Any champion will tell you that it’s far easier to punch down than it is to punch up. But, you don’t get to call yourself a champion without having to find a way to get to your feet when you get knocked down. That’s called adversity, and the Sixers are facing it right now.
Philadelphia will open their second round series against the Miami Heat on Monday night in enemy territory without Joel Embiid, who will miss the first two games of the series due to injuries suffered in the team’s Game-6 victory over the Raptors last week.
But, the Heat should not and do not care that Embiid is unavailable for Philadelphia. They have injuries of their own. It’s not about how you win; it’s about winning, period. The only thing that matters is winning 4 games against the opposition on the court with you.
|Day, Date||Location||Game||Time (EST)||TV|
|Monday, May 2||Miami||1||7:30 PM||TNT|
|Wednesday, May 4||Miami||2||7:30 PM||TNT|
|Friday, May 6||Philadelphia||3||7 PM||ESPN|
|Sunday, May 8||Philadelphia||4||8 PM||TNT|
|Tuesday, May 10||Miami||5||TBD||TNT|
|Thursday, May 12||Philadelphia||6||TBD||ESPN|
|Sunday, May 15||Miami||7||TBD||TBD|
Unlike in the first round when the local broadcast shares rights with the national networks, the national networks retain full ownership of the second round and beyond. So, no NBC Sports Philadelphia (except for pre- and postgame coverage) this season.
Know your Heat
|Offense (Ranking)||Defense (Ranking)|
|Points per possession||114.2 (11th)||109.2 (4th)|
|effective Field Goal percentage||55.1 (5th)||52.7 (12th)|
|Turnover percentage||14.9 (28th)||15.4 (3rd)|
|Offensive rebound percentage||26.3 (12th)||25 (6th)|
|Free throw rate (%)||20.7 (5th)||20.9 (27th)|
|Transition Offense (Ranking)||Halfcourt Offense (Ranking)|
|Points per 100 plays||133.4 (1st)||97.6 (11th)|
|Transition Defense (Ranking)||Halfcourt Defense (Ranking)|
|Points per 100 plays||127.3 (19th)||92 (5th)|
The Heat are an above-average offense and an elite defense. That’s somewhat intuitive, given that you generally don’t get the 1-seed in your conference by over-relying upon one end of the court to make up for your product on the other end of the court.
The first thing that stands out is that they make up for weaknesses on one end by being extremely good at countering them on the other end. The Heat turn the ball over a ton for two notable reasons. First, pace-pushing guard Kyle Lowry likes to get the ball ahead from the backcourt. That’s largely why Miami’s transition offense is strong. He often looks for Jimmy Butler, who is either jockeying for inside position behind a weak transition defense or posting a mismatch in isolation while everyone else gets back. Long passes ahead are turnover risks. Beyond that, the Heat will try to trick defenses out of Split action.
Sometimes the action is truly for the shooter, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the Heat just read the defense and react, like when two Sixers go to the shooter and give PJ Tucker a runway to dive out of the screen. In any event, the Heat will try to capitalize on overplays with quick-reaction passes into spaces that may or may not be there. Turnovers are the downside of threading the needle and not playing like a predictable robot.
But by the same token, the Heat force a lot of turnovers. They use their size to trap ball-handlers against the baseline out of switches or in the corners against the shot clock. Those traps intimidate the player with the ball into mistakes. Or, they’ll try to beat the trap with long passes across the court. That plays into Miami’s hands, as they are extremely well-equipped to anticipate passing lanes. So they may waste their possessions, but they’ll make you waste your possessions, too.
Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson defend with targets on their backs, especially since Miami goes heavy on switches. Whether it’s either of them trying to recover or stay in front, or Miami sending additional bodies to the ball to help them on the switch, the Heat commit more than their fair share of fouls. They also have a very agile, athletic big man in Bam Adebayo, a pump-fake genius in Jimmy Butler, and a heady vet in Lowry. The Heat are just as much professional foul-drawers as they are foul-committers.
The uptempo style that Lowry has brought and Miami’s prowess for getting to the free throw line are why they’re a better-than-average offense. Ask them to play a halfcourt game, and they’re going to struggle. Lowry is going to feast on reading the screen defender. If you drop, he’s triggering a triple. If you play up, he’s going to try to get downhill.
The Sixers will live with Butler’s shot-put from beyond the arc. Hell, you’re best off going under the screen or selling his side of the floor for the sake of sending help to the hot hand. But, he’s going to sniff out the driving lane to the rim as the ball-handler on side actions. If he’s not doing that, he’s tip-toeing into backdoor cuts off the ball or posting up.
Adebayo is plunging for lobs, jumping over everyone for putbacks on the offensive glass, or acting as connective tissue with his passing out of the post or face-up. You’ll sleep at night if the Heat win games because he sticks jumpers from 15 feet and beyond.
With Butler’s perimeter game having declined so dramatically, Tyler Herro is almost certainly Miami’s best shot-creator, both for himself and for others. But just like most Sixth Men of the Year candidates, he’s going 5-for-17 or he’s going 10-for-18.
Miami’s halfcourt offense is predicated on the read-and-react as discussed, but the positive variance in shooting keeps them alive. The Heat will spam dribble hand-offs with Adebayo and any one of Strus, Herro, and Robinson. Miami will run Split action to oblivion to get Robinson curling into catch-and-shoots or bouncing into one-dribble pull-ups going to his left. If the threes aren’t falling on any given night, the Heat are going to struggle to score against playoff teams. That’s why the Sixers, sans Embiid, can find themselves in the winner’s circle after either of Games 1 and 2 without even playing that great.
Miami’s shot profiles
|Rim (Ranking)||Midrange (Ranking)||Three-Point (Ranking)|
|Miami’s frequency (% of shots)||30.2 (27th)||31.2 (14th)||38.6 (12th)|
|Opponent’s frequency (% of shots)||30.1 (8th)||28 (6th)||41.9 (30th)|
Shot profiles often serve as pieces that fit the puzzle you see on film and in other stats perfectly. The Heat gets to the line as well as anyone, and that’s why their offense stays afloat despite their not being particularly impressive in any one level of the floor. Of Miami’s 38.6% volume of shots coming from beyond the arc, 12.4% of their threes come from the corners. That specific diet of three-point looks is the most concentrated in the NBA, according to Cleaning The Glass.
That is PJ Tucker music, as his limited offensive game basically restricts him to corner triples. You’ll also see Robinson or Max Strus play the baselines or bob behind screens for corner threes. Any Butler work that isn’t done at the rim or at the free throw line is going to be done in the midrange. Herro will navigate high screens and decide what he wants to do across any level of the floor.
The opponent’s shot profile tells you all about this Heat team’s identity. They don’t give up a ton of shots at the rim for 3 reasons. First, Adebayo is lurking to perturb drivers or any slow-developing action at the rim. Second, the Heat switch everything. They may throw in a different look (i.e., hard hedge, blitz, drop, go under) at a dynamic ball-handler once in a while. But the Heat, by and large, live and die by switching. They do it off-ball with secondary switches to stop roaming shooters. The Heat will do it on ball screens and live with the results. Miami will switch on Double Drag actions, too. Switching is simply their identity.
Switching does two things that benefit the defense and one thing that hurts the defense. First, it inherently serves as rim protection because it takes away driving angles on screens. That means it simultaneously curtails dribble penetration. The second benefit, particularly to the Heat, is that it protects against older players of two-way impact from expensing tons of energy on defense. The downside, as mentioned early, is that switching allows the offense to toggle screeners until the weakest link is on the ball so that they can exploit that 1-on-1 matchup.
The third reason the Heat are very good at taking away shots at the rim feeds into why they give up a ton of threes. Miami is ultra comfortable in sitting in zone defense for long segments of a game if it proves disruptive and unsolvable for the opposition. Zone defense, if deployed correctly, will inhibit dribble penetration and make it very difficult to get off clean passes to the interior. That leaves opposing offenses outside, trying to break the zone with threes. Here’s how the Heat profile by defense type, according to Synergy:
|Defense Type||Total Possessions (Regular Season)||Points Per Possession||Ranking|
It does not matter the scheme, the Heat are confident either way. Their defensive philosophy remains the same, regardless — take away the interior, and bet against threes.
Miami’s 3 best lineups
The Heat did not make any significant midseason trades, so we’ll go with data spanning the entire season.
|Lineup||Minutes||Points scored per 100 possessions||Points allowed per 100 possessions||Net|
|Lowry, Robinson, Butler, Tucker, Adebayo||423||111.2||98.7||12.5|
|Vincent, Robinson, Butler, Tucker, Adebayo||163||110.8||102.8||8|
|Butler, Herro, Robinson, Tucker, Adebayo||114||107.4||100.4||7|
A few things stand out. First, contrary to the Raptors, Miami’s three best lineups all outscored opponents rather handily. It needs to be mentioned that I looked at Toronto’s lineup data from the trade deadline, onward, because they moved rotation pieces. So, there’s a non-negligible different in the sample size of data. But, the big-picture message stands — the Sixers are facing a notably better team than they did in the first round. That does not, however, mean that the Sixers are doomed. But, more on that in a bit.
Second, you’ll notice that Gabe Vincent is mentioned for the first time in this preview. He’s a ball-handler who was in and out of the rotation this season. Vincent certainly torched the Sixers at times in their season series. But, that he vacillated in and out of the rotation and was still one of the players in Miami’s 2nd best lineup all season speaks to Miami’s roster depth.
That doesn’t even get to Max Strus. He isn’t featured in any of Miami’s 3 best lineups. Yet, he took Robinson’s place in the starting lineup by the end of the season and remainder a starter in their first-round series against the Hawks.
I also haven’t even mentioned Victor Oladipo, who isn’t all that far removed from consecutive All-Star appearances with the Pacers and is only 29 years old. He debuted after the All-Star break and mostly struggled. But, Oladipo scored 61 points over Miami’s last 2 regular-season games and even led them with 23 points in the Game-5 close-out against the Hawks.
Bottom line: Miami is extremely deep.
Know your Sixers
I wrote extensively on the Sixers’ numbers in my preview of the Raptors series. So, I’ll spare you the comprehensive breakdown of the numbers and link that preview here.
The Sixers know the task they have in front of them with Joel Embiid out at least the first 2 games of the series. The playing field does level a bit with Lowry out for Game 1. But by and large, the Sixers are at a significant disadvantage on the road without their MVP finalist. Their defense was always suspect, with or without Embiid. The eye test said they defended a bit better against Toronto than perhaps anyone expected. But, the Raptors are also a putrid halfcourt offense that did most of their damage in the series when the Sixers got sloppy with the ball. In fairness, the Heat aren’t all that different in that regard. But, that chemistry changes without Embiid as part of the equation.
With the defense figuring mostly unsalvageable in Embiid’s absence, the best way to cover the Sixers’ end of this series is by asking 2 questions:
How do the Sixers make up for Embiid’s offensive production?
Who fills his slot in the rotation?
How do the Sixers make up for Embiid’s offensive production?
Philadelphia won’t have the luxury of testing Miami’s switches by spamming Embiid pick-and-rolls. They’re going to have to get creative with their actions and run unconventional screen actions.
“There’s probably going to be more pick-and-roll play that favors us three in those actions,” Tobias Harris told reporters on Saturday, amongst other favorite cliches such as “‘next man up’ mentality” when asked about how the Sixers account for Embiid’s workload.
If Harris’ comments reflect the Sixers’ preparation, then they’re doing exactly what they should do. Without Embiid, the only answer is to hunt the weak link on switches. That might be Tyler Herro on some possessions. It might be Duncan Robinson on other possessions. Get one of Harden, Maxey, and Harris going 1-on-1 against an ill-equipped defender and go to work. Paint touches off of dribble penetration will be huge for the Sixers to spread out the workload beyond those 3 guys. The more paint touches, the more they’ll force Miami’s helpers to pinch the lane, and the more spot-up shooters such as Danny Green, Shake Milton, and Georges Niang will be open.
With Embiid, things theoretically get much easier. Whether the Heat go zone or put multiple guys on him, Embiid is a more credible passer out of pressure than ever before. If they try their luck 1-on-1 and bet on their helpers to disrupt him on the drive, Embiid will simply have to eat against mismatches.
But without him, the Sixers’ offense is going to sink or swim with James Harden. Tyrese Maxey proved against a long, athletic Raptors team that he can take over at any moment. Tobias Harris showed he can hold his own, if not emerge as a net-positive, on defense and be the quick-decision swing man the Sixers need.
Harden has disappointed many with his scoring output since arriving in Philadelphia. Many obtain that he’s simply in an advanced physical decline and it’s marginalizing his game to the detriment of the team. This writer’s stance is that much of the underwhelm as a scorer is rooted in his trying to pick his spots and feed Embiid as the unquestioned no. 2 for the first time since leaving Oklahoma City.
Regardless of who is right, now is his time. In words, it’s as simple as him hitting the gas on re-channeling his Houston days. In reality, that’s easier said than done. It’s a workload that I’m not convinced his body is ready for or even his brain can so easily re-discover after trying to fit the Chris Paul mold since first donning a Sixers jersey.
But, Harden maintains confident he can shoulder the load. “At this point, it’s just sacrificing to win out there. If I score 30 and lose, someone will say something. If I score 19 and win, someone will say something,” he told reporters on Sunday.
“So at this point, I’ll just do whatever it takes to win the game, sacrificing, I’m the ultimate team player. So now, Jo’s out; gotta be more aggressive and score the basketball and get to the basket and make hard decisions. It’s no different than what I’m used to.”
If the Sixers are going to salvage one of these first two games in Miami with Embiid at home, Harden is going to have to put his money where his mouth is. That means getting the switch he wants, deciding what he wants to do, and making something happen.
The Heat won’t be dissuaded from switching on reputed stars, either. They’re going to do it against him until it stops working.
Who fills Embiid’s slot in the rotation?
The Sixers have largely been unwilling to give away hints to this answer. “We may need all 4 guys,” Rivers told reporters on Saturday. “Even if it’s to burn minutes. One thing Miami is, if they’re nothing else, they’re clever and they are foul magnets.”
That last sentence is why I believe that they may actually trot out any of their 4 conventional centers at any time. As mentioned earlier, the Heat are going to get to the line. Their best foul-drawers play within 18 feet of the basket. That inherently means that they’re going to pick on any of Paul Reed, Charles Bassey, DeAndre Jordan, and Paul Millsap.
The first two have less than one season of NBA game experience. They’re going to jump at ball-fakes, and they’re going to rack up the fouls against the more veteran Butler and other Floridians. The second two struggle to move laterally at this stage of their careers. That means they’re prone to using their arms and hips to try to recover if they get beat, which puts them in foul’s way.
Rivers maintains that he’s comfortable with any of the 4 names mentioned. “We saw some things that we may be able to do without Joel. […] DJ and Millsap, the 2 Pauls, as we call them, they both had significant minutes in that game,” Rivers said in referring to a victory over the Heat without either of Embiid and Harden in March.
“I thought DJ’s height had significance in that game. And so that’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to play center by committee.”
It should be noted that Reed, one of the “2 Paul” duo mentioned above, did not play in that game, contrary to what Rivers suggested. But his macro-level point stands. The bigs that did play were a net positive in a game in which Miami had all of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry, and Tyler Herro.
Despite what Rivers says, I have a lot of trouble believing that Charles Bassey is going to be thrown into a high-leverage situation in the playoffs as a defensive anchor after not having played basketball in quite a while due to a sprained shoulder.
While I buy that he would play Jordan, he’s proven to be a huge detriment defending the rim. It was so bad that Rivers essentially came to terms with the fact that Jordan was unplayable that Paul Reed got the backup minutes against the Raptors. But in this series in particular, Jordan may have problems beyond the paint. In that March game against the Heat linked above, Lowry hit a handful of wide-open threes out of ball screens because Jordan was in drop coverage. The Sixers will feel inclined to put Jordan in a more advantageous position on defense given his physical limitations, and the Heat will exploit that.
While Millsap is less than ideal at his age, he at least shows better agility than Jordan does and can move from spot to spot even if he gets beat by small guards probing screens.
My hunch is that Rivers ultimately starts out with Jordan and Reed. And when Jordan inevitably plays himself off the court, Reed will get the starting minutes and Millsap will be the backup.
There’s also one outside-the-box idea that Rivers hinted at.
We’re going to play more of a James-dominant offense than we have because we have to,” Rivers told reporters after Saturday’s practice. “We’re going to space the floor, we’re going to play in space more.”
To me, that suggests Niang may be in play at the center position. Why? Because when Harden averaged more than 34 points per game in his age-30 season with the Rockets, Daryl Morey rolled the dice on an ultra-small philosophy. He traded away Clint Capela, brought in Robert Covington, and the Rockets went 5-out with no conventional big man.
In the Sixers’ current environment, going 5-out with Niang would mean that the Heat are letting him spot up for wide-open threes and remaining true to taking away the rim. If they bend and lift out of the paint to contest, that opens the driving lanes for Harden, Maxey, and Harris.
There is, of course, quite an ugly downside in going with Niang at center — you’re going to absolutely hemorrhage points at the rim on defense:
Interesting idea from @kpelton— Austin Krell (@NBAKrell) April 30, 2022
to go small w/ Niang. Think it’s wise to accept the D is going to suffer w/o Embiid, so go all in on offense.
The ugly: PHI -15.6 points per 100 poss in 84 mins w/ Niang at C this season; roughly 11-win team over 82 games.https://t.co/A3Mx4MJDFP
“We are not going to be shy with playing different guys,” Rivers told reporters on Saturday. “We’re worried about the last 6 minutes. That’s gonna be the key for us in the series and it will be for anybody, but definitely Miami.”
It’s worth mentioning that the Sixers often closed games with a lineup of Harden, Maxey, Harris, Niang, and Embiid towards the end of the season.
At any rate, I suspect Niang slotted as a small-ball center is something of a secret weapon that the Sixers may lean more heavily into than you typically do with a secret weapon.
When the playoffs started, I was far more confident in the Sixers winning a second-round series against the Heat than I was in them beating the Raptors in the first round. Miami is a better team than Toronto is, but the Sixers match up far better with the Heat than they do with the Raptors.
Given how impressive they were at times against the Raptors, I was inclined to pick the Sixers to win in 6 games before the Embiid news broke on Friday night.
It truly wouldn’t surprise me if they steal one of the first two in Miami. But, there’s so much uncertainty with Embiid’s return. Without him, the Sixers don’t have much on offense besides punishing switches and swinging the ball to shooters quickly when the Heat are in rotation.
My x-factor for this series is PJ Tucker. The obvious counter to the Sixers abusing a switchy scheme is Erik Spoelstra putting Tucker on a small so that switches get him on any of Harden, Maxey, and Harris. If he can hold his own against any one of them consistently, the Heat just have too much talent and depth and the Sixers have too much uncertainty.
I’m going with Heat in 5, but there are more realistic opportunities for twists and turns that favor Philly than there are favoring any team in any of the other second-round series in these playoffs.