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James Harden looks to orchestrate Game 1 heist, and steal home court from Miami Heat

Without Joel Embiid, the Sixers talented wings will aim to push the pace and emerge victorious in a hostile environment

New York Knicks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Four down, twelve to go. The Philadelphia 76ers are 12 wins away from a world championship.

They went up North and took care of business by defeating Pascal Siakam and the Toronto Raptors. But they didn’t return unscathed. Now they’ll venture down South for the next leg of the journey. But if they want to wrestle home court away from Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and the Miami Heat, they’ll have to do so without their superstar Joel Embiid. The five time All-Star suffered an orbital fracture and concussion in the sixth and final game of round one. There’s at least some optimism Joel can return for Game 3 or 4, but the Sixers cannot afford to look ahead.

James Harden, Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey, and Danny Green will need to shoulder the scoring burden and play a more uptempo brand of basketball than they’ve gotten used to. During the regular season this Philly team was methodical, playing at the 26th quickest pace. Suddenly, without their center, they might prefer a breakneck gear instead.

That means a style tailored more to Harden’s skill set, read: less people inside the three point line whenever The Beard drives, more minutes for the team’s few long-distance snipers, and perhaps extra minutes for elite wing defenders (in case he needs help there).

Harden has taken some flack since he came to Philly for not scoring more.

Harden averaged 21 points per game, 7 rebounds, and 10.5 dimes during the regular season in a Sixers uniform. He’ll probably have to crack 25 or more if they want to defeat the East’s top-seeded team sans 2022 Scoring Titleist.

Perhaps we have not talked enough about the adaptation Harden, a three time scoring champ himself, has been forced to make, accommodating a perennial MVP finalist, following the blockbuster trade that landed the superstar guard in Philly.

Everyone knows that Harden played his best career basketball with multiple eager spot up shooters positioned around the three point line. The Sixers have not put The Beard in a ton of scenarios like that. It makes some sense. Doc Rivers has unlocked the best version to date of Joel Embiid by deploying him around the elbows and high post area. And it made Joel’s passing reads a bit easier, kept his turnovers down, and allowed him to barbecue more chicken than ever.

But it also meant that on some of Harden’s drives, there are multiple defenders in the lane waiting to snuff out finishes. Spacing like this below is not terribly uncommon in Philly. But you rarely saw this stuff in his Rocket days:

Harden clearly isn’t the scorer he once was in Houston. Maybe he’s still dealing with some hamstring tenderness, or the residual mental component of having been limited by soft tissue injuries for the better part of the last 13 months.

But he’s probably better than what we’ve seen so far. And his scoring splits with and without Joel on the floor point to a bit more upside as a pure scorer. At least Rivers hopes that will be the case. They’ll need to lean into that hypothesis down in South Beach.

If they can win Game 1, then they can get really excited for a possible Embiid return in Game 3 or 4. If Joel still isn’t ready to go by then, they’ll at least be able to say “hey we beat this Heat squad on the road without Embiid, now we get to go home.”

Tyrese Maxey exploded for 28 points on 15 shots in a regular season victory over these Heat back in March. On Saturday at practice, Rivers noted that the Heat may have taken the Sixers, then missing Embiid and Harden, a bit lightly that game. They won’t care how shorthanded Philadelphia is this time Doc cautioned. It’s the playoffs.

Nonetheless, Maxey flashed some of his scoring chops and leadership in that one. Another one of Maxey’s best games, a 33 point outing in an overtime win over Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies back in Jan. also came with Joel out of the lineup. Maxey has risen to the occasion before. He’s ascended to a degree few predicted and ‘Rese becomes all the more vital now.

Oh and Tobias Harris is quietly playing some of the best ball of his career.

Those three will need to dial up their aggression. And that may mean more open looks for Danny Green too. Green Ranger has become revitalized at just the right time for this unit. And has a ton of playoff and championship level experience under his belt.

Other than Embiid’s absence, the Sixers have a clean bill of health. Embiid is out and Charles Bassey (shoulder) is questionable.

That means Matisse Thybulle can return to a full time role. They may need him badly in this series because Miami has some players who move frenetically without the ball and navigate a ton of screens. Tyler Herro has displayed some All-Star caliber flashes this season. Matisse matches up against Herro better than any other Sixer figures to.

That could be an important matchup since Green and Maxey don’t snake through the maze of picks as well as the Washington product can.

On the other side, the Heat don’t have a clean bill of health. Philly native Kyle Lowry is the lone member of their core ruled OUT ahead of time. But they have more than a few bodies listed questionable and Jimmy Butler missed the close out game over the Atlanta Hawks in round one with knee inflammation that’s apparently still bugging him. They’re not 100 percent.

But we assume all but Lowry will be ready to roll for Monday’s tip.

Gabe Vincent might get the start over Lowry. GV deserves some of the credit for a great team effort Miami did in slowing down Trae Young last round. Victor Oladipo is rounding into form and may absorb the lion share of Lowry’s vacated minutes too. VO was last seen face guarding Young the full 92 feet, making him uncomfortable.

Young, who typically rises to the occasion in high pressure spots, instead appeared to shrink. Miami did such a great job on the diminutive superstar he looked like he didn’t even want to touch the ball in crunch time of his team’s final moments. The Heat do a great job of switching, rotating, recovering, protecting the rim as a unit and forcing turnovers. They often move as one with Bam the head of he snake on that end. They’ll get to throw all kinds of traps on Harden without fear of a roll man now that Joel is out. Harden can’t get discouraged like Trae did.

In the regular season, the Miami Heat tied with Philadelphia for the 12th best offensive rating. Sixers fans might consider that a “win” since they played three-fourths of that span without James Harden. The Beard only appeared in 21 regular season games for Philly.

The Sixers had the 12th rated regular season defense, while Erik Spoelstra’s unit, led by a Defensive Player of the Year finalist in Adebayo, finished 4th overall in Def RTG.

If we’re right that Thybulle, as well as Danny Green, will see a fair amount of Herro, then that means Tobias Harris will take on the toughest task of checking Jimmy Butler. Any talk of the Sixers pushing the pace and getting some easy looks in transition will depend on how Harris can do slowing down vs. his former teammate.

Butler likes to drive right, drain short pull ups, draw fouls, and set up open shooters.

If Harris can stay out of foul trouble and force misses, then Philly (just the league’s 29th ranked rebounding group even with Joel) must gang rebound without trying to leak out for breaks. Securing a formal end to possessions with a defensive board will be a brutal challenge in this series. And their playoff lives may depend on how they fare.

Miami checks in as big time favorites in Game 1. Our friends at Draft Kings list the Sixers as -7.5 point underdogs, and a +285 money line offering an implied 26 percent chance Philly steals the opening contest of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

The Sixers are +270 underdogs to win the series and advance to the Final Four. That’s a 27 percent implied chance. But our Gastro Blues Gang is feeling pretty good considering the circumstances.

It’s difficult to think about but the Sixers would probably be favorites to advance if Embiid hadn’t picked up the torn thumb, concussion, and fractured face. (Honestly, if that dude suits up to play again this post season through all that’s ailing him it’ll be a minor miracle and we should begin building his statue now for the Herculean effort it would take).

In his stead, we’ll look for the Sixers to run a center by committee. That means Paul Reed will see a minutes boost but we also may see the return of Paul Millsap, DeAndre Jordan and possibly even some Charles Bassey burn. Harris might see some looks at the small ball five if the Heat turn to their Lilliputian scheme.

Offensively, we expect to see more spot up sets, some small-small pick-and-roll, some double-drag schemes designed to force a softer matchup like Herro onto Harden. It’ll be a chess match for sure. As coach Rivers intimated, he’ll have to get creative. He sounded willing to try anything over the weekend when speaking with reporters but he sounded confident too.

Sounds like they’ll look to Point Beard to set the tone. If they can somehow steal Game 1, everything will feel a whole lot different than it has since we learned about Joel’s orbital fracture.

Game Info

Who: Miami Heat vs. Philadelphia 76ers

When: 7:30 pm ET

Where: FTX Arena, Miami, FL

Watch: TNT

Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic

Follow: @Liberty_Ballers

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