Continuing our series of
READ: Part 1 - After a franchise-best season, the Toronto Raptors should not be threatened by the Washington Wizards
READ: Part 2 - The Golden State Warriors struggled down the stretch, but so did the San Antonio Spurs, and only one could afford to
The four regular season games between the Miami Heat and the Philadelphia 76ers ended in a 2-2 series split, with a total aggregate score of 409-407 in Miami's favour. Two points separated them over four games. On the face of it, then, this could be a close series.
Of course, since the last of those regular season match-ups, the Sixers went and did something significant. A combination of key deadline reinforcements (in the form of post-Hawks buyout signees Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova), an easier run of schedule (only three teams in the streak are now playoff teams - Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves) and a new level of chemistry and comfort level that grew throughout the season, saw them peel off a phenomenal 16 game winning streak to end the regular season. If momentum is key to first-round performance, the 76ers have already got this.
None of those 16, though, has the upset potential over the Sixers that the Heat do.
We looked at the Heat in some depth earlier in the season here at GiveMeSport, and the unconventional way they had built a playoff-calibre team without employing any star power through misfits, rejects and reclamation projects. Without high draft picks, without free agency lure or money post-LeBron, without prodigious talents and (at the time) without any point guards, Miami never lost their toughness or defence, never rolled over, and papered over the deficiencies with versatility, both offensively and defensively. The injured point guards are now back, yet the talent shortage relative to their playoff peers remains. And yet in no way will the Sixers be relishing this match-up.
Miami's lack of star talent is most manifest on the offensive end. Notwithstanding 2018 NBA All-Star Goran Dragic's ability to regularly put up quietly crafty 24 point nights, and the occasional scoring furloughs Dwyane Wade can still get himself into (including scoring the final 15 points of the game in one of the wins over the 76ers), the Heat lack for star power, individual offensive creation, the ability to regularly collapse defences with the handle and any elite shotmakers. Wayne Ellington's ability to pull up from just inside the car park and hit any jumper with only 8 inches of room helpfully bails out many an offensive possession, but the reality is that many offensive possessions needs bailing out.
The Heat have only one player who scores more than 15 points per game, and only one player who passes for more than four assists per game. In both cases it is Dragic, who nevertheless records only 17.3 points and 4.8 assists per game respectively. Ranking 22nd overall in offensive efficiency means the Heat were somehow better this season offensively than eight other NBA teams - nevertheless, ranking 27th in pace, rarely getting to the line and shooting only the 16th best percentage from three-point range despite a large number of attempts, the Heat were a lesser offensive team than their seeding and "tough out" reputation suggests, owing it in part due to excellent early-season clutch play that later regressed to the mean.
Nevertheless, the same toughness, depth and versatility that defines their defence defines their offence. Everybody from Justise Winslow to Kelly Olynyk will take a turn initiating the offence, and although there are no go-to guys in the rotation, there are no inept scorers, either. The Heat have nine players who score in double digits per game, the ninth of whom (James Johnson) is tied for second on the team in assists (3.8 apg) despite playing predominantly de facto power forward role. A player who will look effortless and sublime on one possession by taking a defensive rebound coast to coast with aplomb before ruining it next time down with a reckless early wing three, Johnson - available to the Heat initially for a very low cost having never found the right home for his talent - embodies the versatility, intrigue, limitations and redemptions of a Heat team that are tough to fathom, and tougher to beat.
What is clear is that Miami's best work is done defensively. The Heat slow the pace, rebound fairly well, foul everybody they need to and limit the opponent's looks from three-point range. In this respect, their strengths are well matched against what makes the 76ers tick.
The 76ers are the league's best rebounding team, grabbing 52.9% of all available boards, a whole 1.2% better than the joint-second-placed Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder. It helps when the point guard averages nearly double digits in them himself. And although their season-long three-point rates and percentages are somewhat middle of the pack, the late-season additions of Belinelli and Ilyasova increased both their efficiency from outside as a team, as well as their impetus to use it. But the Heat are build to board and endeavour to stop the three. If the Heat are able to stymie these facets, then, despite the fact that excellent shooting can always overcome good defence, a Sixers team with two non-shooting point guards in Simmons and Fultz and a poor shooting one in the otherwise excellent T.J. McConnell might struggle to overcome it.
Indeed, Johnson's role as a power point or point forward or guardy big or whatever he is is key to the matchup against the 76ers, and key to its intrigue. In their matchups to date, Johnson has defensively played Ben Simmons well all season. Between he, Winslow and Josh Richardson, Miami has a lot of lengthy defensive-minded wing forwards who could take Simmons in isolation, which may be key to slowing him down. Although he is a poor shooter, sagging off of Simmons serves only to open up passing lanes to the Sixers' plethora of shooters, and/or gives him the opportunity to attack his defender with a running start. But having great length on him, plus good switching bigs in Olynyk, Johnson, Bam Adebayo and (to a lesser extent, and even then only if his knee is working OK) Hassan Whiteside can slow him and the team down. On their roster, the Heat have a lot to throw at him.
The Heat did not set out to deliberately negate traditional ideals of positionality and structure, but they will take it now that they have found it.
Then again, they aren't the only ones. We also looked earlier this year at the unconventional star power of the Philadelphia 76ers, and particularly towards their 6'10 point forward or power guard or whatever he is. Ben Simmons. Far from hitting the rookie wall, Simmons played even better in the second half of the season, recording post-All-Star game averages of 14.5 points, 9.8 assists and 8.9 rebounds per game. The scoring was down 1.9 points per game from the first half, but the rebounds were up the assists way up, the true shooting percentage up from .542 to .594, and the net rating up from +3 to +20. James Johnson has indeed played Simmons well, but no one stops Simmons. "Force him to shoot from outside" just doesn't work.
There is also of course the small matter of we-have-literally-never-seen-this-before centre, Joel Embiid, to contend with. Embiid will miss game one, still recovering from the surgery to his eye socket that knocked him out for much of the 16 game winning streak. But thereafter, he will be back. And despite the fact that Miami's three headed centre monster of Whiteside, Olynyk and the excellent rookie Adebayo all defend the paint well in their own way, Embiid is still a revolution.
In his game one absence will go some turnovers. The Sixers turn the ball over an awful lot, by some distance the most times in the league, and with his own prolific turnover rate, Embiid is one of the main culprits. They run a lot of backdoor cut plays and pindowns for shooters, and the fact that they throw so many passes in these ways (their 343.9 passes per game is first in the league by a large margin, 15.2 ahead of the second placed Atlanta Hawks) means there are a lot of passes to be picked off. But it also means constantly making an opposing defence rotate to counter it. And while the Heat rotate well and defend all parts of the court in isolation, they are not a team that much tries to jump the passing lanes.
Perhaps, for one week, they should be.
There is however an X factor in play here, and it belongs to Philadelphia.
Just prior to the winning streak, the Sixers gained one of the best mid-season reinforcements of all. Not Belinelli and Ilyasova - they are merely fine - but coming in the form of rookie guard Markelle Fultz, who finally returned from his shoulder injury and the weird loss of muscle memory that accompanied it.
Although Fultz still does not have the shooting stroke he had at Washington back yet - he has made only two shots outside of 16 feet all year, still looks like a frog in a blender when attempting them, and has taken 111 shots to score his 100 points on the season - he was never just a shooter. Big and quick, Fultz can get to the rim and finish like a young Derrick Rose in his prime, and the comeback was seen to be well and truly on when he finished the season posting a triple-double, the youngest player in NBA history to ever do so. Fultz was the #1 pick in a strong draft class because of how dynamic of a scorer and lead guard he can be. And no team defence truly stops true dynamicism.
Embiid might be out, but Fultz is back in. And when both are back, as is likely the case from game two onwards, all the versatility and defensive nuance in the world will make the talent disparity between the two incredibly hard to overcome.
For Miami to win this, they need Embiid to stay injured. Failing that, they need to anticipate every down screen and cover every corner look for J.J. Redick and Dario Saric (and their reasonably like-for-like replacements, Belinelli and Ilyasova). They need to muddy the game up, keep pace on the boards, not let Embiid goad Whiteside into foul trouble, and yet encourage Embiid to force the action in trying to do so.
Match-ups will aid them. There are, as above, good options both in switches and regular actions for both Simmons and Embiid, and as good of a forward defender as the much developed Robert Covington is, there is not really anyone on the Heat roster to best employ his skills on. The size and savvy of Tyler Johnson will be something for Fultz to contend with, and conversely, the Sixers might struggle to defend Dwyane Wade in one-on-one sets going the other way. There are also plenty of individual fouls to give on Simmons, the poor free throw shooter.
The advantage, however, remains firmly with the Sixers. After all, with a sixteen game winning streak, at least two transcendent talents, the youngest player to ever record a triple-double...how could it not be?