Mateo’s Hoops Diary: Heat vs. Sixers, Contenders vs. Pretenders

The public was expecting a fierce second round matchup between Miami and Philadelphia, but 76ers coach Doc Rivers royally screwed his club this time.  


Joel Embiid’s orbital bone was fractured after taking a cheap elbow on a rip through by Pascal Siakam late in the fourth quarter Thursday in Toronto. Peculiarly, Embiid was still on the floor with less than five minutes left while his club was up 29 points when he took the smack.  A Raptors comeback wasn’t probable, but I imagine Rivers kept his crew on the floor from all the PTSD he’s felt being reminded of his historical blown leads.  


What’s up with that, Doc?  Embiid was already powering through a torn ligament in his thumb on his shooting hand and playing through pain.


Philly was hellbent to start its opening round with Toronto and climbed to a 3-0 advantage following Embiid’s bullseye from the left wing to call game.  Yet, the Raptors extended the tango to six outings and revealed cracks in Philadelphia’s armor before succumbing to a second half scoring run of 70-36.


While Miami was resting and waiting for their next rival, Rivers was candid after he felt some pressure amid a scrum of reporters at practice.  On the topic of his chronicled failures, he characteristically threw some of his players under the bus, but this time it was those he shared a locker room with 19 years ago (2003).  


“My Orlando team was the eighth seed,” Rivers said.  “No one gives me credit for getting up against the Pistons who won the title… That was an eighth seed.  I want you to go back and look at that roster.  I dare you to go back and look at that roster and you would say what a hell of a coaching job.”


Aside from Rivers’ memory lapse (Pistons won the title the following season in 2004), his description of his Orlando team sounded a whole lot like “I had a bunch of scrubs under my wing.” It’s underhanded enough to demean former players after so much time away from them, but Rivers gassing himself up in the process like he’s some sort of basketball savant who minimizes his part in three straight losses is dishonorable.


Philly’s next matchup, Miami, took out Atlanta in five, in a closeout game without two starters.  Defensively, the Hawks were not as formidable as the Raptors, but the Heatles contained the league’s second rated offense, holding their leading scorer (Trae Young) to 13 points less than his average and dropping his shooting efficiency 14% from the field.


Miami is capable of guarding the perimeter with length, versatile enough to switch defenders when a man is beat and quick to help on cuts or traps. Defending James Harden will not be the responsibility of one man for the Heat, but they have enough scoring options to sic Jimmy Butler on him for a large chunk of minutes without having to rely on having fresh legs for the other end.   


Harden is having a rough postseason scoring from the field.  He’s dropping an unimpressive 19 points a night on a 40% shooting in part because his explosive first step is gone.  It could be his age, mileage, or that he’s not as slim as he used to be.  Maybe it’s all three factors but in Round 1, the Raptors guarded Harden by sending help on cuts from a man sagging off the perimeter or picking him up outside with a longer player and baiting him into deep shots.


Without Embiid on the floor, the Heat will have more opportunities to send doubles and ice the Beard.  With #21’s absence, Philly loses one of their best screeners who demands immediate attention on the roll and their best backline defender.  


The Heat finished the regular season with the best paint protection in the league and are second in that category in the playoffs behind Milwaukee, only allowing 34.8 points in the paint, forcing their matchup to attack mostly from the perimeter. If Harden is pressured into taking most of his field goal attempts from outside the square, Philly won’t win a game this series. 


The Heat’s coach Erik Spoelstra said after the Game 4 win in Atlanta that there isn’t a nine-man rotation, rather a “playoff rotation” with everyone on his mind.  In the closeout match on Tuesday in Miami, Victor Oladipo was inserted for Butler (right knee inflammation) and Gabe Vincent started his second straight night in place of Kyle Lowry (hamstring). 


‘Dipo looked like himself before his quad injury- an All-Star – dusting the opposition on the fastbreak and bursting into the interior in the half court.  Vincent was effective bothering Young, taking time off the clock through full court press.  Next round I expect to see the same coverage harassing Harden + sending blitzes his way on the perimeter.


Philadelphia is a talented team on paper when healthy but they need to build from the smackdown they laid on Toronto in the second half Thursday and take better care of the ball than they did in Games 4 & 5, somehow without their best player.  But I don’t find it likely.  The entire season Miami struck me as a contender and Philadelphia as a pretender even after they bartered for what’s left of the Beard.  


A quick prediction before the series:  Heat in Five.




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