- The Heat and Sixers have showed up to the NBA playoffs and played their most impressive basketball. And while they've been their best selves, will they ever become their true selves this postseason?
Perhaps no series in the playoffs has embodied the playoffs like Heat-76ers. The teams exchanged body blows in the first two games, with the Heat following up a Sixers blowout by stealing homecourt two nights later. In Game 1, Philly absolutely blitzed Miami with a barrage of threes and a stellar Ben Simmons performance. In Game 2, the Heat adjusted, crowding Simmons and squeaking out a victory thanks in large part to a throwback night from Dwyane Wade. The series has already featured numerous strategic quirks—Brett Brown is starting Ersan Ilyasova! Hassan Whiteside is averaging 13.8 minutes per game!—and the question moving forward becomes, what happens when these teams start playing like themselves?
The Sixers were one of the better three-point shooting teams in the regular season. They shot 36.9% from downtown, good for 10th-best in the NBA. Still, their Game 1 performance, in which they connected on 18-of-28 from downtown—a 64% three-point clip—was a bit of an outlier. The last time in the regular season the Sixers made at least 15 threes on less than 30 attempts was... never. Game 1 was literally the best three-point shooting night all year for Philly, tying its season-high in makes on easily its best shooting percentage.
The Sixers’ 130 points in Game 1 also weren’t the result of simply running up and down the court as much as possible. Their pace in the opening game was 100.7, which is actually quite slower than the pace Philly was playing at in their final eight games of the regular season after the injury to Joel Embiid. The Simmons-led offense finished the year playing at a pace of 106.7, the fastest of any team over the final couple weeks of the season.
Meanwhile, for the Heat, Wade picked a hell of a time to have his best game since his return to Miami. Wade had only one other night this season in which he scored at least 25 points on at least 60% shooting, and, ironically, that also came against the Sixers, a game in late February that ended with a Wade winner over Ben Simmons. But Wade only scored more than 20 points for the Heat three times since rejoining the team at the deadline. And the last time he shot better than 50% was on March 8, hilariously, also against Philadelphia.
There are happenings from both games that are unlikely to occur a consistent basis. Will the Sixers' entire supporting cast catch fire from three together on any other night? Did Wade use up his only high-efficiency game? Can Philly bend the pace toward its regular season ideal? Is the Heat’s defense really in trouble?
The solutions moving forward, of course, vary for each team. The Sixers, without Embiid, should continue to run and try to goad Miami into a track meet. The Heat struggled during the regular season against teams that played fast, which is the antithesis of Erik Spoelstra’s deliberate style. Miami was the fifth-slowest team during the regular season, as Spo would much rather depend on his halfcourt execution on both ends of the court as opposed to watching a game played in transition.
The Ilyasova-at-center lineup should continue to be a factor for Philly. That group played only 14 minutes together in three regular season games after the Embiid injury, but it had a 14.4 net rating and a pace of 118.3 in that extremely limited sample size.
When Embiid returns, Philly’s pace may slow. But the Sixers’ defense will immediately become elite, and Embiid’s postups will become a nice safety option whenever the offense stalls.
For the Heat, they’ll need to find offense, but slowing down Simmons is their first priority. Letting Winslow hound the rookie seems to be Miami’s best option. Winslow has guarded Simmons for 31 possessions so far this series, and Simmons is shooting 33.3% with Winslow as his primary defender. The key there is Winslow applied more consistent pressure to Simmons as he was handling the ball in Game 2. The Heat’s “bait him” approach in Game 1 by sagging off consistently proved to be too risky, while playing in Simmons’s airspace seemed to limit—even if only a tiny bit—the windows he had to find his shooters.
Essentially, after the first two games of this series, it would be easy, and probably right, to assume neither team would replicate that exact winning performance. What’s fun about Heat-Sixers is that it’s immediately become a series of matchups and adjustments. How will the Sixers combat the constant pressure on Simmons? How will the Heat find easy offense without Wade hitting contested fadeaways? Miami and Philly will likely keep evolving all the way through the final buzzer.