7:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Heat -8.5, Over/Under: 207.5
The NBA Playoffs continue into the second round, where the Miami Heat look to press their advantage, the Philadelphia 76ers desperately attempt to avoid falling into an 0-2 hole, in Game Two of this Eastern Conference Semifinal from FTX Arena in Miami, Florida. Say what you will about these 76ers (51-31, 4th in Eastern Conference), but win or lose they are rarely ever a boring team. After all, this is the franchise suffered a serious meltdown in last year’s East Semifinals, and thus found themselves embroiled in a standoff with (former Point Guard) Ben Simmons, who refused to play for the club ever again following his own shortcomings last summer. This is also the same side that waited and waited until the last moment to move their wantaway star at the Trade Deadline in a deal that netted them (2017-2018 MVP) James Harden (21.0 PTS, 40.2% FG, 32.6% 3FG, 89.2% FT, 7.1 REB, 10.5 AST, 1.2 STL 21.8 PER), creating a new dynamic duo alongside (MVP frontrunner) Joel Embiid (30.6 PTS, 49.9% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 81.4% FT, 11.7 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 1.5 BLK, 31.2 PER). Unfortunately, they’re also the same team that took much longer handling their business in their first round series against the Raptors, letting the affair drag out for six games after winning their first three contests. And it’s with that said, that the Sixers have been made to pay for such complacency, for they now find themselves with the services of Embiid for the first two games of this East Semifinal (and perhaps beyond), due to an orbital bone fracture and a concussion suffered in last Thursday’s Game Six. Needless to say, this is a HUGE loss for Philly, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the All-NBA Center concluded his finest season in the NBA, averaging career-highs in a slew of categories including points (30.6), three-pointers (93), free-throws (654), assists (4.2), steals (1.1), and PER (31.2), en route to becoming the first player at his position to lead the league in scoring since Shaquille O’Neal back in 2000. Furthermore, the injury appeared almost entirely avoidable; Embiid suffered an elbow to the face late in Game Six with his team leading by TWENTY-NINE points, in turn leading to even more criticism of (Head Coach) Doc Rivers, who spent the press conference the day before the game defending his unfortunate history of postseason collapses. Did the 28-year-old NEED to be on the hardwood at that point? Of course not, but if we’re being completely honest with ourselves, he could’ve taken that blow to the face at any other point of the 132-97 closeout win. Given the nature of the injury, Embiid didn’t travel with the team to South Beach, and won’t be available tonight, though there is tepid hope that he will be cleared of concussion symptoms and don a mask to cover his face once the scene shifts to Wells Fargo Center this weekend. Ironically, this is an injury that he’s suffered before, with the big fella masking up against these same Heat during the 2018 playoffs. So, with their BIGGEST weapon on the mend, how did the 76ers fair in Game One, you ask? Well, let’s just say it went about as well as we all envisioned it, as the visitors were repelled with ease in a 106-92 loss. In a slow grinder of a game, Rivers’ troops shot just 43.0% from the field, including a miserable 6-of-34 from beyond the arc (17.6%), while predictably losing the battle on the glass (-10) and in the paint (-6), and not to mention on the turnover front, where their fifteen giveaways turned into TWENTY-TWO points for the hosts, parlaying to a decisive margin of -13. After struggling throughout the series with Toronto, Harden continued to find little space with which to operate, totaling just sixteen points on 5-of-13 shooting (38.5%), including 2-of-7 from beyond the arc (28.6%), and as many turnovers (5) as assists. By now, the narrative has been fairly clear that the 32-year-old simply isn’t the prolific threat that he was when he won three consecutive scoring titles in Houston, with a noticeable lack of burst leaving him to settle for contested step-back three-pointers, while the Association’s shift in officiating players blatantly trying to draw fouls robbing him of one of his greatest advantages. Needless to say, this is setting up for a fascinating summer in the City of Brotherly Love, for after failing to trigger his gargantuan player option following his trade, the bearded one will essentially become an Unrestricted Free Agent, leaving the Sixers with a monumental decision to make in retaining the services of a declining star. Granted, Harden can change that narrative by stepping up in the wake of Embiid’s absence, though it may take some creativity from Rivers and the coaching staff. And speaking of Rivers, you can’t fault the man for exhausting his options, for Philadelphia employed a staggering THIRTY-TWO different lineups in Monday night’s affair, though only one of them netted anything close to positive results. After falling into an early 11-point hole in insisting on matching big for big with the likes DeAndre Jordan, Paul Reed, and Paul Millsap each failing to make an impact, Rivers bucked convention and opted to go super-small, with Harden and (emerging Guard) Tyrese Maxey (17.5 PTS, 48.5% FG, 42.7% 3FG, 86.6% FT, 3.2 REB, 4.3 AST, 0.7 STL, 16.2 PER) in the backcourt, and (veteran swingman) Danny Green (5.9 PTS, 39.4% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 78.6% FT, 2.5 REB, 1.0 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.6 BLK, 9.5 PER), (backup Forward) Georges Niang (9.2 PTS, 43.7% FG, 40.3% 3FG, 88.1% FT, 2.7 REB, 1.3 AST, 10.7 PER), and (veteran Forward) Tobias Harris (17.2 PTS, 48.2% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 84.2% FT, 6.8 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 15.9 PER) effectively operating as a small-ball five. Harris was easily the most effective Sixer in Game One, totaling twenty-seven points on 11-of-18 shooting (61.1%), and six rebounds in the losing effort. From the 4:48 mark of the second quarter, the visiting side went on a 10-2 run to take a 51-50 lead at halftime, eventually stretching that advantage to five points early int he third period, though it quickly dissipated once Rivers returned Jordan into the equation, as Philly was outscored 56-41 after intermission. We would expect the 60-year-old to utilize this lineup more frequently throughout Game Two, while also suggesting that he invert Harden and Maxey’s roles, allowing the former to play a bit more off the ball and build up a head of steam instead of constantly handling the rock. After all, this isn’t Toronto their playing, for this is a dogged, experienced, and ruthless group of veterans that certainly know how to exploit another team’s weaknesses.
Meanwhile, it’s appearing as if the Heat (53-29, 1st in Eastern Conference) are enjoying the most fortuitous run of any team in the postseason to this point, as they look to keep exploiting an opponent without clearly their biggest weapon on either end of the hardwood. After effectively taking a flier on last season, Miami is hellbent on finishing their business and returning to the NBA Finals, which is where their run ended eighteen months ago in the Bubble. COVID-19, injuries, and fatigue derailed their prospects last summer, only for Miami to return with a vengeance this season, landing that coveted top seed in what has proven to be a LOADED Eastern Conference. And with that said, (Head Coach) Erick Spoelstra’s troops wasted NO time in handling their business against the Hawks in the first round of these playoffs, dispatching their Southwest Division rivals with ease in five games; the top seed in the East averaged 109.4 points per game, outscoring Atlanta by a margin of 12.0 points in the process, while shooting a stellar 46.5% from the field, including 34.4% from beyond the arc, and dishing out 25.4 assists in comparison to committing 12.6 turnovers. Defensively, they relegated their opponent to 44.0% shooting from the floor and just 32.6% from downtown, while edging them on the glass (+0.6), and limiting their ball movement to a mere 18.6 assists opposed to forcing 16.2 turnovers. Furthermore, the Heat SHUT DOWN (All-Star Guard) Trae Young, who suffered a miserable series with 15.4 points on 31.9% shooting, and more turnovers (31) than assists (30) over the course of the five games. On the flipside, (All-Star Swingman) Jimmy Butler (21.4 PTS, 48.0% FG, 23.3% 3FG, 87.0% FT, 5.9 REB, 5.7 AST, 1.6 STL, 0.5 BLK, 23.6 PER) certainly lived up to his billing throughout the affair, logging 30.5 points on an efficient 54.3% shooting, including a surprising 7-of-16 from three (43.8%), along with 7.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 2.8 steals, all the while providing dogged defense of Young. Oh, and the six-time All-Star didn’t even participate in Game Five’s closeout 97-94 victory, sitting alongside (veteran Point Guard) Kyle Lowry (13.4 PTS, 44.0% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 85.1% FT, 7.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 15.0 PER) with a sore knee, while his teammate missed his second straight game with a tender hamstring. Taking care of their business afforded Miami the luxury of rest, which came in handy when they faced Philadelphia on Monday night, for the hosts clearly appeared to be the fresher of the two sides; the hosts raced out to an 11-point lead in the first half, and after withstanding a furious run from the visitors in the latter half of the second period, reasserted their dominance after intermission. After falling behind by as many as five points early in the third quarter, Spoelstra’s charges put their collective foot on the gas and went on to outscore Philly 56-36 the rest of the way, thanks in large part to a defense that completely stifled the visiting side; the heat relegated their opponent to 38.5% shooting in the second half, including a dismal showing from the perimeter (3-of-17 3FG), along with permitting only eight assists opposed to forcing six turnovers, which as we touched upon earlier, played a sizeable role in the outcome of the contest. (Versatile Forward) Bam Adebayo (19.1 PTS, 55.7% FG, 75.3% FT, 10.1 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.8 BLK, 21.8 PER) and (newly-minted Sixth Man of the Year) Tyler Herro (20.7 PTS, 44.7% FG, 39.9% 3FG, 86.8% FT, 5.0 REB, 4.0 AST, 0.7 STL, 16.2 PER) erupted in the second half, combining for twenty-five points on 8-of-13 shooting (61.5%), with the former filling up the stat sheet with four rebounds, an assist, a steal, and a block apiece, while the latter drilled 3-of-4 triples (75.0%). In the end, Herro led the team with twenty-five points, with Adebayo not far behind him with twenty-four of his own, while Butler turned in a lukewarm performance with fifteen points on just 5-of-16 shooting (31.3%), appearing to be slowed by that bulky knee. Lowry was sidelined again, though (fellow veteran) P.J. Tucker (7.6 PTS, 48.4% FG, 41.5% 3FG, 73.8% FT, 5.5 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 11.3 PER) and (unheralded swingman) Max Strus (10.6 PTS, 44.1% FG, 41.0% 3FG, 79.2% FT, 3.0 REB, 1.4 AST, 12.7 PER) added ten points apiece, with the former providing dogged defense on the aforementioned Harden. Tucker and Lowry were imported via Free Agency to a club that clearly learned from their regression last season, serving as experienced, like-minded supporting actors to Butler. However, while they’ve enjoyed the addition of those vets, no team in the NBA does a better job of developing their young talent than the Heat, who continue to reap the rewards of their work with the likes of Herro, Strus, and many others, for no team in these playoffs has more undrafted players within their rotation than Miami (4). Though neither team was particularly effective offensively, Miami owned advantages from beyond the arc (+9), assists (+3), fast break points (+3), and points in the paint (+6), along with offensive rebounds (+6), which figures to be in the favor as long as Embiid is out with injury. Coupled with those fifteen turnovers, and the home side attempted thirteen more field goals than the Sixers. Moving forward, Spoelstra would probably like to speed things up a bit more, particularly with Lowry still out, for this is a team that can get a bit bogged down in the halfcourt at times, though they have a bevy of sharpshooters capable of bailing them out when necessary. With that said, it would probably benefit them to keep Philadelphia contained in the halfcourt, for they’re doing an excellent job of swarming Harden and running them off the three-point line.