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April 12, 2018

Sixers vs. Heat series preview: Matchups, weaknesses and predictions for round one of NBA Playoffs

After an emphatic victory over the Milwaukee Bucks to end the season, Philadelphia has been overcome with a wave of optimism about the Sixers' chances in the playoffs. It's hard to blame anybody who's fired up. With the No. 3 seed in their possession, the Sixers have a realistic, if an unlikely path to head back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2001. The vibe is different from the Eagles' recent Super Bowl run, but the song remains the same — this team is capable of playing with anybody on their best day.

But before anyone lets lofty dreams get the best of them, a splash of cold water is coming in the form of the Miami Heat. There was not exactly an easy out of the teams below them in the standings, and the team they're matched up with is no exception. Absent a headline star, the Heat get things done primarily by committee, featuring eight different players who average double figures in scoring, nine if you include the injured Dion Waiters.

This exercise will largely consist of evaulating the series as if Joel Embiid will definitely play at some point, despite the fact that he seems to be on track to miss Game 1. His competitive fire is too great for him to sit out altogether, and with the franchise center working out during pre-game activities this past week, the signs suggest his return comes sooner rather than later.

Let's get right into the nitty-gritty.

A clash of styles

I'm not going to mince words here — in pretty much every single significant category you can measure, the Sixers are better than the Heat. That will not come as a shocker to most of you given the gap in records on the season. Eight wins is a massive gap over the course of an 82-game season, even if the two teams split their season series 2-2.

If you don't believe me, just take a gander at some of the figures and where both teams place.

 Stat category Philadelphia 76ers  Miami Heat 
W/L record   52-30 44-38 
 OFF RTG (pts. per 100 possessions)  107.4 (11th) 104.5 (20th) 
 DEF RTG (pts. allowed per 100)  102.0 (3rd) 104.0 (7th) 
 Effective field goal percentage (EFG%)  53.5 (7th) 52.0 (14th) 
 Opponent EFG%  49.2 (1st) 50.7 (7th) 
 Pace (possessions used per game) 102.2 (4th)  97.76 (26th) 
 Opponent 3P% 34.2 (2nd)  36.0 (13th) 


One thing you'll notice is that Miami doesn't trail the Sixers by that much in a lot of the defensive marks. The Heat, like the Sixers, make their money on that end of the floor and are much better at getting stops than they are executing on the offensive end.

The most noticeable gap between the two teams is the area that will define the series: pace. Philadelphia is a run-and-gun team, particularly when Ben Simmons is on the floor without Joel Embiid, and they are incentivized to play with pace and kill teams in transition and early-clock situations. Over 44 percent of the Sixers' offense comes in the first nine seconds of the shot clock.

Miami trends the other way, scoring a comparatively large portion of their points in late-clock situations. It's an intentional choice for a team built around its defensive identity, but it's also a reflection of the personnel they have on hand. There's no dominant playmaker or ballhandler, and the Heat end up having to score by committee as a result.

The Heat's offense is usually thought of as very pick-and-roll heavy because they run a lot of action with their two best players, Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside, but they're right around the league average there in terms of frequency. Where they stand out is on handoffs, where they exceed even Philadelphia's handoff-heavy offense by several possessions per game. Miami uses that playstyle at the second-highest rate in the league, and for good reason  — they also have the second-lowest turnover rate on those plays.

It makes a lot of sense given their personnel. Like the Sixers, the Heat have a lot of guys who are fine as straight-line drivers but hopeless if you have to ask them to create from a standstill. The handoff minimizes some of those concerns, by getting the ball to perimeter players on the move and leveraging the first player — usually a big man — to take out a would-be defender with a screen.

On some possessions, you'll see the Heat run through multiple handoffs or handoff attempts, eventually getting the look they want without too much additional action.

But there is nothing extraordinary about what the Heat do on the offensive end of the floor, regardless of what they're running in the halfcourt. They don't have the top-end talent to own a particular set of plays or put a defense on its heels, particularly when they're equipped with the sort of personnel the Sixers have in their Embiid-Covington-Simmons three-headed monster.

The other side of the floor is another matter entirely. Miami is bursting with long, athletic players in the starting lineup and off the bench, and they can come at you in waves. The Heat have actually been better with some of their bench players in the game than they have been with the starters. Lineups with rookie center Bam Adebayo and third-year wing Justise Winslow have outscored teams by 4.2 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, and rank in the 95th percentile of all groupings on the defensive end.

That depth has empowered Spoelstra to go on a season-long journey of experimenting with lineups, toying with different combinations during all parts of the game. Philadelphia's most-played lineup (their starting group) has played roughly 1,256 possessions together this season, which dwarfs the next most-common group. Miami's top unit of Dragic, Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson, James Johnson, and Whiteside is comparatively small, clocking in with just 422 reps on the year.

There are two ways to think about that. The first would be to say it presents a challenge for Brown to have to cope with so much uncertainty. Spoelstra can junk things up and throw more curveballs because it's not a departure from what the Heat have done all year. The usual mid-series adjustments might just be falling back on combinations that have proven to work in low-pressure settings.

A more honest take, however, would be that Miami doesn't really have a go-to unit to throw out there in crunch-time, where they'll be matched up against the league's best five-man unit this season.

Matchups that will shift the series

Dario Saric vs. Whoever is guarding him

While most conversations begin and end focusing on the importance of Embiid and Simmons, it may be the other young core member who could swing the series. Based on how Miami has defended the Sixers this season, it will be up to Saric to exploit mismatches and make the Heat pay when they don't respect his game. 

Saric has killed the Heat this season to the tune of 19.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game on 49/45/94 shooting splits. His role in the offense changes from possession-to-possession and has often been dictated by whatever matchup the Heat decide to use on his teammates.

Miami has elected to use James Johnson and Winslow as the primary defenders on Simmons through the four matchups to date, and when it's the former checking the rookie, Saric is typically matched up with a Heat player he has a size advantage on. Richardson is a good defender on the wing, but Saric has been able to take advantage of him during sporadic opportunities on the low block.

One wrinkle that will be interesting for a playoff series is how seriously Saric gets taken as a shooter. Given his numbers coming into this year and the starry talent around him, it's fair to say teams dedicated more resources to walling off the paint from Embiid and Simmons. Saric was one of the primary beneficiaries of that decision, with his above-the-break threes often coming out of simple pick-and-pops or basic maneuvering from pure feel.

Now that Saric has finished the season at a sub-elite level on high volume from three, Miami will focus more intently on him as a threat. Whether he's guarded by a wing or a bigger player like Johnson, they will probably have to track him tighter instead of sagging into the paint to help.

That said, if they choose to hug on Saric more, that opens up space for drivers and, more specifically, Philadelphia's stars in the paint. Miami may just choose to live with him getting semi-open looks on late closeouts if they're picking a poison.

Goran Dragic vs. Robert Covington (and Simmons)

While Dragic may not be a franchise-altering star, he is without a doubt Miami's best perimeter threat at this stage of the game. Dwyane Wade will probably pull a 30-point game out of his butt in round one because he always finds a way to look 25 again against the Sixers, but Dragic is the key defensive assignment for Philadelphia headed into the battle.

Covington drew the assignment most often through their four matchups this season, defending Dragic on an average of over 29 possessions per game. The 31-year-old guard had almost nothing to offer during that time — Dragic shot just 34.6 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from three while guarded by Covington, and was clearly bothered by Covington's combination of length and athleticism on the perimeter.

While Covington can struggle to shut an elite player down one-on-one, Dragic is completely within his wheelhouse. It also helps that he has Simmons helping him out on screens and switches, as it either buys him time or ensures Miami's lead guard has to score or pass over another long, athletic defender.

One potential subplot to keep an eye on: whether the Heat force switches to a degree that it changes Philadelphia's defensive strategy or rotation. Dragic is certainly no LeBron James, but perimeter players have had success over the last month by hunting JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli on the defensive end. The Heat tried this in spurts to varying degrees of success, but if it happens one too many times, it might prompt Brown to turn to a guy like Justin Anderson for a spurt off the bench.

Simmons vs. everybody (but mostly James Johnson)

The NBA did not exactly do a lot to stop Simmons from achieving what he wanted this season, and the Heat are no exception. His averages across four games are slightly down from his season averages — he put up 14.8 points, eight rebounds, and 7.3 assists on 60 percent shooting against the Heat this season — and what Miami decides to do against him will ultimately decide the series.

James Johnson should probably be the No. 1 candidate to take the assignment. Simmons shot poorly when defended by Johnson in the regular season, and his usually stellar assist-to-turnover ratio plummeted while guarded by the second-degree black-belt owner (yes, that's a real thing).

One area where Miami set themselves apart from the average team in defending Simmons is how far down the court they picked him up. Winslow ended up designated as the "primary defender" on a lot of possessions because he was used to press Simmons on inbounds plays and pick him up full court. It was an unusual step against a player who thrived at tearing teams apart in the open floor, and would seem to be counter-productive — if you let him get through the first line of defense, it's a wrap from there.

But things did not always go as planned for the rookie. Miami made him uncomfortable by springing the press on him throughout their meetings, weaving in and out of the strategy on a moment-to-moment basis. A 48-minute press serves nothing but to drain your own players, but by using it as a situational weapon, Miami was able to keep Simmons guessing and trying to play too fast a game at times.

This is the trickiest part for Simmons, and can be tied back to the point made above about Miami's diversity in lineup combinations. Just as they throw out different five-man groups, they are able to adapt and throw off-speed stuff in real time, forcing opponents to read and react at a high level. It's one thing to solve a puzzle when the rules are clear and the solution becomes apparent fairly quickly.

The Heat defense is not that sort of puzzle. They will sag off Simmons on one play and hug him tight on the perimeter the next, never allowing him to get into his comfort zone. If a standard defense is a jigsaw puzzle, Miami's has been that same puzzle, except if the only way to solve it was to sit in the cockpit of a plane that keeps barrel rolling.

Simmons is capable of settling in and picking this apart, but it will not be easy, and a rough opening game or two to the series would not be the most shocking thing in the world.

The experience factor

When asked about what stands out to him in a matchup with the Heat, Brett Brown got right to the point during a small session with the media on Thursday afternoon.

First I go to their culture. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Riley and the legacy he is building with Spo. I think when you look at organizationally how they haven't really blinked in many, many years, they are very Spurs-like to me. They have played repetitively late in seasons and in big games and have won championships. 

So I look at Miami in two ways. I look at them — what is their current team, how do they play, who are the matchups like you know that I would — but I also look at it with a longer lens, knowing that we're playing a team that is playoff-driven, playoff-hardened, culturally sound, been there done that, years of experience making adjustments. This isn't new to them.

We can sit here and dissect the film and all the underlying numbers and try to make sense of this the best we can, but there are intangible qualities that will help decide this series as well. And while their top-end talent can't match Philadelphia's, Miami does have a leg-up in playoff experience in their best players compared to those on the Sixers.

Embiid and Simmons have proven they are great regular season players, but they have no concept yet of what to expect when they're in the middle of a playoff battle. When the whistles get swallowed and they have to play through contact against a physical Miami squad, how will they react? How will Simmons keep ascending in a format where halfcourt basketball is often highlighted further? Will Embiid figure out the balance of trying to draw foul calls while not tossing up too many errant shots in the process?

All valid questions, especially when it comes to Simmons solving the puzzle. Everything we've seen from him this year suggests his calm demeanor will serve him well, and he will be surrounded by veterans who have been around the block a few times.

But there's no way of knowing how someone will respond to that environment until they're actually in it. There is an old (and slightly manipulated) quote often attributed to former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson that is appropriate for times like these: "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." It can be taken more literally in a combat sport, but the principle applies across the board. Even the best intentions can go up in smoke when you're hit with adversity, and it's the moments after adversity in life when you really learn about the character of a person.

We haven't even mentioned Markelle Fultz yet, but consider how steep the learning curve is for him specifically. He will be asked to play at a playoff level with less than 15 games of NBA experience and his jumper still hiding out somewhere in a dim high school gym. Will Brown stick with him if the glare of the spotlight proves to be too much? That remains to be seen.

Maybe the Sixers come out and blow the doors off Miami, rendering this sort of thing moot. But I would venture a guess that it'll go quite differently.

The prediction

All that being said, that quote from Brown is telling in what it doesn't say. Instead of focusing his attention on individual players or problem areas the Heat expose, Brown's first thought was to talk about culture and coaching. That doesn't exactly speak too highly of the talent on the roster — can you imagine responding to a question about the Wizards, for example, without mentioning either of John Wall or Bradley Beal?

Embiid's availability (or lack thereof) will undoubtedly shift expectations, and if Miami can steal one from the Sixers in the first two games, it will put pressure on a head coach and group of players who have never been at this level before. That's a real (and realistic) pitfall that could derail the Sixers before they have a chance to get going.

But stars win in the playoffs, and the depth advantage the Heat might have had earlier this season has dissipated. Belinelli and Ilyasova have given the Sixers perfect-fitting pieces off the bench that fit alongside both of their young guards, and the return of Fultz provides the Sixers with an X-factor deep into the NBA calendar. If I had to make a guess, I would say Embiid returns by Game 3 next Thursday, and perhaps as soon as this Monday if things go south in the opener — pressure has a weird way of expediting the healing process.

Regardless of how long this series lasts, I expect this to be an excruciating watch at times. I think the Sixers are capable of winning this one in five games, but it will ultimately take a little longer to get over the hump and book their trip to the second round.

Sixers in six games.

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