Heat vs. 76ers series preview: Can Miami capitalize on Embiid’s absence?

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler looks on in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

The roads taken by the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers to get to the Eastern Conference semi-finals were very different — Miami moved past the Atlanta Hawks with ease in a 4-1 series win, while the Sixers almost blew a 3-0 lead to the Toronto Raptors but took the series in six.

Now, with Sixers MVP candidate Joel Embiid on the sidelines for Games 1 and 2 of the upcoming series, the Heat can see a path to the NBA Finals for the second time in three seasons, this time with some key roster additions that make them a true title contender.

However, the Sixers still have their own late-season acquisition in James Harden that they will be looking to get the most out of, alongside Tyrese Maxey continuing the stellar play he delivered against Toronto.

Season series: 2-2 split

Quick Tape (after Round 1)

Heat: 4-1 | No. 4 offence | No. 2 defence | No. 2 net rating

Sixers: 4-2 | No. 2 offence | No. 6 defence | No. 3 net rating

Betting Futures

To win series: MIA: -300, PHI: +240 (Courtesy FanDuel at time of publication)

To win championship: MIA: +600, PHI: +2000 (Courtesy FanDuel at time of publication)

Heat Starting 5: Bam Adebayo, P.J. Tucker, Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Victor Oladipo

Heat Bench: Kyle Lowry (Inj.), Jimmy Butler (Inj.), Tyler Herro (Inj.), Caleb Martin (Inj.), Duncan Robinson, Dewayne Dedmon, Udonis Haslem, Haywood Highsmith, Markieff Morris, Omer Yurtseven

Sixers Starting 5: Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey, James Harden, Danny Green, Paul Reed

Sixers Bench: Joel Embiid (Inj.), Paul Millsap, Matisse Thybulle, DeAndre Jordan, Georges Niang, Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Isaiah Joe, Jaden Springer, Charles Bassey (Inj.)

Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro celebrates a basket against the Boston Celtics late in the second half of Game 4 of an NBA basketball Eastern Conference final, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Mark J. Terrill / AP)

Pulse of the Heat

Despite the fact that seemingly half of the Heat roster is dealing with some sort of injury or illness right now, when healthy their depth is arguably one of the best in the league. Finally getting to see Victor Oladipo on the floor (as well as Kyle Lowry’s impact) has been huge on top of solidified stars like Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.

Against the Hawks, Butler averaged 30.5 points per game, which included a 45-point (on 60 per cent shooting) performance that resembled that of his 2020 post-season play. Oladipo’s first post-season with the Heat has been nothing short of entertaining as he exploded for 23 points, three assists, and three steals in the Game 5 series-clinching win.

Add to that the likes of Tyler Herro, P.J. Tucker and Max Strus, and Miami has weapons that can come off the bench for all areas of the floor. Even with their starters injured there is no shortage of talent on the Heat roster, which helped them secure the first-place seed in the East and a smooth ride to the conference semifinals.

Philadelphia 76ers’ Tyrese Maxey reacts during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Pulse of the Sixers

For the Sixers, the pulse of their team looks different this time around as their best player will be sidelined for at least two games. Whether you like him or not, it’s easy to see how much Embiid impacts a game, and the Sixers will have to adjust accordingly.

With that being said, Tyrese Maxey stepped up to the plate in the Raptors series and will continue to be a top option for Philly alongside James Harden, who had a 22-point, 15-assist night in the Game 6 win over Toronto, playing 40 minutes a night throughout all six games.

DeAndre Jordan, Paul Millsap, Paul Reed, and (if healthy) Charles Bassey, will have to step into the centre position to help with Embiid’s injury. But both Embiid and Harden were sidelined in one of the Sixers’ wins over Miami during the regular season, so being able to adapt to injuries will make or break Philadelphia against Miami.

Key matchup to watch

Jimmy Butler vs. Tobias Harris. While what Butler does against his old team will be the key to a lot of Miami’s success, the same can be said for Harris against the Heat — even if it doesn’t look like it on the scoresheet. Harris was tasked with playing one of Toronto’s best players, Pascal Siakam, and playing hard defence while still contributing on the offensive front, whether it be hitting jumpers when needed or his efficiency in transition.

Of course Butler is one of the best players in the series, so guarding him will be no easy task, especially after the series he had against Atlanta. He’s shot 55 per cent from the floor in his last 10 games, including 41 per cent from the three-point line, and the tenacity that Butler plays with is hard to keep pace with for 35-plus minutes a night. But if anyone can do it, it’s Harris.

That ability is why Harris will likely draw the Butler assignment as Sixers head coach Doc Rivers tries to steal at least one win in South Beach. But he’ll also be tasked with multiple defensive pairings due to Miami’s ability to score. The same goes for Butler, as shutting down Harden and Maxey will now be the priority for Miami.

Heat win if …

With Embiid out, the Heat need to focus on their defending of Philly’s guards, such as Maxey and Harden. Being able to stop the guard-scoring production will put Miami in a good spot as they have physical defenders across the board who can put pressure on the wings and force the play through the paint.

Miami is a versatile team offensively, with multiple shooters who can also score from beyond the three-point arc, so Erik Spoelstra’s schemes from half-court that will force Philly to play tougher defence will be another area to exploit in order to take the series. As the deeper team of the two (even through injuries), Miami will rely on their ability to produce from any player on the court in order to win.

Sixers win if …

If the Sixers can manage to stay somewhat alive through two games without Embiid, they have a shot at winning — if they can see glimpses of Houston Harden again as an explosive scorer. Maxey has been filling that void for Philly a bit, but they need a more complete team effort in order to pull out a win.

On top of that, if Butler is healthy after missing Game 5 with a knee flare up, that will be the biggest problem for Philadelphia. Guarding Butler will be the first task on their agenda, as not only was he a problem for Atlanta, but averaged 18.7 points, 6.7 assists, and 4.7 rebounds against the Sixers during the regular season. Philly managed to hold him to 1-of-11 shooting in one of those games, so keeping Butler at bay will help the Sixers stay alive.

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