By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
The Sixers are a contender of the future based on the talent and potential of young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and coach Brett Brown’s chemistry with the group.
Finishing with the No. 3 seed in the East and reeling off 16 consecutive victories to end the regular season qualified as overachieving, and even a loss in the first round wouldn’t steal much luster from the promising crew.
Similarly, Miami again worked hard to boost itself to the No. 6 spot in the East. And the Heat did so with a whole greater than the sum of its parts. They don’t have eye-popping talent, but thrive on cohesiveness, effort and the work of coach Erik Spoelstra exploiting the right matchups and flaws in opponents. The Heat aren’t so much feared as they are respected as a foe unlikely to beat itself.
The teams split their four meetings in the regular season and — with Embiid (orbital fracture) unlikely to be available any time soon — there’s little reason to think the Sixers’ higher seed would qualify as much of an upper hand. This could be a gritty, grimy series that shows the strengths of both teams.
3 quick questions and answers
Who guards Ben Simmons? The favorite to be named Kia Rookie of the Year, Simmons is a matchup nightmare. He is a 6-foot-10 point guard who probably will draw one of Miami’s frontcourt players like James Johnson as a primary defender, rather than stick any of the Heat guards in that size disadvantage. Simmons has triple-double potential, limited only by a shooting range that keeps him inside the arc.
Which attack is more balanced? Led by Wayne Ellington — who sank more 3-point shots this season than any reserve in NBA history — Miami had five shooters who each hit at least 100 from downtown. The Heat also have nine players who averaged in double digits this season and eight who led the team in scoring at least once. Then there is Philadelphia, which was the only team in the NBA this season to boast five players who scored at least 1,000 points.
Will we get to see the matchup that oozes personality and one-upsmanship, namely, Joel Embiid vs. Hassan Whiteside? This doesn’t depend solely on Embiid’s ability to play with a protective mask, something he figures to try at some point in the series. It also hinges on Whiteside earning time in Spoelstra’s rotation after a disappointing season — Whiteside’s intensity waned too often, making Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo more satisfying options many nights. That said, it would be fun to see the 7-footers go at it, both in the paint and with verbal salvos before, after and between games.
113.1 — The Sixers scored 113.1 points per 100 possessions over their 16-game winning streak to close the season. That was the second best mark in the league over the last four weeks. The Sixers were a good defensive team all season, but it was on offense where they saw the most improvement. Some of that was schedule-aided, but they were the only team that ranked in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency after the All-Star break. They were without Embiid for the final nine games of the streak (including the game in which he was injured), played at the league’s fastest pace over that stretch, and managed to cut down on turnovers. The Heat held them to just 101 points per 100 possessions in their four meetings, but the Sixers, who led the league in passes per possession and ranked second in player movement, have since become more difficult to defend. — John Schuhmann
Making the pick
Truth be told, these Sixers are a little ahead of schedule — the playoffs were a legit goal … but the No. 3 seed? This roster and coaching staff will be learning on the postseason fly. Truth be told, this Miami team isn’t as good as the group that finished the second half of last season with a 30-11 mark. But the Heat’s success was ground out this time around, and that style should make this a fairly lengthy, exhausting series. Sixers in 6.