After one week and four games between the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat, we are no closer to determining a winner for this Eastern Conference semifinal series than when we started. The home teams have held serve across the first four games and what started as a best-of-seven series with Miami holding home-court advantage has now become a best-of-three with the Heat still holding the ball in their court.
However, one crucial difference exists from last week — Joel Embiid is available to take the floor from the jump. With a masked Embiid taking the court in Philadelphia after clearing concussion protocol and battling through his orbital fracture and torn thumb ligament injuries (I feel pained just typing that out), the Sixers have looked nothing like the squad that was forced to play DeAndre Jordan for 15 minutes per night (forced as in Doc Rivers made it so despite the protestations of everyone else who follows the team locally and nationally). Tonight, we’ll get to see how much of the Heat going from winning by an average of 15 points per game in Miami to the Sixers winning by 14 points per game in Philadelphia was due to Embiid’s return and how much was good, old-fashioned home cooking.
While Embiid has been somewhat limited offensively in his return, he’s still contributing mightily to the team’s success, especially on the defensive end of the court. However, the same cannot be said for Miami’s gimpy starter, Kyle Lowry. The Philly native and former Villanova Wildcat has not looked like himself since returning to the court for Game 3 after sitting out with a strained hamstring. Lowry then reaggravated his hamstring Sunday night and his status for Game 5 is uncertain. Even if he is able to take the court tonight, this version of Lowry is not much of a threat to the Sixers.
Update 11:41 a.m.: Lowry is officially out for Game 5
Someone who is very much a threat is Jimmy Butler, who has ramped up his scoring in every game this series, from 15 in Game 1, to 22, to 33, and then to a game-high 40 points in the Game 4 losing effort. Tobias Harris has not experienced the same success against Jimmy Buckets as he did against Pascal Siakam during the Toronto series. Butler has been able to draw some fouls against Harris, and Doc Rivers has pulled him off the assignment more than he likely wanted to in order to keep him on the court. Jimmy has also attacked what has been a switch-heavy scheme by Philadelphia, scoring against James Harden, Danny Green, Tyrese Maxey, Georges Niang, you name it. The Sixers might just have to live with a “let Jimmy get his” strategy and focus on limiting the contributions from the supporting cast. In particular, they did a good job the last two games against Tyler Herro, frustrating him with some more double teams and ball pressure, and holding him to a combined 25 points the last two games after he led Miami with 25 points in Game 1 alone.
Offensively for Philadelphia, the biggest question might be whether Harden can hop in the DeLorean again like he did in his 31-point Game 4 performance, or if that was a one-night-only MVP-like-play reunion tour. Even so, the playmaker version of the Beard will still be enough if the role players, particularly Danny Green, perform like they did in Philadelphia. Miami might be the city where the heat is on, but Green was ice cold there, shooting 2-of-14 from three-point range in South Beach across Games 1 and 2, but then lighting things up in Philadelphia (10-of-13 on threes). A nice, normal 2-of-5 game from Danny would be just fine tonight.
As of this writing, the Heat are three-point favorites for tonight’s Game 5. You have to think the pressure is on Miami tonight, as the Sixers have clearly looked like the better team since returning to full strength (or whatever you want to consider this toughing-it-out version of Embiid). Losing tonight and giving the Sixers a chance to close it out back home is not a situation in which the Heat want to find themselves. We will see if the return to Miami and the passion of their fans arriving mid-second quarter makes the difference, or if the Sixers with Embiid are simply too much.
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