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NBA Playoff Previews Guide: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Miami Heat is a series of unknowns

Injuries to key players like Joel Embiid and Kyle Lowry have cast a hazy look over this matchup.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Miami Heat Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The fourth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers and top-seeded Miami Heat kick off their second-round matchup Monday evening in Miami. Predicting how it may unfold is rather complicated.

Joel Embiid and Kyle Lowry will not play Game 1. James Harden hasn’t faced Miami since joining the Sixers. Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, PJ Tucker, Max Strus, Markieff Morris and Caleb Martin are all listed as questionable for Game 1. Health looms dauntingly over these playoffs and this series is no different.

Let’s do our best to break it down from an assortment of angles.


  • Game 1: Monday, FTX Arena, 7:30 p.m., TNT
  • Game 2: Wednesday, FTX Arena, 7:30 p.m., TNT
  • Game 3: Friday, Wells Fargo Center, 7 p.m., ESPN
  • Game 4: Sunday, Wells Fargo Center, 8 p.m., TNT
  • Game 5 (if necessary): May 10, FTX Arena, TBD, TNT
  • Game 6 (if necessary): May 12, Wells Fargo Center, TBD, ESPN
  • Game 7 (if necessary): May 15, FTX Arena, TBD, TBD


Joel Embiid and Kyle Lowry have been ruled out for Game 1. Embiid will not play Game 2 either, though ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported “there’s optimism he could return as soon as either Game 3 or 4 in Philadelphia.”

Lowry was sidelined for the final two games of Miami’s first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks with a left hamstring strain. Butler missed Game 5 due to right knee inflammation and is questionable Monday.

Team numbers

Philadelphia’s offensive/defensive/net rating: 114.0 (13th), 110.7 (11th), plus-3.3 (ninth)

  • Playoffs: 120.6 (second), 111.8 (sixth), plus-8.7 (third)

Miami’s offensive/defensive/net rating: 114.2 (11th), 109.2 (third), plus-5.1 (sixth)

  • Playoffs: 117.8 (fourth), 102.7 (second), plus-15.1 (second)

Season series: Split 2-2

Dec. 15 in Philadelphia: Heat 101, Sixers 96

  • Absences: Ben Simmons, Georges Niang, Furkan Korkmaz, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Markieff Morris, Caleb Martin, Victor Oladipo
  • Standout performances: Gabe Vincent had 26 points, including seven triples, on 71.4 percent true shooting. Tyrese Maxey had 27 points on 82.7 percent true shooting. Tobias Harris added 24 points (60.7 percent true shooting), five rebounds and four assists.

Jan. 15 in Miami: Sixers 109, Heat 98

  • Absences: Ben Simmons, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, Shake Milton, Bam Adebayo, Markieff Morris, Victor Oladipo
  • Standout performances: Joel Embiid had 32 points (59.6 percent true shooting) and 12 boards. Seth Curry and Tobias Harris combined for 43 points on 28 shots. Omer Yurtseven tallied 22 points and 11 rebounds.

March 5 in Miami: Heat 99, Sixers 82

  • Absences: James Harden, Kyle Lowry, Markieff Morris, Victor Oladipo
  • Standout performances: Tyler Herro had 21 points (62.2 percent true shooting), seven rebounds and three dimes. Gabe Vincent supplemented him with 16 points on 100 percent true shooting. Joel Embiid was held to 22 points on 4-of-15 shooting (52 percent true shooting).

March 21 in Philadelphia: Sixers 113, Heat 106

  • Absences: Joel Embiid, James Harden, Victor Oladipo
  • Standout performances: Tyrese Maxey registered 28 points (77.4 percent true shooting), five rebounds, four assists and one block. Shake Milton came off the bench to provide 20 points on 53 percent true shooting. Jimmy Butler (27), Bam Adebayo (22) and Kyle Lowry (20) all scored 20 or more points.

How did vital players perform against the Heat/Sixers this season?

Joel Embiid (three games): 23.7 points, 13.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.3 blocks on 55.8 percent true shooting (.420/.071/.903 split)

James Harden (one game with Brooklyn): 14 points, seven assists, seven rebounds on 52.6 percent true shooting (.333/.375/1.000 split)

Tyrese Maxey (four games): 21.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.3 blocks on 68 percent true shooting (.564/.409/.824 split)

Tobias Harris (four games): 19 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists on 60.9 percent true shooting (.517/.471/.800 split)

Jimmy Butler (three games): 18.7 points, 6.7 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 1.7 steals on 52.1 percent true shooting (.366/.143/.862 split)

Bam Adebayo (two games): 14 points, 9.5 rebounds, two assists, 1.5 blocks, one steal on 54.3 percent true shooting (.500/zilch/1.000 split)

Kyle Lowry (three games): 14 points, six assists, 4.7 rebounds on 54.3 percent true shooting (.361/.423/.833 split)

Tyler Herro (three games): 15.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists on 50.6 percent true shooting (.429/.300/.800 split)

Numbers to monitor

  • 622: According to Synergy, Miami ran 622 handoff possessions this season, which ranked third league-wide. Only the Orlando Magic (708) and San Antonio Spurs (641) logged more possessions. Yet those teams placed in the bottom half of points per possessions on handoffs, while Miami (0.955 PPP) was fourth.

The Heat deploy an offense predicated on off-ball motion to generate triples (NBA-best 38.6 percent beyond the arc this year). Handoffs factor heavily into that. Bam Adebayo is one of the NBA’s best screeners and routinely springs free shooters like Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Max Strus for quality looks. The Sixers aren’t rich with trustworthy off-ball defenders or screen navigators, so this could be a problematic angle from their perspective. How they aim to counter this integral portion of Miami’s attack is a prominent storyline.

The Heat are a methodical team (28th in pace) and really encounter troubles in the half-court when those handoff-based actions are stymied. Possessions grow stagnant for them and deviating out of that approach can produce some rather janky trips down the floor. If Philadelphia bottles up the handoffs, that stalls Miami’s offense.

But that’s a big if, given its personnel, especially as long as Embiid is sidelined. When the Sixers won in Miami on Jan. 15, they ran shooters off the arc and funneled them to Embiid. That game-plan is unavailable for the time being, meaning Doc Rivers and Co. will have to devise a different route for success.

  • 41.9: That’s the percentage of shots from deep that Miami surrendered to its opponents during the regular season, the highest mark in the league. The Heat love to load the gaps defensively to funnel shots away from the middle of the floor and narrow driving lanes. They executed it to stifling results in round one against Atlanta.

Meanwhile, just 34 percent of the Sixers’ looks were threes, a lower number than 22 other teams. However, it vaulted to 39 percent in round one, with Toronto’s aggressive scheme constantly allowing open shots beyond the arc. You’d figure that clip further elevates without Embiid. Philadelphia has plenty of credible shooters in its rotation and the design of Miami’s defense will concede threes.

Of course, finding these shots requires Harden and others to collapse the defense. The Heat are hell-bent on taking away the middle of the floor, and opportunities on the wings and in the corners should arise.

  • 8.4: Adebayo averaged just 8.4 shots per game in the first round. He was brilliant defensively and Butler assumed a grander workload to help offset Adebayo’s quiet output, but scoring passivity is a long-standing issue of his. Really, it plagues him, Butler and Lowry, and helps explain some of Miami’s half-court offense foibles.

Both as a roller and post player, he’s prone to immediately looking for passing outlets and ignoring possible scoring chances. With Lowry out for Game 1 and Butler potentially hampered by right knee inflammation, Adebayo may need to call his own number more often, which did not happen much last round. Although, he took 22 combined shots in Games 4 and 5 for his two best scoring performances (14 in Game 4, 20 in Game 5), so the tide could be turning.

Questions in search of answers

What is Matisse Thybulle’s role in this series?

The perils of Miami’s half-court offense (11th, per Cleaning The Glass) have been documented. Often, its most reliable creator to mitigate those perils this season has been Tyler Herro. Presumably, the Sixers’ best option to slow him is Matisse Thybulle. Yet Thybulle was pretty much a non-factor in the three games he played against Toronto and was particularly disastrous during his 14-minute, Game 5 stint.

His severe offensive limitations would surely be exploited by a savvy head coach like Erik Spoelstra. Justifying anything more than a minor role in this matchup feels difficult. Miami’s defense will be tough to crack even without Thybulle around to complicate floor-spacing. But if he’s not playing heavy minutes, does that pave the way for Herro to thrive? Herro’s too quick for Danny Green and too big for Tyrese Maxey. Neither excels maneuvering around screens, which is a pillar of Herro’s usage.

Herro doesn’t get to the cup consistently (20 percent rim frequency, 34th percentile), so the answer might just be to live with his jumper-heavy diet. Try to tie Thybulle’s minutes to both Herro’s and Harden’s. He can hound the talented scorer, while being set up optimally to not bury the offense during his shifts.

Thybulle’s a very good defender, but his offense has proven quite impeding on his path to notable minutes. That’ll certainly be the case again this round and discerning his ideal usage will warrant some ingenuity from the coaching staff.

What does the Sixers’ James Harden-led offense look like?

Without Embiid in the lineup, Harden shifts to the centerfold. Philadelphia’s offense will be fashioned around his game. Reed is the assumed fill-in for Embiid at the 5. The lineup of Harden-Maxey-Green-Harris-Reed played 17 minutes together in Round 1. It played five minutes during the regular season. Swap DeAndre Jordan in place of Reed and 17 is again the number of minutes. Point being: these are unfamiliar scenarios for the Sixers, as is Harden playing full games sans Embiid, which is yet to happen since he arrived in Philadelphia.

When Adebayo is on the floor, Miami’s going to switch pick-and-rolls. When Dedmon plays, it’ll resort to drop coverage. Reed can’t punish switches like Embiid, so Philadelphia should get creative and have players who can beat mismatches screen for Harden, such as Maxey and Harris. Involving Herro, Robinson and Lowry (if he plays) to either let Harden or the pick man target them could be profitable. Miami, though, is adept at insulating Herro and Robinson from defending on-ball screening actions. The dynamic of that push-pull could factor in prominently.

Harden’s mercurial scoring tendencies have existed throughout his Sixers tenure. He’s been masterful as a passer, often deferring to Embiid and Maxey, but he’ll need less deference as long as Embiid is sidelined.

I’d imagine we’ll see Maxey and Harris anchor the non-Harden minutes, while Harden leads bench-heavy units when the starting lineup isn’t playing. Both were excellent against Toronto, but largely played off of the advantages Harden and Embiid forged. They’ll still play off of Harden for stretches, though less so and will be periodically tasked with creating against a long, stingy Miami defense. How Maxey and Harris fare with more on-ball responsibilities could be the differentiator between wins or losses to open this series.

Can Tobias Harris replicate his defensive showing against Pascal Siakam as the matchup transitions to Jimmy Butler?

Harris’ defensive exploits against the star forward were crucial. He was physical and handsy, walled off drives, bothered shots and forced passes. Butler is starkly different than Siakam, but the theme of a shaky outside jumper persists. Both players work through contact and are downhill-oriented scorers. Harris’ strength and mobility at his size can be a broad blueprint to limiting them.

However, Butler’s scoring chops are much more malleable. He’s a stellar cutter, is comfortable as a roller and loves to leak out in transition. Harris’ off-ball defense remains a gap in his skill-set, as does efficient screen navigation. Toronto neutralized some of his defensive impact later in the series by setting simple screens and getting him switched off of Siakam. Miami, at some point, will probably follow suit.

The Sixers’ counter was to trap Siakam, confident Toronto didn’t have the play-finishers to flourish in 4-on-3s. They were right. But the Heat, with Adebayo, Dedmon and Tucker, do. Plus, defending 4-on-3s or trapping ball-handlers without Embiid is a lofty proposition, though one Philadelphia may only have to achieve in Games 1 and 2.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect Harris can bring against Butler is allowing Philadelphia’s other defenders to stay at home. Butler loves to draw help and spray passers to shooters. When those passing windows don’t exist, his creation endeavors can look clunky. If Harris can regularly dissuade his teammates from feeling the urge to provide help, Butler and the Heat’s offense will suffer.

Also working in his favor is Butler lacks the size and midrange touch of Siakam, who occasionally applied his length and intermediate game to score over Harris. Butler doesn’t hold those same traits and that could hinder him in certain instances.

There will assuredly be times Harris gives Butler trouble, especially on the ball. But the beauty of Butler’s game is how he can drift to the background and still score effectively. In those moments, I wonder what Harris and the Sixers’ response will be.

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