On paper, a matchup between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Miami
Heat is a tantalizing one.
Plenty of star power with Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, James
Harden, and Bam Adebayo. Young guards (Tyrese Maxey, Tyler Herro)
that can take the top off a defense if its shift too much attention
A pair of Hall-of-Fame coaches who've already shown off their
defensive chops in this year's playoffs; the Heat's gameplan
against Trae Young was superb, while the Sixers pressed plenty of
buttons (zone, coverage alterations vs. Pascal Siakam) in their
close-out win on Thursday. Expect a grind in this series.
But injuries -- bleep injuries, honestly -- are here to dampen
Embiid won't start the series. He's out indefinitely with a mild
concussion and an orbital fracture suffered during the late stages
of Thursday's matchup. While the Heat turned Young's water off for
good earlier in the week, they did so without Butler (knee
inflammation) and Kyle Lowry (hamstring). Butler should be back for
the beginning of the series, but Lowry's status is more problematic. It'll be
worth tracking their health moving forward.
At the risk of sounding like an annoying optimist, I'd argue
that there's still plenty of intrigue left in this series. I still
expect a hard-fought, in-the-mud battle. And that should ramp up
when (if?) Embiid returns.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: TRANSITION + EARLY
This is the "selective running" battle if I've ever seen
Per Cleaning The Glass, the Heat (14.5%) and Sixers (14.1%)
ranked 19th and 20th in transition frequency, respectively. It
makes sense once you look at the personnel for each side. Neither
squad has an abundance of track stars.
On the Sixers' side, Maxey drives the bulk of it. He generated
1.34 points per possession (PPP) in transition during the regular
season, one of the best marks in the NBA, per InStat tracking. That
number rose slightly against the Heat (1.35 PPP), largely due to
the fact that there's no physical match for Maxey's speed on the
Embiid can cause some problems in transition himself. He can do
the classic big man thing: grab the board, hit the guard, then
high-tail it down the middle of the floor for a deep seal. Or,
since he's turned himself into a terrifying grab-and-go threat, he
also can take matters into his own hands.
I wouldn't be surprised if the Sixers look to bump up their pace
in this series. Losing their MVP will necessitate it to a degree.
Embiid led the NBA with 72 post-ups within the first 10 seconds of
the shot clock, and the Sixers scored well over 1.3 PPP on those
trips via Second Spectrum. Nikola Jokic (50) and Giannis
Antetokounmpo (38) were the only guys that came close in terms of
That would mean more Maxey early in the clock, but it would
especially mean more Harden. Early drag screens to get downhill or
force a mismatch has been his MO, and they'll need him to force the
issue a little bit more.
I'd wager DeAndre Jordan gets the non-Embiid starts. We can
quibble about that, but he does have chemistry with Harden as an
early drag screener.
Jordan isn't nearly the scorer that Embiid is (duh), but he does
provide a little more juice as a vertical threat. His ability to
slip will be important against Miami's switching.
Miami didn't run often, but they did so efficiently. The Heat
were the NBA's most efficient transition team during the regular
season, generating 133.4 points per 100 transition plays, per
Cleaning The Glass.
What the Heat lack in pure speed, they make up for in processing
speed. Neither Lowry nor Butler can beat Maxey in a foot race, but
their well-timed outlet passes can appromixate the threat. Add in a
willingness to pull from deep, and you have a pretty annoying team
to keep tabs on when they decide to push.
On a similar note, just about everyone is allowed to bring the
ball up the floor. Adebayo is a freakish grab-and-go threat in his
own right. You'll see PJ Tucker bring it up after misses. This
allows the Heat to flow into their array of handoffs early in the
clock. Only two teams -- the Sixers and Pelicans -- ran early-clock
handoffs at a higher rate than the Heat during the regular
You have to match up quickly or run the risk of giving up open
Lowry pushes early, doesn't have a gap, then kicks it to Dewayne
Dedmon. Embiid's deep in a drop, so Duncan Robinson sprints into a
handoff. That suddenness is something the Sixers will have to be
Transition play is going to be an important battleground for
this series. Both teams ran selectively, were efficient when they
did run, and... quietly gave up a ton of points on the other end.
The similarities are pretty wild.
Their transition frequency marks -- the percentage of
possessions that started with a transition play -- were nearly
identical (15.6% for Miami, 15.4% for Philadelphia). The Heat
ranked 21st in PPP allowed after missed shots (1.203), and the
Sixers ranked 20th (1.202).
The Heat faced the largest share of transition possessions
following a miss (30.9%), which is a point in favor of Philadelphia
until you realize they aren't far behind in that, either (29.7%,
Speed has consistently given the Heat issues. The Sixers are at
a similar deficit in terms of overall athleticism, and it doesn't
help that they have, let's say, effort issues at times from their
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: OUT OF BOUNDS
The Heat like to set up movement with their sideline plays. They
went to Chicago action -- a pindown that flows into a dribble
handoff -- pretty frequently during the regular season
meeting. This play is going to be a turnover, but you can see the
openings Miami can create from this action.
Beyond that, keep an eye on their post splits if there's plenty
of time on the shot clock. Heck, sometimes they'll blend both
The Sixers also went to Chicago action during the regular season
series, though their goal was to get downhill more than it was to
generate movement threes.
Other than that, there wasn't much creativity. It was an inbound
to set up a high pick-and-roll or an inbound to the perimeter while
they waited on Embiid to set up shop for a post-up.
I'm honestly curious about Maxey's usage after deadballs. Most
of Philadephia's more intricate looks came while Seth Curry was on
the roster. I liked this one from the first meeting, an Iverson cut
from Curry that flowed into an empty corner ball screen with
I'd like to see the Sixers tap into that kind of stuff with
Maxey. If they can give him head starts, good things should
1) Will the Heat use the Trae Young Gameplan for James
Harden while Joel Embiid is out?
It would be easy to make that leap, right? The Heat stifled a
One Man Band in Atlanta and will be facing another one in
Philadelphia while Embiid is out. Throwing the same sink at Harden
-- a revolving door of different match-ups while mixing in
full-court pressure and traps -- seems logical.
But I'd be a little careful if I were Miami.
Part of what made their aggressive gameplan work was the lack of
size from Young. Traps hit a little harder when you can't really
see over/past them. The Heat did a great job of flustering Young if
he tried to set up shop near the sidelines. Harden won't be
bothered to the same degree.
The real reason I'd be worried about the traps in particular:
the Sixers' other players have been humming this
Tobias Harris looked as decisive as ever in the first round. If
he keeps that rolling, I'd be worried about feeding him a steady
dose of catch-and-shoot or catch-and-go opportunities.
The real kicker is Maxey, who, again, has a level of speed the
Heat typically struggle to defend. Maxey averaged 21.3 points
against the Heat this year on absurd efficiency (67% from two,
40.9% from three on 5.5 attempts).
He deserves your full attention. Sagging off to help elsewhere
is an invitation for Maxey to bomb away, and sloppy closeouts will
lead to interior buckets more often than not.
With respect to the Hawks, the Sixers aren't them. Philadelphia
has non-stars that can shoot and threaten the paint
in a way Atlanta couldn't.
If the Heat's lone matchup against Harden (as a Net) is any
indication, there's a balance to be struck between letting him work
on an island and completely selling out.
Butler got the bulk of the Harden assignment in that meeting.
When Harden was able to draw favorable switches, the Heat were able
to peel in to help elsewhere. Something to watch for: a Heat
defender digging from the strong side corner, a gambit we saw
plenty of in the Hawks series.
2) Can the Heat stars beat the gap?
If you're ready for round 387 of the "What does this team look
like in the half-court?" question, this section is for you!
We just saw Butler rip the Hawks to shreds with a mix of
hard-nosed drives, push shots, and where-did-this-come-from
three-point shooting. We also saw Adebayo average 12.4 points while
shooting 52.4% on twos, which was a significant dip below his
regular season mark (56.2%).
Neither guy had much success against the Sixers. Butler averaged
18.7 points while shooting 36.6% from the field. Haters can have
fun with the remove-the-free-throws figure if they have extra time
on their hands.
(Haters always have extra time on their hands.)
Adebayo was slightly better (14 points on 50% shooting), but he
took four total free throws in his two showings against Philly.
And when working in tandem, the Heat generated under 0.43 PPP on
trips featuring a Butler-Adebayo pick-and-roll. I don't think I
need to explain how bad that is.
With Embiid missing some time, there should be a little more
freedom to attack the paint. If I'm Philly, I'd still be
comfortable playing that ball screen straight up or even switching
Harris mostly did a good job of bodying up Pascal Siakam in
round one, and he has the upper body strength to absorb body blows
from Butler or Adebayo. Jordan should at least make either guy
shoot over the top, even if he isn't (close to) the rim protector
he once was.
One wrinkle we may see: the Heat having someone screen for
Adebayo before he sets one for Butler. Forcing Jordan (or Embiid,
when healthy) to navigate a screen before settling into coverage
could create an opening for Butler to attack.
3) How will the Heat dole out the perimeter
This only matters to an extent, since the Heat will likely
switch a ton of screens, anyway. But I am curious about this
A popular move for the Heat this season has been to place PJ
Tucker on a primary ball-handler, which would turn any
pick-and-roll with that ball handler and their big into a switch.
Tucker on Maxey sounds wild out loud, but it's really a way for the
Heat to flatten a Maxey-Embiid ball screen.
If no screen comes, I'd be worried about Maxey blasting by
Tucker off the bounce. Harden may be a more "natural" matchup for
Tucker under this line of thinking, but that leads into a
Butler-or-Lowry (when healthy) question.
Do you want Butler trying to track Maxey considering his
offensive workload on the other end? Does Lowry have a chance
against him at this stage of his career, especially coming off a
I might go unconventional: Lowry on Matisse Thybulle, Tucker on
Maxey, Butler on Harris, and Max Strus on Harden.
Miami can use Strus as their innings eater. Give Lowry the free
safety role since he's better as a roamer (and charge taker) than
an on-ball stopper at this stage. Butler can bang with Harris on
post-ups, and he should still have a little leeway to fly around
(and dare Harris to continue his streak of decisiveness in the
- I'm curious to see how much zone coverage we get in this
series. The Sixers flustered the Raptors a bit during their Game 6
win, if you want the most recent example. We also saw it sprinkled
in against the Heat during the regular season series. The sample is
small -- 20 possessions, per Second Spectrum -- but the Heat only
mustered a 65 offensive rating against the zone. The Sixers had
much more success against Miami's zone (1.15 PPP on 61
possessions), though Embiid's presence will definitely be
- Lost in Miami's dominant series win over the Hawks: Tyler Herro
didn't have a good showing. The scoring wasn't there (12.8 points,
39.1% from the field), and the defense was, well... let's not talk
about the defense. He should see more drop coverage in this series,
so the opportunity to bounce back is there. But he'll also be one
of Harden's primary targets when they share the floor.
- On a related note: boy, will this be a feast-or-famine series
for Duncan Robinson. His movement shooting will be needed against
the Sixers, provided they're in drop. But he'll also 1.) have to
cash in those shots, and 2.) stay out of foul trouble on the other
- On that note, this could be a prime opportunity for Victor
Oladipo to carve out more of a role for the Heat. He doesn't
present the defensive limitations that Herro or Robinson do, and
his ability to get to the rim could be useful.
- This keeps nagging at me, so I'll toss it here: what if the
Sixers just go small while Embiid's out? The Maxey-Harden-Harris
trio with Georges Niang and Danny Green has played two (2)
possesions together this season, for example. Why not test it out
- Please keep Paul Reed as part of the rotation. If you aren't
going to go full small-ball, Reed certainly needs to get playing
- The Twitter barbs between these two fanbases are going to be
... whew. Godspeed, everyone.