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NBA playoff primer: What you should look out for in Heat-Sixers

NBA playoff primer: What you should look out for in Heat-Sixers

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 elsewhere.

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 the fun. 

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 OFFENSE

This is the "selective running" battle if I've ever seen it. 

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 roster.

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 volume.

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 season.

You have to match up quickly or run the risk of giving up open triples.

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 ready for.

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%, 25th). 

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 stars.

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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 together.

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 Embiid.

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 follow.

KEY QUESTIONS

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 postseason. 

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 it.

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 assignments?

This only matters to an extent, since the Heat will likely switch a ton of screens, anyway. But I am curious about this one. 

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 hamstring injury? 

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 process).

STRAY THOUGHTS

  • 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 missed.
  • 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 end.
  • 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 in spurts?
  • 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 time.
  • The Twitter barbs between these two fanbases are going to be ... whew. Godspeed, everyone.

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