The NBA Playoffs and all the excitement that comes with it have finally arrived. However, the fans of the famous Process have a feeling today that goes well beyond just excitement.
After waiting through three years of losing by a lot and one year of losing by a little less, the Philadelphia 76ers have turned youth and talent into 52 (FIFTY TWO) wins. On Saturday night, the Sixers will be playing in their first playoff game since 2012 as they host the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the first round.
Brett Brown’s team is riding a franchise-record 16-game winning streak entering the playoffs, the first team to ever finish a regular season with that mark. A combination of bad opponents and MVP-like play from Ben Simmons helped put the Sixers into the 3-seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2001 when the team finished atop the conference and made a trip to the NBA Finals.
Philadelphia and Miami played each other four times during the 2017-18 season, with the teams each winning both of their home games. All four games were decided by single digits and played between February 2nd and March 8th. There may not be a lot of weight to put behind regular season games but with the competitiveness and timeliness of that series, we know that we are in for one fun series.
Joel Embiid will not be making his playoff debut tonight as the second-year center will be sitting out his ninth consecutive games as he recovers from an orbital fracture. While the team is certainly not better with him on the bench, they have been playing at another level while waiting for the big man to return to the court.
In the last eight games, Simmons has stepped up his play to a level that many NBA fans did not see in the rookie. He has averaged 15.6 points, 9.5 rebounds and 9.3 assists while shooting 61.1 percent from the field since Embiid’s injury. Simmons has added 2.0 steals and 1.1 blocks per game in that span.
J.J. Redick has been another player to step up his production since Embiid went out. The veteran has taken 15.3 shot attempts per game and has a team-high (since the injury) 22.4 points per game. He is shooting 51.1(!!!) percent from beyond the arc in those games. Redick had to sit out the regular season finale with a sore back but he is expected to be ready to return to the starting lineup for Game 1.
In the four meetings between the teams, they have only met once when Embiid was not on the court. In that game, Simmons recorded a triple-double while the Sixers held on to a 104-102 victory in Wells Fargo Center when Dwayne Wade’s last-second 3-pointer fell just short.
Amir Johnson got the start in that game and played just over 19 minutes. He pulled the defensive duties on Hasaan Whiteside but the Miami center still finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. While the Johnson-Whiteside as intriguing as an Embiid-Whiteside matchup, it could still be a deciding factor in Game 1.
In 18 starts this season, Johnson is averaging 6.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. He has seen a huge spike in efficiency while playing with the starting lineup. As a starter, Johnson has a plus/minus of +2.9 while shooting 57 percent from the field, 44.4 percent from beyond the arc and 75.9 percent from the free throw line. Another fun fact: Johnson is 10-2 in his career against Whiteside.
While Johnson has been good enough, the Sixers have had to rely more on their shooters without Embiid’s post presence. During Philadelphia’s winning streak, the team is shooting 38.3 percent from deep and has made 12.6 3-pointers per game. Both of those are above their season average and rank in the NBA’s top five during that stretch. Redick has led the charge but when Dario Saric, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova are in the mix, it makes it difficult for opponents’ defenses to match their spacing.
The Heat are sixth in the league in 3-pointers allowed this season at 9.6 per game. In the four games against the Sixers, Miami allowed 11 makes per game but it was the meeting without Embiid that Philadelphia struggled from beyond the arc. The 76ers were 9-for-35 on triples in that game which someone included two misses from Richaun Holmes (stick to dunking, buddy).
The Heat’s length can cause problems for a team that likes to move the ball and shoot the three but the Sixers do not seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
It is just Game 1 and there should be plenty more to come but enjoy this one, Philadelphia.
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Place: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic
Vegas: -6.5 Sixers, O/U 215