50/40/90 shooting split (52/43/85). Despite only having two plus-defenders in this group, they still managed to defend like a top-10 team (104.7 defensive rating).
This has served as Miami’s “first sub” lineup before they send one of Dragic or Richardson to the bench. If the starters continue to struggle against Philly’s, they’ll need this group to give them a spark from beyond the arc.
THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES
1. Hassan Whiteside must be locked in
It feels ridiculous to have to write this about the highest paid, and arguably the most talented player on the team, but this is the reality.
The back-and-forth between who Whiteside is, who Whiteside thinks he is, and what the Heat need from him has been well chronicled at this point. He’s as talented as he is frustrating to watch. Depending on what night you see him, you can understand why the Heat gave him a four-year, $98 million deal, or why he’s had his minutes slashed.
When Whiteside is on his game — screening hard, rolling harder, cleaning the glass, and protecting the rim — not many bigs in the league can turn the tide of a game like he can. He has the size, length, and assertiveness to bother Joel Embiid (whenever he’s back) on both ends. We’ve seen it.
Whiteside can shift the narrative surrounding him with a strong showing in this series. He has added incentive to show out, considering the beef that he and Embiid have. At this point, it doesn’t matter what Whiteside’s motivation is as long as he does his part to neutralize the matchup.
2. Get Goran Dragic downhill
Very quietly, Dragic was … well, quiet against the Sixers. He only averaged 14 points on 37.5 percent shooting from the field and from three. Robert Covington and Ben Simmons took turns guarding Dragic, and it was clear their length and lateral quickness bothered him.
The bigs are going to have to help Dragic out with strong, angled screens. Setting the screen at an angle forces the defender over the top; from there, Dragic can make Philly pay in those 2-on-1 situations.
3. Win the coaching battle
The Sixers have the two best players in the series when healthy. They’re equipped with versatile defenders, and added a pair of shooters in February to shore up that weakness. The one, surefire edge Miami has is on the sidelines.
Erik Spoelstra is one of the best coaches in the league. His rotations can get irksome during the regular season, but there aren’t many coaches better at making game-to-game adjustments in the playoffs. He’s going to have to get creative to slow down the Simmons-Embiid duo, but he’s one of the few coaches that could pull it off.
X-FACTOR: Dwyane Wade
Wade is a legend. He’s the greatest player in Heat history, a top-4 shooting guard of all-time, and a surefire, first-ballot Hall-of-Famer whenever he decides to hang them up. Even at this stage of his career, Wade can give you 5-6 minute bursts of excellence, his offensive craft and defensive know-how shining through like the sun at the crack of dawn.
Wade is also very clearly past his prime. The Heat have been a much, much better team with him off the floor since his return. He provides no floor spacing, takes and misses a bunch of contested shots, and still compromises Miami’s transition defense when he feels like a call has been missed.
Most signs point to Wade needing to see his minutes diminished. But then you remember who Wade is: a guy who’s made a living on proving the doubters wrong. As poorly as Wade has played through the first three quarters this season, he’s been Miami’s most reliable shot-creator during clutch time. The playoffs are all about making tough looks; Wade can still knock those down. Philly found that out the hard way in their first meeting with Wade back in the fold.
Wade doesn’t have to be the elite version of himself. He just needs to tread water instead of sinking the ship like he has been. If Miami can hang close, be in position to need a moment, Wade can still give you that moment.
PREDICTION: Sixers in 6
This series can really go either way. It would not shock me if the youth of Philly and their propensity to turn the ball over burns them. The Heat are a tough, physical, and more-experienced group with an elite coach on the sidelines.
I’m going to roll with Philly here because top-end talent usually wins out in the playoffs. At the very least, the Sixers have the best player on the floor in Simmons. If or when Embiid comes back, they’ll have the two best players. Add in shooting and size across the roster, and the hot streak they’re entering the series on, and it’s hard to bet against them right now.
All stats via NBA.com and Synergy.