Series preview: Can Heat’s defense, depth slow down Embiid, Sixers?

The matchup inside between Joel Embiid and Bam Adebayo will loom large in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

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After a quirky regular season dealing with a degree of distraction, followed by some first-round suspense — in other words, the complete opposite of Miami’s journey — the Sixers return to the Eastern Conference semifinals, the site of where it all went wrong for them last season. Can they rewrite the script to their favor this time?

At least they’re bringing some feel-goodness into this series. They enjoyed a breezy closeout of the Raptors when, after a brief scare, all seemed right in their world. And when the Sixers play up to their potential like that, they’re a very real title contender.

So what does that look like? Joel Embiid goes full bully-ball and makes constant trips to the free throw line, Tyrese Maxey plays carefree with full confidence, James Harden makes plays with shots and passing, Tobias Harris stands out and everyone else falls into place.

The Heat secured best record and home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs, then brushed aside the Hawks in the first round without much trouble, even with Kyle Lowry missing two games and Jimmy Butler one with injuries. Miami’s defense was especially cranky, shutting down Trae Young, one of the standouts of last year’s postseason. The Heat’s rotations, quickness and toughness are major reasons for defensive success. Meanwhile, Butler and Tyler Herro are capable of big scoring outbursts.

3 Things to Watch

1. Joel Embiid vs. Bam Adebayo. This is really where the series could turn. Embiid has been dominant in the postseason so far, doing it all in the first round against the Raptors; meanwhile, Adebayo is a solid all-around defender even when giving up a few inches and heft to someone such as Embiid. Miami had all the answers for Trae Young, and now, a different and perhaps stiffer force awaits. Embiid and Adebayo only played against each other once this season, and Embiid shot 4-for-15 (but free throws helped account for 22 points). Even with Adebayo, Miami will trap and double Embiid, but not as often as other teams.

Joel Embiid discusses the 76ers’ 1st-round series victory and looks ahead to the East semis.

2. Another series and another testimonial on James Harden awaits. Sorry, but that’s the deal when the Sixers make a major midseason trade with the sole purpose of winning a title now, especially in a year where Embiid is healthy and frisky — and when Harden seems a level below the great stretch he enjoyed in Houston and certainly less efficient. Harden can erase much if not all of the doubt with a tornado of a performance against Miami, or confirm suspicions if he flames out. You can best believe Butler, who’ll see most of the Harden assignment, will use his tenacity to prove the latter.

3. Unlike the Sixers, Miami has enough depth to withstand someone going cold or a rotational player getting injured. That’s why the Heat haven’t suffered enormous setbacks when Duncan Robinson, for example, underachieved this season and struggled so far (just 2-for-10 on 3-point shooting the last four games) in the first round. They just call on Max Strus and Victor Oladipo. Next man up is a motto in Miami.

Number to Know

12.5 — Jimmy Butler (who missed Game 5 against Atlanta) averaged 12.5 points in the restricted area in the first round. That’s the second most restricted-area points per game in the postseason (trailing only the 15.6 per game from Giannis Antetokounmpo) and up from the 7.2 Butler averaged in the regular season. In averaging 30.5 points per game (third in the playoffs) against Atlanta, Butler also scored 6.8 per contest at the free throw line.

Butler getting to the rim and the line is critical, because he’s been a relatively poor shooter from the outside. He was 7-for-16 (44%) from 3-point range in the first round, but just 5-for-18 (28%) from mid-range. And in the regular season, he had the third worst effective field goal percentage (36.9%) on shots from outside the paint among 217 players with at least 200 field goal attempts from the outside.

Butler averaged just 5.3 restricted-area points in three games against the Sixers this season, and he shot just 7-for-31 (23%) from outside the restricted area. But his free throw rate (29 free throw attempts / 41 field goal attempts) was the highest among 95 players with at least 25 field goal attempts against Philly. He also had a series-high 20 assists (with just six turnovers) in the three games he played.

—John Schuhman

Jimmy Butler’s competitiveness is fueling Miami’s playoff success.

The pick

Probably the safest bet is that Joel Embiid should and probably will be epic even with an injured thumb. He’ll get the calls and cause problems for Miami in the paint and be terrific defensively, as he has all season. He’s the best player on the floor, by a sizable margin. But Miami is bringing a bunch that’s more consistent than Embiid’s teammates. And that endurance will rescue the Heat in what’s likely a long series, mainly because of Embiid’s greatness. Heat in 7.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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