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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Heat preview from the other side

Getting a little insight about the Sixers’ next opponent.

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

Ahead of most games, Liberty Ballers conducts a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Alex Toledo, who covers the Miami Heat for Five Reasons Sports.

Where is Miami at health-wise? Are there any updates about Jimmy Butler or Kyle Lowry?

Health-wise, although a lot of guys are questionable for Game 1, Jimmy Butler and the rest of the guys not named Kyle Lowry are expected to play. It feels like Kyle would’ve pushed through had it not been for the Embiid news. Now, he’ll get a little more rest to nurse his hurt hamstring.

How do things change for Miami without one or both of them on offense and defense?

Without Jimmy on offense, the Heat lose their main rim attacker and foul-drawer, with the Heat tending to speed up the pace and getting off a higher volume of threes. Without Kyle, the Heat lose easily their best creator of easy baskets and, in general, the guy who keeps their offense from getting stagnant throughout games. Jimmy tends to slow things down even more when Lowry is off and the offense can get mucked up.

Both would be big losses on the defensive end as well, but especially Jimmy. Although Bam is the most important defensive player on the team, Jimmy’s responsibility as a switcher, helper and free safety for the Heat is huge for their winning formula. Jimmy and Kyle execute the Heat’s switch, help and rotate defense to a T.

What stood out to you from the Heat’s first-round series?

What stood out to me was how much they were able to generate good looks consistently on offense, despite Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry all playing below their regular-season standards production-wise. It definitely helped assuage some concerns about half-court offense in the playoffs. Although the Hawks’ awful defense is probably the biggest reason, Jimmy Butler is still at the top of his game.

What’s the biggest matchup you’re going to monitor in this series?

The biggest matchup I’ll be monitoring is James Harden vs Jimmy Butler/PJ Tucker. One of the two will be matched up on Harden from the start and both will spend plenty of time guarding him. With Embiid out, the Heat will be able to defend Harden more aggressively than they may have previously and prioritize keeping him out of the paint, similar to how they defended Trae Young. Among Jimmy, PJ, and the other players that will switch onto Harden, I’m expecting him to have an ugly series, even for his playoff standards — low efficiency, more turnovers.

What are the key strengths of this Heat team?

The key strength of the Heat is definitely their ability to match up with just about any team in the league due to their defensive identity and personnel. The aforementioned switch/help/rotate defense they’re always running is executed at an extremely high level when they’re locked in, giving just about every star player fits. They will keep teams out of the paint and give up the most threes (by opponent shot distribution), but still do a good job contesting those.

Where may they be exploitable?

They may be exploitable due to the amount of threes they give up, even if they do a good job contesting. In this series, you will probably will see it happening with Harden at the top of the key, firing off passes to whichever of his teammates is most open due to the Heat’s early help, where players will cheat off their man and have to recover.

What’s your series prediction and why?

I’ve got Heat in 5 with no Joel Embiid playing and had Heat in 6 as my prediction before knowing he was out indefinitely. I don’t think it will be particularly easy for James Harden to get going, and it will be too much pressure on the Sixers’ other guys to step and make big shots night after night. Tyrese Maxey will have one huge game that’ll propel the Sixers to their one win. The Heat’s half-court offense, on the other hand, will not be tested much, if at all, due to the Sixers’ defense without Joel Embiid never being great. They will generate plenty of good looks and cruise through this series.

Editor’s note: Alex’s answers were crafted before news broke that Embiid could return for Game 3. At the time Alex sent these answers my way, Embiid was listed as out indefinitely and there was no timeline made available.