The Heat left Miami looking like they’d make very work of the shorthanded Sixers. After two games in Philly – with Joel Embiid back in the lineup – the Heat return home hoping to simply hold serve on Tuesday night (7:30pm Eastern; 12:30am UK) in what is now best-of-three series.
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Less than a week ago, the Sixers looked dead in the water. They were halfway toward an unceremonious sweep at the hands of the Heat, with MVP candidate, center Joel Embiid (who already had a torn ligament in his right thumb) sidelined with an orbital fracture, second superstar James Harden not just off his game, but looking like a player in decline, and their best young player, Tyrese Maxey, mired in a slump that dated back to Game 3 of their opening round series against the Toronto Raptors.
What a difference a week makes, huh?
The series’ shift back to Philly also brought the return of Embiid to the lineup. Though he wasn’t his usual self (18 points on 5-of-12 shooting, and 11 rebounds) in Game 3, the his mere presence at both ends made all the difference.
Offensively, the attention he demanded freed up Maxey and Danny Green to rain jumpers from the outside. Each scored 21 points, on a combined 20 field goal attempts (and 12-of-16on 3-pointers). As great as that duo was, with Harden and Tobias Harris struggling (a combined 35 points, on 9-of-21 shooting, with 11 turnovers) and no one else providing more than four points, it on defense where the Sixers had to win the game.
Though Jimmy Butler had an efficient 33 for the Heat, only Tyler Herro joined him in scoring in double figures – and he only chipped in 14, on 5-of-15 shooting, in 27 minutes – as the Heat were run off the floor in the fourth quarter, scoring just 14 points (to Philly’s 31) in a 20-point loss.
It was a similar, if less extreme story in Game 4. Butler was still outstanding, scoring 40 on just 20 shots. This time he was joined by Bam Adebayo, who made nine of twelve shots en route to 21, while Herro and Victor Oladipo and hero chipped in 26 off the bench – though not efficiently, as they missed 14 of 21 shots between them.
It wasn’t enough. as the Sixers got a vintage(ish) performance from Harden (31 points on 18 shots, and 6-of-10 on 3-pointers), more from Embiid (24 on 13 shots, plus 11 rebounds), an ultra-efficient 18 from Maxey and an efficient 34 from Harris, Green and Georges Niang off the bench.
In a matter of a couple of days, the Sixers went from the doldrums to a team with palpable momentum who, though still facing an ultra-talented opponent, has that opponent searching for answers.
The Heat have the talent to cruise through this series, but inconsistency from Bam and Herro, combined with the disappearance of the supporting cast has placed massive weight on Butler’s shoulders. And, as we’ve seen in the past two games, with Embiid in the mix, superstar-level performances from Butler alone are not enough.
The biggest culprit here is point guard Kyle Lowry, who, after missing Games 1 and 2 with an injured hamstring, returned in Philly, but was truly awful, making just three of fourteen shots for six points across the two games. Now, hamstring injuries are notoriously tricky, and easily re-aggravated by premature returns to action. Thus, Lowry is owed considerable understanding for his effort and toughness. Whatever the particulars of his situation, however, the simple fact is that the Heat need more from him. The hope is that a couple of days off will have done his hamstring some good.
Miami will also be counting on the age-old playoff phenomenon of role players performing better at home than they do on the road (and, conversely, the Sixers’ role players dropping off). Of particular interest here will be Herro, Oladipo and Max Strus.
In addition to trying to thread these two needles, the Heat must recapture the defensive intensity that allowed them to largely shackle the Sixers (admittedly, without Embiid on the floor) the first two outings of the series.
You do have to like the Heat’s chances to grind out a win on Tuesday night. Equally important, however, will be putting forth a comprehensive performance that restores confidence in this team’s ability to make a legitimate title run.
76ers predicted starting lineup: Tyrese Maxey, James Harden, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid
Notable injuries: Joel Embiid (orbital fracture, thumb ligament; will play)
Heat predicted starting lineup: Kyle Lowry, Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo
Notable injuries: Kyle Lowry (hamstring; will play)
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Prediction: UNDER 209.5 combined points, but with Miami’s Victor Oladipo scoring at least 16 points.
In terms of result, the likeliest outcome on Tuesday night is a Miami win. However, with Embiid back, covering the 3.5-point spread is not a given. More likely given the Sixers’ strong defensive showings in Philly, as well as what’s sure to be a massive effort by the Heat to recapture their own defensive dominance is a fairly tight, low-scoring affair.
Also, as mentioned above, if the Heat are going to hold serve at home, someone other than Jimmy Butler is going to have to step up with a big performance. All eyes will be on Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro. Another interesting candidate is former All Star and All-NBA performer Victor Oladipo, who’ll be coming off the bench, looking to rediscover his stroke back at home.