Playoff Preview: Sixers vs. Heat

By MIKE CUSTER
Staff Writer — mcuster@highhopesblog.com
_______

The Sixers have their work cut out for them as they head into Miami Saturday night.

“Outside of myself, if I was a fan and saw Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and LeBron James, I would take that team too, but at the end of the day we are all professionals.  The playoffs are a brand new season and an opportunity for all 16 teams to go for a championship, and everybody has the same shot.” – Lou Williams

Really, no 76er, TV analyst, fan, or even High Hopes staff writer like myself could say it better than that.  The slate is clean, and all 16 teams enter the weekend with a freshly minted 0-0 record.

A few weeks ago, when the Sixers won the 6th seed and were slated to face the then-3rd seeded Heat, I welcomed the idea of playing Miami over the playoff-veteran Celtics or Dwight Howard’s Magic.  Since then, the Heat have strung together their most impressive basketball of the season, snagging the 2 seed along the way.

The Sixers trotted to the finish; unable to keep up the winning pace they set after the all-star break, and fell to 7th amongst a 1-5 finish.  Now, with LeBron, Wade, and Bosh in kill mode, and the Sixers fighting off injuries and their recent slide, the deck is stacked against the Sixers even more so than it was then.  But there are still games to be played, and this is a Sixers team that, despite losing all 3 games they played against Miami this year, has beaten the title-contending San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, and Chicago Bulls (twice).  They may be overmatched, but they are not to be counted out.  Like Lou, we’re all professionals here, and it’s our job to take an objective look at the upcoming showdown between the Miami Heat and our Philadelphia 76ers.  Let’s get started:

LeBron James vs. Andre Igoudala

Season series stats:

James: 21.3 ppg, 5 apg, 8 rpg, 48%

Iguodala: 13.3 ppg, 4.7 apg, 6.3 rpg, 47%

Igoudala, one of – if not the – best on-ball perimeter defenders in the league right now, draws the unenviable task of matching up with ever-talented James.  His numbers may slide slightly below his season averages against Miami, but a lot of that can be attributed to the fact he’s hounding James on defense.  Hopefully, the week-long rest Iggy gave his right knee will give him the strength and wind to keep up with LeBron.

As usual, the 76ers will look to Iguodala on offense in big spots.  He’s been there before and delivered, like when he iced Orlando in game 1 of their ’09 playoff matchup with a step back jumper on their home floor with 2.2 on the clock.  However, his real impact will come if he is able to throw James off his game.

LeBron, coming off career a career year in shooting % (51%), has adjusted his talents to South Beach quite well throughout a tumultuous first season as a member of the Heat.   If he is given the room to operate freely, he will cut the Sixers’ defense to ribbons.  Iggy’s best bet is to do all he can to keep LeBron out of the lane and force James to fall in love with his (at times shaky) jumper.  If LeBron’s able to rain down from deep, so be it, but if he’s dunking and dishing off drives in the paint, Miami might be getting out the broom.

Advantage: Heat

Dwyane Wade vs. Jodie Meeks

Season series stats:

Wade: 30.6 ppg, 6.7 apg, 8 rpg, 52%

Meeks (one start): 14 ppg, 0 apg, 1 rpg, 38%, 43% 3-pt%

Dwyane Wade has had his way with Philly this year, plain and simple.  This was especially evident in the last Sixers-Heat matchup on March 25, when he dropped 39 points, 3 dimes, and ripped 11 boards while mostly covered by Meeks.  Asked about the series, Meeks said; “We have nothing to lose, and we’re going in there and try to have fun.”

Hey, if Jodie can find the fun in getting lit up by Wade over the course of a series, more power to him.  But in all seriousness, it is true that the team is playing with house money here, Meeks especially.  Fans and the team alike can’t expect Meeks to keep Wade from getting his.  Jodie can dampen the blows he’ll take on the defensive end, though, if he rediscovers the shooting stroke that has eluded him recently.  The team’s leader from 3-pt territory, Meeks shot a poor 19% from deep in April.

The good news: Meeks delivers when rested.  For the season, he shot a scorching 53% from beyond after 3+ days rest, and a respectable 42% after 1 days rest (in the playoffs, there are no back-to-backs).  Unlike Iguodala on LeBron, Meeks will have to depend heavily on help defense on Wade’s drives to the basket.  Covering Dwyane, who absorbs contact and contorts his body on finishes at the rim better than anybody, will take big assists from big men Elton Brand and Spencer Hawes, as well as the other possible perimeter defenders Collins will throw at him when he’s hot.

Advantage: Heat

Chris Bosh vs. Elton Brand

Season series stats:

Bosh: 17.7 ppg, 1.7 apg, 8.7 rpg, 53%

Brand: 10.7 ppg, 1.3 apg, 8.3 rpg, 41%

In my opinion, this is the most intriguing matchup beyond Iggy vs. Bron.  Bosh, the Heatle with the least playoff experience (11 games, none out of the first round) has really stepped up his game since demanding a larger role in the Miami offense (including a 20/10 against the Sixers on March 25).  However, as talented a player he is, he is not a physical force on the blocks the likes of Garnett or Howard.

With the intensity cranked to 11 on every possession, Brand can use his wingspan and considerable size advantage to pester Bosh over the stretch of the series.  If EB can take one of their big 3 out of the equation, it will leave Miami’s subpar role players scrambling to make up the ground.  But, even if Bosh is a distant #3 to top-dogs James and Wade, he’s still an All-Star talent – simply taking him out of the equation is much easier said than done.

With that in mind, Brand is still a grizzled vet with a nose for the ball on the defensive end, who also isn’t afraid to throw around a flagrant foul to protect the paint or send a message.  Philly will also look to Brand, the team’s leading scorer, more often on offense, as the playoff games are played more out of half-court offensive sets rather than an up-and-down pace.  While his numbers against the Heat are fairly average this year, he has proven his worth with consistent production throughout the season.   Going by season averages, the matchup is pretty even, but Bosh has outplayed Brand head-to-head thus far.

Advantage: Heat

Mike Bibby vs. Jrue Holiday

Season series stats:

Bibby (one game): 3 ppg, 6 apg, 3 rpg, 25%

Holiday: 9.3 ppg, 5 apg, 3.3 rpg, 35%

Bibby was brought to Miami for leadership and to hit spot-up 3s, especially in big moments.  While his percentage from 3 has been pretty good in Miami (46%), he averages less than 2 triples per game since joining the Heat.  His nonexistent defense hinders Miami on the other end, and without the ball in his hands, he’s relegated to spending most offensive possessions watching someone else run the show, standing pat in case they kick the ball to him for a jumper.

Holiday, on the other hand, is a big reason the Sixers made it to the playoffs this year.  Along with Iguodala, he helped make the Sixers the only team with 2 players in the top 20 in assists per game.  Not to mention his improved shooting range and ball handling.  When Holiday’s driving, which he’ll be able to do with ease whether it’s Bibby or backup Mario Chalmers trying to contain him; he opens up the offense for himself and the team.  Jrue’s improved play has drawn praise from around the league all year – even with a few mentions in MIP talk.  He’ll have to watch his turnovers, though.  His penchant for a careless pass here and there will absolutely lead to a strong fast break finish from James or Wade.  That being said, Holiday has the offensive repertoire to eat up Miami’s point guards.

Advantage: Sixers

Miami’s Centers vs. Spencer Hawes

Season series stats:

Anthony/Z/Dampier (combined averages as starters): 2.7 ppg, .3 apg, 4.3 rpg, 44%

Hawes: 6 ppg, 1 apg, 5.3 rpg, 36%

Miami has thrown out a different starting center each time the teams played, so it remains to be seen who will start game one (although it’s likely between the athletic Anthony and experienced Z at this point; Dampier has fallen out of the rotation).

Hawes put up his best numbers vs. Miami (13 and 5) in their most recent matchup, but has been pretty pedestrian against Miami this season.  However, he has improved on both ends over the course of the season.  Surely not the most intriguing matchup of the series, Hawes will be best served to stay sharp on defensive rotations and not allow James or Wade free looks from close.

He’ll really hurt the team if he doesn’t keep Miami’s big men off the offensive boards as well.  On offense, he’ll need to use his above-average passing skills and jump shot to keep Miami’s front line honest.  Although the overall impact of this battle may be minimal, Hawes gets the edge here.

Advantage: Sixers

Miami’s bench vs. Philly’s bench

Season series stats:

Young- 13.6 ppg, 2 apg, 5.7 rpg, 64%

Williams- 14.3 ppg, 5 apg, .3 rpg, 52%, 50% 3-pt%

Why no Miami bench numbers?  Trust me, there’s nothing to note beyond James Jones’ 20 point outburst in the first matchup.  If we take that performance off the table, the Miami bench has scored a whopping 40 points total against the Sixers this season.  Philly, of course, has the best bench in the league.

Miami’s reserves will definitely see even less time than they did during the season, while Collins will look to super-subs Thad Young and Lou Williams to spark the offense off the bench.  Hopefully, Lou’s hamstring has healed (he participated in practice this week and is expected to be ready to go), and he’ll be able to restore confidence to the team.

As Collins said recently; “I don’t think people realize – I do and our team does – Lou is our personality.  He’s our voice. He gets us into the huddles; he gets us out of the huddles. He gets the guys before the game and after the game. We missed his voice, his energy, and his personality.”  Our best 1-on-1 player, Lou also put up the best individual offensive performance against Miami this year; a 24-point burst on 9 of 12 shooting.  Lou is the team’s second-best 3-pt shooter, and his range is seemingly unlimited when he’s on.

Thad’s game has made huge strides this year as he’s really thrived under Collins, finding his place on the court and performing at a high level all year.  He has one of the best left-hands in the game right now, and he’s been nothing short of relentless in bringing energy to the floor every time he sets foot on the court.  Cut and dry: advantage goes to Philly here.

Advantage: Sixers

For those keeping score, that locks it at 3-3.  But, Miami’s trio is known as a “Big 3” for a reason; Spencer Hawes outplaying Joell Anthony doesn’t equate to LeBron, Wade, and Bosh outplaying Philly’s starting five.  To stand a chance, the Sixers have to do what they can to force the ball into the hands of Mike Miller, Eddie House, Mario Chalmers, or any of the other less-than-impressive role-players on the Heat roster.

Even if Bosh, Wade, and James average 25 points apiece over the series, the Sixers will be in good shape if they can minimize the damage from the supporting cast.  If there is any X Factor big enough to sway the series, it has to be the pressure on the Heat.  Yes, they are playing phenomenal basketball right now, evidenced by getting over a Celtics-sized hump to convincingly clinch the 2 seed.

But, with the intense media scrutiny of Miami’s play sure to ratchet up to the next level over the course of the playoffs (get ready for vignettes of “The Decision,” the pre-season pep rally, the late-game misses, “bump gate,” “cry gate,” and all other associated -gates to be played ad nauseum), one crack could cause the untested Heat to stumble, and possibly even crumble before our eyes.  They have the talent to win it all, undoubtedly, but they might also catch a bad burn from the intense spotlight shining down on them when something goes awry.  Still, that’s far too many ifs, mights, and maybes to put money on the 76ers.

My heart’s with the Sixers, but my head is with the Heat.  Come Saturday, we’ll see if the Heat can live up to the bar they set last July, or if the young 76ers are ready to shock the basketball world.

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