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May 01, 2022

Sixers vs. Heat series preview: Matchups, x-factors, and prediction for round 2

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James-Harden-Sixers-NBA-Playoffs-04182022-UST Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

James Harden puts Pascal Siakam in the Shadow Realm.

With both teams fully healthy, Sixers-Heat was expected to be one of the most compelling second-round matchups in the 2022 playoff slate. Another injury to Joel Embiid has changed the calculus, moving the Heat from slight to overwhelming favorites to move onto the conference finals. 

But we will take an in-depth look all the same, looking at the big picture, the trends, and what matters with or without the big man available to play.

Styles and stats

A quick disclaimer before we flash the chart — effective field-goal percentage (or EFG) adjusts the normal field-goal percentage stat to account for three-point makes being worth more than two-point makes. Pretty simple. 

 CategoryMiami Heat Philadelphia 76ers 
 W/L record53-29 51-31 
 OFF RTG (pts. per 100 possessions) 113.0 (t-11th)113.0 (t-11th) 
 DEF RTG (pts allowed per 100)108.4  (4th)110.2 (12th) 
 EFG%54.7 (5th) 53.4 (16th) 
 Opponent EFG% 52.4 (t-11th)52.4 (t-11th) 
 Pace 96.53 (28th) 96.71 (26th)
 Opponent FTA rate.268 (27th)  .250 (13th)

This will not be a series of run-and-gun teams. The Sixers and Heat both ranked near the bottom of the league in pace this season, grinding teams down with slower, methodical styles that seek to make the most of the personnel they have on hand. For Philadelphia, that meant a lot of long, methodical possessions running through James Harden and Joel Embiid. For the Heat, that stylistic choice has offensive merit but is also intertwined with their defensive identity, which will test the Sixers far harder than the Raptors were able to.

Over the years, Sixers fans have become quite familiar with Erik Spoelstra's Heat, this matchup gaining some more juice once Jimmy Butler left for South Beach in free agency. In many respects, Miami was a thorn in their side the last few seasons, though that's more a reflection of Miami's approach than anything personal. The Heat are well-drilled, and the Sixers found that out the hard way in meetings where the Heat sat in zone defense for long stretches of games. Playing something other than man has become much more popular these days, but the Heat were at the forefront of that practice, haunting the Sixers with it for a long time.

Presumably, zone might be less of an issue for this version of the Sixers against the Heat, mostly because their primary ball-handler is no longer a non-entity against a zone. On the other hand, the non-shooters they'll roll out at center with Embiid unavailable will make it harder to spread the floor out around Harden. In any case, Philly eating into Miami's zone success wouldn't make the opponent any less of a challenge for Philadelphia to solve as a group. They are an older, more disciplined team than the Raptors were, and they will cut off options more decisively than Toronto was able to. Don't expect the Heat, for example, to concede strong-side assists for Harden to drop off to corner shooters.

The real difference between Philadelphia's first and second-round opponents lies in the offensive gap between them. Miami ranked 11th in points per play on halfcourt possessions this season, even with all of their most important players missing time due to injuries, COVID, or personal issues throughout the year. In Jimmy Butler, they have a pick-and-roll ballhandler who Sixers fans know should be feared in important moments, and he'll frequently pair with Bam Adebayo in those actions. The Kentucky product is an excellent downhill player on top of being a capable playmaker at the center spot, which will put stress on second-unit lineups for Philly if nothing else. And Adebayo's combination of rim-running and passing ability makes him a dangerous component in Miami's "split" actions, serving as either the post passer or the screener/cutter off-ball. 

Embiid's ability to walk the tightrope and prevent lobs without giving a guy like Butler an attacking window would have been critical, as overhelping toward the paint from other Sixers players could lead to disastrous results for the Sixers. Now that responsibility falls on a much less capable group of rim protectors, with Paul Reed's propensity to foul a much bigger deal in (presumably) a much bigger role. 

Then there's Kyle Lowry, whose health is a question mark coming into this series (as is Butler's, for that matter). The Philadelphia native's addition to Miami has given them a multi-faceted threat in the backcourt who can either run the show himself or provide utility and value as an off-ball threat, hitting shots off movement or cutting intelligently into space. He has a smaller share of the offense in Miami than he had in Toronto, but discount his impact at your own risk if he's ready to go for this series. Beyond his playmaking, shot gravity, and experience, Lowry will junk up the game as much as he has to in order to tilt a game in his team's favor. There will be flopping and theatrics on both sides in this series, to say the least.

On that last subject, if you expected the complaints about officiating to end after round 1, I can assure you that you will be mistaken. One big area for the Sixers to exploit in this series is Miami's propensity to foul — they ranked in the bottom five in opponent free-throw rate during the regular season, committed the sixth-most fouls of any team in the league, and are up against a Philadelphia team (even without Embiid) with one of the league's preeminent free-throw salesmen. On some level, that propensity to put guys on the line is a byproduct of the physical approach the Heat take on defense, and the amount of contact that is allowed game-to-game figures to be an exhausting debate with posturing at the podium and extreme sodium levels for both fanbases.

To put it lightly, Philadelphia does not have the same margin for error in this series that they did against Toronto. Miami's ability to win with backups and depth guys is a testament to their scouting and prep work, but it also speaks to their night-to-night focus, something the Sixers have lacked even in these playoffs. Should the Sixers come out with a lackadaisical approach as they did for at least three games of the Raptors series, or even if they mess up the scout on the minor details, there's a higher probability the Heat will simply bury them. The Heat have their own limitations, but they get the most out of what they have and have a fairly deep group to call upon if swing pieces in the series struggle. Even Victor Oladipo, only introduced at the tail end of the season, showed he can step in and play a decisive part in a closeout win in round 1 vs. Atlanta.

The fun thing, which was also (mostly) true about the matchup with the Raptors, is that you can basically throw out the data for most of the regular season. Harden played in precisely none of the games, and the Heat's first win over the Sixers came without any of Butler, Adebayo, or Tyler Herro in the lineup. The Sixers picked up the series split in a game where Tyrese Maxey led the way without Embiid or Harden available. At a minimum, they're going to have to find a way to get it done without the big guy.

Matchups to watch

James Harden and Tyrese Maxey vs. Everybody

James Harden's ability to beat switches was a big storyline down the stretch this season, and injuries to Fred Van Vleet helped the Raptors lean even further into a switch-heavy identity against the Sixers in round 1. Miami doesn't need any contextual incentive to switch actions to junk up Philadelphia's pace of play in the halfcourt. The Heat ranked second in switching frequency league wide this season, and that's a trend I expect will continue against Philadelphia.

All of the pieces matter here — Lowry, Butler, and P.J. Tucker are all pain-in-the-ass defenders at their best — but the key to it all is Adebayo. In a series where his primary task would have been trying to slow down Embiid, Adebayo would have been in a tough spot, trying to slow his man down rather than outright stopping him. Where he provides Miami surplus value is with his ability to switch onto basically any perimeter player for Philly without the Heat being in danger. With Embiid on the shelf and with Adebayo not having to worry much about his individual assignment, Miami's starting center can switch freely and wreak havoc without fearing that Embiid will punish a smaller guy on the back end.

As we saw in the series against Toronto, though, the Sixers are prepared to run whatever actions are necessary in order to get a matchup in front of Harden they feel suits them. The Sixers used both Harden and Tyrese Maxey as ball screeners for one another throughout that series, a wrinkle that frequently allowed Harden to get matched up with one of Fred Van Vleet or Gary Trent Jr. When the Raptors shifted assignments to avoid that possibility, the Sixers had no problems bringing Danny Green over to screen for whoever the lead ballhandler was, pulling a defender out of the "hiding spot" in the corner. And in Game 6, we saw the Sixers progress that style of offense past the initial switch hunting, putting Embiid into a pick-and-roll with Harden and the weakest perimeter defender to force the Raptors into a lose-lose-lose situation — either you leave your worst defender on Harden, switch a small onto Embiid, or give Harden a runway to the rim.

The Heat are at once loaded with options to battle with Harden and filled with enough questionable defenders for him to attack if they work for it. Miami bumped Max Strus into the starting lineup late in the year, and he's probably your best bet among the starting five.

But it's the second unit, featuring Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, where the Sixers really need to make their money. In the late-season win over Miami, Maxey absolutely torched Tyler Herro down the stretch of the game, and the Sixers picked on Duncan Robinson throughout the evening as well. Philadelphia shot a combined 19/30 with one of those two guys as the primary defender in that home win, with Herro a traffic cone throughout Philadelphia's fourth-quarter push for the W.

Those guys are going to have to score themselves, though, because the rest of Miami's team will close gaps and find shooters quicker than the Raptors did. The Sixers need their scoring talent to play like scoring talent if they're going to have a puncher's chance in this series.

Who plays among the backup bigs?

Though Doc Rivers has taken plenty of heat for backup center decisions — some justified, some not — he is really in a brutal spot now. Paul Reed's limitations aren't too worrisome when he's serving as the backup behind an MVP candidate center who relegates him to 10 minutes a night off the bench. If you're expecting Reed to play a sizable role in this series, I think that's going to end in a lot of pain for Philadelphia. Reed's propensity for fouling matters a lot more when he has to be a reliable big-minute player rather than a spark off of the bench, and it's asking a lot from him to find a way to avoid trouble without cutting into what makes him effective.

That's not to say that I think Jordan is the guy who deserves the minutes. We've seen how that movie ends in unimportant regular-season games against good teams and bad teams alike. But the Sixers are facing a serious uphill battle without Embiid, because I'm not sure their defensive structure can hold up without Embiid there to prop them up.

With due respect to Tobias Harris, who had an excellent defensive series vs. Toronto, the Sixers have absolutely drowned on defense without Embiid, continuing a yearly tradition. In the playoffs to date, they are nearly 11 points per 100 possessions worse with Embiid off than with Embiid on the floor. Since Harden joined the lineup in late February, the Sixers have been on an endless quest to find lineups that work without him, never quite settling on any. 

One lineup combination offers hope: Reed-Harris-Green-Maxey-Harden, a potential starting group if Rivers trusts the job to a second-year big, posted insane numbers in 17 minutes of action in round 1. I think it's fair to say they won't outscore teams by nearly 49 points per 100 possessions over the long term, but there's a reasonable proof of concept there. Two dangerous ball-handlers, two credible catch-and-shoot guys who can defend a little bit, and a big man who will set screens, crash the glass, and play hard on both ends.

There may be a temptation for the Sixers to go small at some point in this series, perhaps even busting out those looks out early to throw a curveball at the Heat. Miami was the most accurate three-point shooting team in the league this season, which makes playing zone against them sound like a death trap, but they have multiple players who you'd be live with as jump shooters if it came down to it. Butler's regression to a reluctant, ineffective marksman has been well-publicized over the last few years. Adebayo has hit a total of seven threes in five seasons, and his midrange numbers have come down in 2021-22 after a breakthrough year a season prior. The problem isn't that you can't find guys to bait into shots, it's that Philadelphia will be unequipped to keep said players off of the glass if those shots miss. Niang looked slow and off the pace for most of the Toronto series, and it's not going to get easier for him here.

Had Charles Bassey played at all during the back half of this season, I would be more bullish on him getting a look in this series, health permitting obviously. Asking a rookie with minimal season PT to make an impact against the conference's No. 1 seed in round 2 would be a gigantic ask, and that's in spite of the fact that I think (on paper) he may be their best option for Embiid's backup if all other things are equal. But at the very least, he is at the point where he can participate in full practices, giving him a real chance to play before the series is over.

"We may need all four guys, even if it's to burn minutes," Rivers said at practice Saturday. "The one thing Miami is, if they're nothing else they're clever. They're foul magnets. That's a concern for us. Two reasons, they shoot free throws well, so we don't want to play the whole series in the penalty. And No. 2, getting some of our guys in foul trouble. Bam [Adebayo] does a great job of that, Jimmy Butler may be the best at it in the series now without Joel, and Kyle Lowry does it. We just have to be very smart in how we plan our bigs."

Jimmy Butler vs. Matisse Thybulle vs. Thybulle's ability to stay on the floor

Butler is probably not as good as he looked in the series against Atlanta, a bad team who snuck into the playoffs and got slaughtered in a righteous fashion. On the other hand, the Sixers don't have a lot of credible options to throw at him, and and they might have to dust off a guy who was worse than a non-factor in their first-round series to deal with Mr. Buckets.

Tobias Harris earned a lot of respect for his first-round performance against the Raptors, deservedly so. Though Pascal Siakam was able to have a couple of big performances, Harris made him work hard for his production and committed himself to defense in a way we have never really seen from him. Rivers effectively said he looks like a different person compared to when he had him under his wing in Los Angeles, and Harris would probably agree with that. For his troubles, Harris has the lucky designation of being asked to guard all of Miami's best players in this upcoming series.

"It just allows us to put Tobias on the best player," Rivers said. "So he'll do that a lot in this series, whether it be Jimmy, Kyle Lowry, or Bam, Tobias will probably guard all three at some point."

I'm not sure any of those matchups go in Philly's favor, and that's not a dig at Harris. Butler has more ball-handling juice than anybody they faced in the Toronto series, Adebayo is a handful on multiple fronts, and Lowry is a guard. Even if age has dulled Lowry's quickness, asking Harris to defend guards for an extended period of the game is a massive ask, especially as his offensive responsibility almost certainly ticks up. And you can't leave tough assignments to Green, who has shown he can be a helpful team guy once again but who we know is not cut out for a top assignment at this point in his basketball life.

That means Thybulle is going to have to find a way to get and stay on the floor, which basically comes down to whether he can hit shots or not. The Heat will do exactly what Toronto did in the first round, ignoring Thybulle at basically all times unless he proves dangerous as a cutter and smart with the ball in his hands. People like to say "unless he starts making threes" here but that's not really true. Thybulle is a bad enough shooter on average that Miami isn't going to overreact if he makes a few, betting on regression and the value of cramping the paint to carry them home. If Thybulle's movement off-ball isn't helping them, if he makes silly turnovers on the few touches he gets, he'll be riding the pine.

The Sixers can't really afford that, because he's the only guy on the team who can credibly defend both Lowry and Butler. That flexibility can allow the Sixers to adjust on the fly to put out fires and kill runs if they can keep Thybulle on the floor, saving timeouts and preventing momentum from building. And if they use him as an off-ball roamer, the spot where he's much more dangerous as a turnover creator, they might be able to juice up their transition attack, getting around the drop in halfcourt success they'll see without Embiid.

I do not feel good about their chances vs. Butler in this series, though. They'll almost certainly concede space to him on the perimeter, but without Embiid there as the last line of defense, I suspect giving Butler a runway to get downhill is might end up causing an equal number of problems. He will seek and highlight any contact, find passing windows, and score even if the outside shot doesn't fall. If you're banking on a guy who might be unplayable to deal with him, prepare for pain.

X-Factor: Joel Embiid

For the second consecutive series, the x-factor is a no-brainer. Embiid's status is still a bit of a mystery in advance of the series — no surgery is required to repair Embiid's orbital bone at this time, but not needing immediate surgery and getting cleared to play doesn't necessarily go hand in hand.

Let's say Embiid is able to go, on an optimistic timeline, by the fourth game of this series. It may very well be too late to do much to actually swing the series at that point, even if Embiid is dead set on getting back in the lineup. One of the issues from a Sixers standpoint is that Miami was arguably more vulnerable early in this series as a result of the Lowry uncertainty. Missing Embiid for that first part of the series at a minimum is a gigantic loss.

So what happens if Embiid plays? In an early March meeting between these two teams — the only game that featured Embiid and Adebayo this season — Miami successfully slowed down Embiid by forcing him to play out of a crowd for most of the night. The Heat, much like the Raptors, have made clear through their actions that defending Embiid is not a one-man assignment. Adebayo's job here is not to stop Embiid, merely to slow him down and force him to work hard for his points. That battle will unfold on both sides of the ball, with Adebayo's ability to put pressure on the rim as critical as standing Embiid up in the post.

Adebayo standing toe-to-toe with Embiid is not the position Miami probably wants to be in, and their mission (should Embiid play) would be to create as much chaos around Embiid as possible. They'll front him, they'll mix up the timing of when they send help, and they will demand Embiid to make good reads as a passer. There were opportunities left on the table in previous matchups, Embiid settling for jumpers rather than hitting the guy who has been freed up due to the attention paid to him.

When the Heat switch, one of the big keys for Philadelphia is quickly finding the mismatch before Miami has a chance to scram switch and realign the team to preserve the best possible matchups. That goes double if/when Embiid plays. Though Miami has a few big, rugged defenders in the lineup, including Tucker, Embiid vs. basically any non-big in this series tilts toward Philly. He can shoot over those guys from midrange, and his ability to attack off-the-dribble from the nail will be critical.

Embiid's ability and willingness to punish Miami as an offensive rebounder is also a major swing point. Against smalls on switches, Embiid will have a considerable size advantage against anybody who might get stuck trying to box him out. And when the Heat play zone, Embiid (not to mention the rest of the Sixers) will have gaps to hit and second-chance opportunities to pursue if they play their cards right. It was part of what allowed Embiid to get to the line 14 times in the early March loss for Philly, keeping the game close despite a poor shooting night 

But that's where health comes in. Embiid was understandably hesitant about charging into the paint in Games 4 and 5 against Toronto, often swatting at rebound opportunities with his off hand or opting not to go up for them at all. Forget the pain and risk issues for a second — the mask Embiid likely needs to play with will impact his visibility, increasing the challenge on the glass. A legitimately compromised version of Embiid is probably not going to be enough to get it done here.

Prediction

I was genuinely prepared to pick the Sixers in six for the second straight round, even with Embiid nursing a hand injury. I think the Heat earned their spot at the top of the conference and had an impressive round 1 win over the Hawks, but they do have the vibe of a team waiting for a real test. Embiid's excellent Game 6 performance provided evidence that he would be able to thrive in spite of that thumb issue, and weighing for the fact that they would have the best player, the Sixers have shown the ability to hang with and beat Miami in difficult circumstances this year. The Heat do have some problems to sort out — to gain offensive punch from their bench guys, they have to compromise some defensive integrity, and vice versa.

Without Embiid, though, I have very little confidence in Philadelphia making this a competitive series. They simply aren't built to absorb the loss of the big fella, nor should they be expected to. Few players in the league carry a two-way burden as large as his, and his presence on the floor is able to push substandard lineups toward respectability, good lineups toward greatness. If he were leaving that responsibility in the capable hands of 2018 Harden, it would be a different story, but Harden finding the scoring gear has been heavily reliant on the attention Embiid draws either in the post or as a roller. The concept of this team is built around both guys siphoning attention away from the other, allowing their partner to thrive if the scales tilt too far in one direction. That dynamic is gone, leaving Harden and the rest of this group to fend for themselves.

If the Sixers can find a way to split the opening pair of games in Miami, there will be reason to hope. The longer Philadelphia can hang around, the more likely it is that Embiid can come back at a moment where he is both protected from risk and able to make an impact on the series' final outcome. But there's no reason to overthink this. Without their best player, the Sixers don't have many reasonable paths to victory against a very good, well-drilled team. Another second-round exit is tough to swallow, but it's hard to escape the feeling of inevitability here.

Heat in five games.


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