By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Staff Writer
The Philadelphia 76ers will face off against the Miami Heat, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, in the second round. Joel Embiid's status will be much watched, with the big man set to miss at least the first two games with an orbital fracture and concussion. Both teams are banged up heading into the series (Miami will be without Kyle Lowry for Game 1 with a left hamstring strain), but Embiid's status will warrant the most attention as the series plays out.
These two teams have split their four regular season matchups, although both teams have yet to face each other at full strength this season. Miami presents a difficult matchup for the Sixers due to their combination of defense, depth and outside shooting. The series kicks off on Monday night down in Miami. Here is a full preview of the series consisting of things to watch and a prediction for how the series will play out:
3 key things to watch:
1. Dealing with Embiid's injury
The Sixers received some good news on Sunday afternoon when ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported the team had some optimism Embiid would be able to return to the court as soon as either Game 3 or 4. An Embiid return that early in the series would obviously be the best case scenario. In the meantime, the team will have to adjust to life without Embiid on the court.
The team has a plethora of options, and head coach Doc Rivers refused to rule any of them out heading into the series. He said after practice on Saturday the team will "play center by committee" against the Heat. The Sixers have four backup centers: DeAndre Jordan, Paul Millsap, Charles Bassey and Paul Reed. Jordan played briefly at the end of Game 3 of the team's first round series against the Toronto Raptors. Millsap has not been on the floor since March 29. Bassey just returned to practice from a right shoulder sprain that had been holding him out over the past few weeks.
Despite Rivers' refusal to rule anyone out at center, there is one center rotation the team should clearly use in Embiid's absence.
Reed received the backup center minutes against the first round series against the Raptors and the results were mixed. In 9.9 minutes per game, he averaged 4.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 0.7 steals and 0.3 blocks per game. Rivers on Saturday spoke approvingly of Reed's play against Toronto.
"I thought Paul [Reed] was terrific," Rivers said. "I thought the adjustment in Game 6 for Paul helped him – because we were trying to figure out the best way to help him. And my first thought was play him with the starters more, because those minutes when he's with the other guys, there's a lot of mistakes. In [Game 6], we took Joel [Embiid] out early, and that way he played with four starters. I thought that helped him. And so we intend on doing that a lot."
There is evidence for the Sixers to start Reed at center in Embiid's absence. The results with Reed playing with the rest of the starters in the first round, albeit in a small sample size, were great. In 17 minutes of play, the lineup had a 151.4 offensive rating and a plus-48.7 net rating.
Reed has a penchant for getting into quick foul trouble, and Bassey should be the man to receive the center minutes when Reed is off the floor. Bassey is an athletic, rim-running big who in theory could have a ton of success against a team like the Heat. He has the ability to be useful in the pick-and-roll and is solid on the defensive end. Rivers might not trust the combination of Reed and Bassey, who both lack experience at the NBA level, but they are both much better options than relying on an aging Jordan to keep up with Miami's starting center Bam Adebayo defensively. Jordan received the brunt of the backup center minutes in the final few months of the regular season and proved he is simply unplayable at this stage of his career.
The Sixers can also attempt to play some small-ball lineups with either Tobias Harris or possibly even Georges Niang at center. Those lineups would be sacrificing defense for offense, but are likely liable in short spurts as an alternative to playing Reed or Bassey.
2. Hunting mismatches against Miami's defense
Beating the Heat, especially with Embiid out of the lineup for at least the first two games, will require a near perfect offensive performance. The Heat play a very tough, physical style of defense, and they just came off holding Trae Young to 15.4 points per game on 31.9 percent shooting from the field in their first-round win over the Atlanta Hawks.
One way the Sixers offense can have success against the Heat is to hunt for mismatches. The Heat are a good defensive team overall, but they also have a fair amount of players the Sixers can look to target defensively, including Tyler Herro, Max Strus and Duncan Robinson. Both James Harden and Tyrese Maxey should look to get this favorable matchup all throughout the series in the same way they attacked Fred VanVleet in the series against Toronto. The Sixers should utilize a ton of pick-and-rolls to help get and attack these mismatches.
Harden is not the player he once was. Is he capable of taking over as a scorer, picking up the major slack left from Embiid's absence and carrying the Sixers in this series against the Heat? Those expectations are unreasonable, although he is still capable of taking over a game here and there. Using the pick-and-roll to help him both attack mismatches and get him going with momentum downhill will be key to helping allow Harden to excel as a scorer in this series.
Maxey has had a ton of success against the Heat this season. One of his best games this season came when he scored 28 points on 9-of-15 shooting to lead the Sixers, who were without both Embiid and Harden, to a 113-106 win back on March 21. He attacked Herro a ton in the second half of that contest, look for him to continue to attempt to hunt that mismatch throughout the series. The Sixers will need that version of Maxey against Miami, especially early on when Embiid is unavailable.
Miami loves to aggressively send off-ball help defenders, and the Sixers will have to continue to play clean basketball and not turn the ball over a ton. Toronto proved to be a good test for the Sixers as they play a very similar style of defense as Miami. The Heat also allow the fourth most three-point attempts per game, due in large part to the way they aggressively send extra help defenders. The Sixers finished seventh in the league in three-point percentage (36.4). The Heat's defense is liable to be scored on if their opponent is willing and able to let it go from beyond the arc, and the Sixers very much are able to.
3. How will the Sixers defend the Heat?
This series is likely to be a low scoring, physical, defensive battle. Neither the Sixers or the Heat are extraordinarily high-scoring offensive teams. The Sixers, especially as they begin the series without Embiid, will need to ratchet it up another notch defensively.
Jimmy Butler played out of his mind offensively in the first round of the playoffs, leading the Heat by averaging 30.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting over 40 percent from three-point range. While he is not likely to continue that level of production, defending him should still be one of the Sixers' top priorities.
The Sixers do not have many guys equipped with the defensive ability to stop Butler. Harris, coming off an excellent series against the Raptors in which he stepped up and did a good job guarding Pascal Siakam, might receive the honors. If not Harris, Matisse Thybulle will likely spend much of the series attempting to slow Butler down. He has the length and quickness to stay in front of Butler and bother him offensively, the only question is if he can provide enough offensively to not be a major liability on that end of the floor.
Danny Green had a solid series against Toronto, averaging 9.0 points per game while not being afraid to let it go from deep. However, he is too slow and would not be a good matchup for someone more physical like Butler.
The Sixers could attempt to play more zone defense like they did against Toronto. However, one of the weaknesses of zone defense is the amount of open threes given up. The Heat, being the most efficient shooting team from three-point range (37.9 percent), are well equipped to break apart any zone defense. It could work in spurts, but if Miami gets it going from beyond the arc the Sixers will be forced to switch back to man defense.
The Heat have multiple players who can efficiently score whether it is Butler, Herro, Lowry or Adebayo. The Sixers, without their defensive anchor in Embiid, are simply outmatched defensively. They will likely be forced into a pick your poison situation between risking Miami getting hot from beyond the arc against the zone or struggling to match up well in man defense.
This series was already going to be very tough for the Sixers, but things took a turn for the worse when it was announced Embiid was set to miss at least the first two games of the series with an orbital fracture and concussion. The Sixers will be hard pressed to stay alive in the series until Embiid's potential return in Games 3 or 4. Both Harden and Maxey are capable at times of carrying the Sixers' offense, and they will have to early on in this series. Embiid will return mid-series, but he will be clearly hampered by injuries. While the combination of his return and a special game or two from the team's supporting cast can make this a series, I believe the Heat will eventually win out because of their defense and depth throughout their roster. The Heat will take this in six games.