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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Heat preview with Giancarlo Navas

Getting a little insight about Wednesday’s opponent.

Philadelphia 76ers v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Moving forward, Liberty Ballers will conduct a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Giancarlo Navas, who covers the Miami Heat for Miami Heat Beat.

How does this team’s two-way identity change without Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo?

Losing the switchy center hurts the Heat a ton. Without Adebayo, it’s been Dewayne Dedmon in drop coverage with mixed results. Butler’s work in the nail and as a helper from the corners has been missed more than anything. His size helping before rotating back out to the shooters in the corners was such a difference-maker. Caleb Martin or Gabe Vincent are suddenly in those positions; Miami is bleeding threes and bad shooters keep having good nights from being too open. The Heat can’t force as many turnovers without the two stars either, so the offense takes a bit of a hit as well.

Head coach Erik Spoelstra has opted to go hyper-small without those two. A lot of PJ Tucker and KZ Okpala at the 4 and 5 when Dedmon isn’t in. Omar Yurtseven isn’t fully trusted by the coaching staff yet, so without their two stars, the lineups become a lot smaller. Now that Martin is also in health and safety protocols, they get even smaller and less athletic. They have lost a bit of their edge, and Kyle Lowry plus undrafted players and older vets can only do so much.

Kyle Lowry was a high-profile addition this offseason. How has he enhanced and altered things for Miami?

Biggest thing with Lowry is Miami gets a real point of attack defender. After years of Goran Dragic, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro not being able to stay in front of anyone, Lowry gives them a switchy guard that can defend his size or guard up a position (or three, he spent a lot of time on Lauri Markkanen Monday against Cleveland). The Heat are the switchiest team in the league and having a guard they trust who helps them on the boards organizes their defense. When PJ Tucker, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and Bam Adebayo share the court, the Heat are holding opponents to a 100 Defensive rating (98 when Herro is off the floor as well).

At his peak, Dragic was a really special scorer and finisher for Miami, great getting downhill in pick-and-roll, a fantastic spot-up shooter and added the step-back during the Finals year. But that downhill zip was fading, as well as his remarkable finishing numbers at the rim. Miami played really slow at the end of his tenure and he just wasn’t the pace-pushing speed demon he was coming in. Lowry, at 35, has just found his footing getting downhill and into the paint. That element lost from Dragic’s game has been reintroduced. More North-South movement for the Heat, as opposed to the East-West actions of Miami’s revolving door of dribble handoffs. The Heat’s offense needed a DHO to generate a three because no one other than Butler could get to the basket and kick out. Lowry reintroduces that dimension with new wrinkles like Butler screening for Lowry in Horns with an empty side. Spoelstra is having fun.

What’s one matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?

How Miami’s frontcourt and help works with Joel Embiid. Dedmon will start on him but even against Nikola Jokic, Spoelstra is committed to fronting and helping dominant big men. In the past, it’s worked, kept Miami in games and forced a lot of Embiid turnovers. The Sixers’ spacing is a little better without Ben Simmons, and the help won’t come from the dunker spot or free-throw line as often, so Embiid will have a little more leeway to make a play. How well that works probably decides the game.

Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?

A lot of people will and should say the leap Herro has taken. It’s so deserved, but what Tucker has shown this season, after looking like a husk of himself at times last season, is monumental. He is Miami’s most active screener without Adebayo, and an incredibly smart roller and cutter. He has a floater apparently? Nekias Duncan, NBA Twitter legend, dubbed it the PJ Push. He has been unreal, from the footwork when he gets a small on a switch to the off-the-dribble game no one but him knew he had, it’s been a godsend to have that dimension. He isn’t Trevor Ariza or Shane Battier, who are parked in the corner and only the corner.

His chemistry with Duncan Robinson has been great, if teams hide less mobile bigs on him, Miami pivots to having him trigger handoffs to get a drop big in that action and give Robinson the airspace he needs. Tucker sets fantastic hammer screens for him as well, getting Robinson to shoot in motion and giving Tucker, who is naturally in a corner, a role on offense that extends beyond standing and waiting for a pass. Defensively, he is doing what he has always done, and, without Adebayo, often guarding 5s, offensive rebounding and taking charges. Heat culture is a propaganda phrase to market Pat Riley’s idealized version of sports, but PJ Tucker embodies all of it.

Biggest disappointment of the season?

It might be too early to say, but it’s been Duncan Robinson. Shooting 34 percent from three, following years at 41 and 45 percent, he hasn’t shot the ball nearly to the level he is capable of — 33 percent on catch-and shoot-threes, as opposed to 42 percent the year prior. He is at 0.86 points per possession coming off handoffs this season, 1.06 PPP in 2020-21 and 1.38 (!!!!) in 2019-20. He doesn’t need to be his 2019-20 self to get this team to contention, but he needs to be closer to last season. His volume is high and they run a lot of actions for him.

What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this one?

Dedmon’s production, I think a lot of folks think he is a cute backup center playing spot mins for Bam during his injury but he has been a flat-out stud. The Heat are seven points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, nearly every lineup permutation he has is plus and when he was coming off the bench, the Heat were a plus-20 net rating. He and Herro have demolished bench units to the tune of a plus-14 net rating with a 123 offensive rating.

His patience in pick-and-rolls has been huge for the Heat; he knows when to hold his roll and when to dive head first. He is scoring 1.33 PPP as a roller (85th percentile). The chemistry he is developing with Lowry is huge. Early on, Spoelstra would pair Lowry with Adebayo and Butler with Dedmon, and it worked. But these reps together just help diversify an already growing offense. Thinking Dedmon was out of the league a few years ago is wild, given how good and spry he looks, outperforming his minimum deal by a whole lot. His three-point shooting appears to be back (9 of 14 in 28 games)? He isn’t too confident in it, but when he takes them, he’s been knocking them down, largely in transition or broken plays that find their way to him open on the break.