NBA playoffs: Sixers vs. Heat series prediction

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Predicting underdog Sixers' 2nd-round series vs. Heat originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

MIAMI — It's not hard to make the case that a team with four of the NBA’s past five scoring champions can be fairly called “underdogs.”

As the Sixers prepare to begin their second-round series against the Heat on Monday night, James Harden didn’t mind raising that idea.

With Joel Embiid out for at least the start of the series after suffering a right orbital fracture and concussion in the Sixers’ Game 6 win over the Raptors, head coach Doc Rivers said Saturday the team will run a “Harden-dominated offense.”

“For me, it’s not just about scoring,” Harden said Sunday. “‘If James Harden isn’t scoring 30, then James Harden isn’t the same James Harden’ — that’s not necessarily true. You’ve got a guy that’s averaging 30 that’s the MVP of this league. You’ve got really good guys like Tyrese (Maxey) and Tobias (Harris), and our entire group. I think everybody’s counting us out, is doubting us because Jo’s out, or whatever the case may be. We’re focused on what’s in house, how we can get better, and attacking Game 1.”

ESPN’s NBA experts unanimously picked the Heat in this series, 19-0.

Harden wants the Sixers to play a “free” style, and with “the ultimate confidence.” Easier said than done in the playoffs, but perhaps the underdog role will help a bit, especially if a momentum-shifting burst by Harden or Maxey unsettles the Heat early in the series. If the Sixers can get a game in Miami and Embiid is cleared for a mid-series return, the odds will of course change substantially.

But the reality here is that loose and fearless isn’t good enough. Precision is necessary, too. Just like the Raptors, the Heat were a top-five team in both defensive turnover percentage and points added through transition play, per Cleaning the Glass.

Harden and Maxey must be sharp and limit turnovers when they’re blitzed, when they drive into the paint and meet a swarm of bodies, and when the Sixers have opportunities to turn defense into offense. The Sixers’ defensive focus needs to be excellent, too. Even when they play zone, the team has to track cutters, make shooters uncomfortable, and remain active.

“It’s always paying attention to detail — things that you can’t allow them to have,” Harden said. “We call them just bonus possessions, bonus plays. Everything they get, they’ve got to work for. And they’ve got to go through our bodies. Easy post-ups in transition … open shots for their shooters — if we limit those and take away those things as much as possible, we’ve got a pretty good chance.”

There are quite a few genuinely unpredictable factors in this series. Two critical players will miss Game 1 in Kyle Lowry (left hamstring strain) and Embiid. When might they return? How will they produce? We can make educated guesses, but it would be a stretch to classify the prognostication of the injury situation as anything more than that. Jimmy Butler told reporters he’ll be ready to play Game 1, but his right knee injury is also a significant one.

How will the Sixers “replace” Embiid? While it didn’t hurt from a strategic standpoint for Rivers to play up the idea of everyone and anything being on the table, this will undoubtedly be a multi-person job. On a basic level, we’ll highlight that DeAndre Jordan’s 23 minutes in the Sixers’ regular-season finale were the most in April by any of the team’s non-Embiid centers. Jordan, Paul Millsap and Charles Bassey combined for 0.8 seconds of playing time in the Raptors series. Rivers described Paul Reed as “terrific” against Toronto and liked how the 22-year-old looked alongside four starters in Game 6, but last year’s G League MVP played 10 minutes per contest.

The Sixers will try to target favorable matchups. Shake Milton went at Tyler Herro over and over again in the second half of the Sixers’ shorthanded March 21 win over Miami. When Duncan Robinson’s on the court, the team will aim to make him work defensively and dissuade Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra from possibly viewing increased Sixers zone usage as reason to give the sharpshooter a more prominent role this series.

There are ways to envision the Heat struggling as favorites and the Sixers enjoying the notion that they have nothing to lose.

But, because of Embiid’s continued misfortunes and his all-encompassing impact when available, Miami appears to have greater margin for error and more avenues to win.

If the Sixers do make the Eastern Conference Finals, it would be an incredible underdog effort.

Our prediction: Heat in six.