Previewing the 76ers-Heat Play-In Game Matchup

Previewing the 76ers-Heat Play-In Game Matchup Apr 4, 2024; Miami, Florida, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey (0) drives past Miami Heat forward Haywood Highsmith (24) during the second half at Kaseya Center. Mandatory Credit: Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

After battling through a flurry of injuries, the Philadelphia 76ers ended the regular season on an eight-game winning streak. Their hot end to the season was not enough to help them avoid the NBA play-in tournament. Philadelphia finished in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, setting them up to face off against the Miami Heat on Wednesday night. The winner becomes the seventh seed and will match up against the New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs. The loser will be in a win or go home contest against the winner of the East’s other play-in matchup between the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks. The following is a preview of the play-in game between the Sixers and Heat.

Injury Report:

For the Sixers, Joel Embiid is the biggest name to watch heading into Wednesday night. He missed the regular season finale against the Brooklyn Nets after tweaking his knee in the win over the Orlando Magic. The Sixers’ decision to hold Embiid out against Brooklyn was a precautionary move. Embiid reportedly fully participated in practice on Monday and Tuesday. While he is officially listed as questionable, all signs are pointing towards Embiid suiting up against the Heat.

De’Anthony Melton (back injury recovery) and Robert Covington (left knee bone bruise) are both out for Philadelphia. KJ Martin is questionable with a left great toe contusion. Melton’s absence is not shocking considering the comments head coach Nick Nurse made after the regular season finale. The Sixers’ depth is going to get tested, but they are in good position to effectively handle it.

On the other side, Terry Rozier (neck spasm) and Josh Richardson (right shoulder surgery) are out of the lineup for the Heat. Being without Rozier is a major deal for Miami. He averaged 16.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 31 games with Miami after being acquired mid-season.

Team Stats:

76ers Heat
Record 47-35 46-36
Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions) 116.2 (14th) 113.3 (21st)
Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) 113.0 (11th) 111.5 (5th)
Field Goal Percentage 46.4 (23rd) 46.5 (22nd)
3-Point Percentage 36.3 (18th) 37.0 (12th)
Offensive Rebounding Percentage 29.2 (10th) 26.1 (24th)
Pace 98.17 (18th) 96.88 (29th)

The Sixers and Heat play two competing styles of basketball. Philadelphia plays with a faster pace and a successful offense. The Sixers’ stats, particularly offensively, are skewed due to Embiid missing significant time this season. In games he played in, the Sixers’ offensive rating jumps to 122.4. If maintained over the course of a full season, the Sixers would have the best offense in the league. On the other side of the ball, the Sixers’ defensive rating in games Embiid played improves to 111.9. Over a full season, that would be sixth best in the league.

Miami’s style of basketball is completely different from the one Philadelphia utilizes. The Heat play with a suffocating defense that neutralizes opposing offenses, allowing their own middling offense to keep pace. While they are not a good offensive team, they do knock down a high percentage of their 3-pointers.

Jimmy Butler is the player Miami’s offense revolves around, especially in the postseason. He is coming off shooting a career-best 41.4% from 3-point range this season on 2.4 attempts per game. The Sixers should have little issue running him off the 3-point line, but that plays into the biggest strength in Butler’s game. He is one of the best players in the league at getting to the free-throw line. The 13-year veteran is sixth in free-throw attempts per game (7.7). He excels at using his craftiness, smarts, physicality and no shortage of grifting to draw fouls. Butler also historically takes his game to another level in the postseason. There is a reason why he has the nickname “Playoff Jimmy.”

The Sixers will have their hands full attempting to ensure Butler does not take over the game. Nic Batum should receive the Butler assignment. He has been the Sixers’ best perimeter defender this season, and he has the size to match up well with Butler. Philadelphia can also mix in some possessions with Tobias Harris defending Butler. Harris on paper has the strength to defend Butler in the post, although Butler has found success against him historically.

Things to Watch:

Maxey Postseason Leap Incoming?

One of the reasons this Sixers team is different from years past is the play of Tyrese Maxey. He continued to grow his game, reaching all new heights this season. The 23-year old averaged 25.9 points, 3.7 rebounds and 6.2 assists this season in addition to making his first All-Star appearance. In Embiid and Maxey, the Sixers have one of the best two-man combinations in all of basketball. If the Sixers are going to make a deep postseason run, Maxey is going to play a huge role.

The first obstacle in the Sixers’ path is a play-in matchup against the Heat. Miami generally does a good job scheming up ways to slow down Embiid, but Maxey possesses game changing ability, especially in this matchup. Outside of a rare brutal shooting performance against Miami on Christmas Day, Maxey has had a ton of success against Miami this season. In the other three matchups, he averaged 32.3 points per game. The Heat are a good defensive team, but their backcourt is capable of being exploited.

Maxey made major strides in evolving from a good player to a great player this season. The next obstacle for him to overcome is carrying over his regular season success into the postseason. Things did not go well for both Maxey and the Sixers the previous time they faced the Heat in the playoffs. The Sixers lost in six games back in the 2022 Eastern Conference semifinals. Maxey got off to a solid start in that series, but his play collapsed as the series wore on. Over the final two games of that series, Maxey averaged just 14.5 points on 34.4% shooting from the field and 18.2% shooting from long distance.

The 2021-22 season was the first year Maxey played a significant role at the NBA level. After playing 35.3 minutes per game in the regular season and then increasing that number to 40.4 in the postseason, perhaps Maxey simply ran out of gas. Two seasons later, he believes he is better prepared for the rigors of the postseason than in years past.

“I felt my body breaking down,” Maxey said after Tuesday’s practice, via Sam DiGiovanni of ClutchPoints . “For me, [during] the summers, I try to lift a lot. And during the season I try to maintain lifting and I spend a lot of time with my conditioning — and now I feel great. This is the best I feel going into the playoffs since I started playing in the NBA.”

Playing in the postseason against Miami once again, Maxey has a chance to prove how much he grew and learned since that series two years ago. The postseason is when the lights shine brightest. Maxey is prepared to shine like a diamond this postseason, starting with the play-in game against the Heat.

How will the Sixers fare against Miami’s zone defense?

Zone defense has been a problem for the Sixers throughout the last couple of seasons. Miami is one of the best teams in the league at executing a zone defense. They have the ability to throw multiple different zone looks at their opponents, even at times switching up the zone mid-possession. If the Sixers are going to get past Miami, it will undoubtedly involve finding a way to succeed against their zone defense.

The Sixers come into this game better prepared to battle against Miami’s vaunted zone defense. The two-man game with Embiid and Maxey can carve up the zone, just as they did in their previous matchup with the Heat earlier in April. In that contest, the duo combined to score 66 points on 26-of-51 shooting. Embiid was dialed in from the mid-range while Maxey had it going from all areas of the floor. The Sixers also generated a ton of open looks on the perimeter against the zone, but they failed to consistently cash in.

Embiid has improved greatly as a passer this season, resulting in his career-high 5.6 assists per game this season. His ability to read opposing defenses and get the ball to the open man has been a beauty to watch. Those skills are going to get tested against the Heat, who excel at throwing multiple defensive looks at opposing offenses.

Miami is going to use their zone defense to attempt to take away both Embiid’s mid-range game and the space for Maxey to drive to the basket. As a result, Embiid and Maxey need to counter by trusting the supporting cast and finding them for open shots. Even the best zone defenses have a weakness: giving up open looks along the perimeter. The Sixers’ supporting cast is going to have to make their shots and punish Miami for dropping into a zone. If they can effectively do that, it will free up space and make things easier for Embiid and Maxey. Having the patience to keep playing with the right process and trusting that the results will come is the Sixers’ key to beating Miami’s zone defense.

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