Heat: 58-24 (No. 2 seed)
76ers: 41-41 (No. 7 seed)
Miami swept the season series, winning all three contests by an average of just over 10 points per game. If there’s a bright side for the Sixers, it’s that two of the three meetings came very early in the season, before the team really started to jell and show improvement under Doug Collins.
Heat: Udonis Haslem is unlikely to be ready for the start of the playoffs, as he’s still recovering from a torn ligament in his left foot that he suffered back in November. He’s been seen on the court getting some practice work in, but Miami isn’t in any hurry to rush him back.
Mike Miller has been playing through a sprained thumb, which he aggravated in Monday’s win over the Hawks. He sprained his ankle in the second half of that one as well, but should be ready for Game 1.
76ers: Lou Williams missed the team’s last five regular season games with a hamstring injury, but the good news is that he did go through practice on Tuesday and should be ready to go on Saturday.
Andre Iguodala was held out of the team’s last two regular season games to give his right knee tendinitis a chance to calm down, but he is also expected back for Game 1.
OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per possession)
Heat: Offense: 109.3 (3rd), Defense: 100.8 (5th)
76ers: Offense: 104.1 (17th), Defense: 102.5 (10th)
THREE KEY HEAT:
LeBron James: The two-time defending league MVP won’t get a third this year, but that’s more due to a lack of interest from the voters than his own production. James has been as good as ever this season, learning to work alongside another legitimate superstar while still producing at an average of almost 27 points per game, along with over seven rebounds and seven assists.
Dwyane Wade: In a manner similar to James, Wade has done just fine adjusting to the presence of another ball-dominant superstar. While his assists are down almost two per game thanks to James initiating his fair share of possessions, Wade has increased his rebounding by almost that same margin. And, he’s been able to increase his activity on the defensive end of the floor, which has led to Miami emerging as the league’s most dangerous team in transition when Wade and James are leading the break.
Mike Bibby: Sure, Chris Bosh is the third name that automatically comes to mind when discussing this Miami Heat team. But the Sixers rely heavily on the guard spot to provide scoring and to initiate things for others, and are deep at the position with Jrue Holiday and Williams. Bibby’s more-than-questionable defense will be put to the test in Round 1 of the playoffs.
THREE KEY SIXERS:
Andre Iguodala: The Sixers need Iguodala to gain some semblance of the star performer we saw glimpses of last season. Doug Collins has done an excellent job molding the Sixers into a cohesive unit, but they need a star-level performance out of someone to have a chance against this loaded Heat team, and Iguodala can be that guy.
Elton Brand: The team’s leading scorer and rebounder, Brand must exert himself and impact the game down low for the Sixers. Miami plays excellent team defense, but if Brand can score regularly when he gets his chances, that will help immensely in opening things up for the talented Philadelphia guards.
Lou Williams: The health of Williams can’t be overstated in terms of the Sixers’ chances in this series. He provides consistent and steady scoring off the bench at the guard spot in relatively limited minutes, and is vital to the offensive success of a team that at times has trouble putting up points.
The Heat have been the season’s biggest ongoing storyline, and that isn’t likely to change once the postseason begins. The Big Three of Wade, James, and Bosh accounted for a combined average of 70.9 points per game, and they’re going to need to continue that level of production — as well as get their teammates to step it up a notch — if their success is to continue in the playoffs.
That’s the challenge for the Sixers, and it appears to be a monumental one. Philadelphia can defend, and will likely be able to keep Miami in check on the offensive end of the floor. But scoring will be an issue for them, and they’ll need huge, sustained performances from Elton Brand, Spencer Hawes, and Thaddeus Young inside to get easy baskets down low when the Heat extend their defense on the perimeter. They’ll also need Williams and Iguodala to play through their recent injuries to 100 percent of their capabilities if the Sixers are to steal a game or two in this series, but we won’t know if that’s possible until we get a glimpse of the team in the first game of the series.
Unfortunately for the Sixers, this is close to a perfect matchup for the untested Heat as they open the postseason. Not a ton of size inside, and perimeter players that are more than solid, but who are no match for the likes of James and Wade.
The bottom line is that Philadelphia finished the season as just a .500 team in the watered-down Eastern Conference, and it will show in this series. Doug Collins may be able to squeeze one win out of his team, but probably nothing more than that. It might be a sweep, but Miami may slip up in one of the games, simply due to a letdown of intensity once the team realizes how much of a foregone conclusion this series actually is.
Heat in five.