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Preview Possessions: HEAT-76ers

This is an easy series to write off. Not in the sense that it’s a No. 2 seed versus a No. 7, but that it’s a very simple matter of labeling the teams polar opposites of one another, to spin the familiar tale of the plucky group of overachievers taking on the heralded talent that just achieves.

When expectations play out and the forum moves on to more glamorous affairs, these first-round projections aren’t given a second thought. Which is fine. Percentages tend to work that way. But this series between the Miami HEAT and the Philadelphia 76ers is a learning opportunity for all onlookers, for the games to take place between Erik Spoelstra and Doug Collins, yes, but primarily because these teams have more in common than is gleaned from that initial glance.

And how the HEAT treat that situation could speak, if not volumes, a few chapters on how their postseason future may play out.

First, the basics via StatsCube:

By the numbers, these teams are only vaguely similar. The HEAT play slightly slower, are far more efficient offensively, have a significant edge on defense, turn the ball over a little more with an incomparable free-throw made per field goal rate.

The 76ers, however, are a far more volatile defensive team, give up six fewer points per 100 possessions in wins, and six more in losses, whereas the HEAT are only three points better defensively than their season average in wins – a true sign of consistency.

If you are a believer in momentum headed into the playoffs, then the HEAT are your team, 12-3 over the last 15 games while scoring nearly 112 points per 100 possessions. The 76ers, meanwhile are just 7-8 with an average, for them, offensive rating of 104.05.

Yet each team over that stretch is giving up an almost identical 102.44 and 102.47 pace-adjusted scoring totals per game, illustrating how Miami’s scoring ability can carry it, particularly against some of the average teams they had been facing lately, while Philadelphia needs more than average to put together a winning streak.

That’s where the danger lies, because the 76ers will be striving for relative perfection throughout this series while the HEAT don’t necessarily have to do anything out of the ordinary to secure four out of seven games. And that knowledge, whether its effect is felt in the first round or the conference finals, can be a tiny hole in the bottom of the boat, slowly letting on water as the team comfortably sails along.

And we haven’t even gotten to the similarities yet, which are that both the HEAT and the 76ers, each with a stable of athletes, talented scorers and transition ability, are simultaneously susceptible to bouts with discipline and capable of absolute offensive brilliance.

The HEAT just happen to have the far greater margin for error.

Half-Court Offense

There are going to be some special moments in transition in this series, for either side. The 76ers rank third in the league with 17.6 fast-break points per game, and previously punished the HEAT for their mistakes on March 25, taking a seven-point first-quarter league as they forced Miami into 13 first-half turnovers.

We know the HEAT can run and why. No further discussion is needed there. And the point about not being able to rely on those transition points in the playoffs has been made ad nauseam. You can steal a game with a timely, turnover-spurned run, but a series is won in the half-court, and both Miami and Philadelphia suffer greatly when they don’t execute.

In that March meeting – the only of the three games we can put much stock in given how much Miami changed over the course of the year – Miami’s intentions early in the first quarter were clear: get LeBron James and Dwyane Wade mismatches in the post. For James, defended by Andre Iguodala, this involved Mike Bibby setting back-screens for him in order to force a switch and get James position on Jrue Holiday down low. For Wade, this was a simple matter of getting him the switch on Holiday, or simply posting up his designated defender: Jodie Meeks.

Each time Wade touched the ball in the post in those early minutes, the HEAT wound up with an assisted shot at the rim. As the turnover total rapidly increased, Miami went away from this plan, but it also possible Spoelstra only wanted a quick look at those post possessions, not wanting to overplay his hand with the playoffs looming.

In more general terms, the 76ers, able to create turnovers with their length, are fundamentally sound defensively, but have weaknesses in the middle that Miami can exploit.

For all their athletes, Philadelphia does not have an elite shotblocker to safety net their aggressive play in the passing lanes, so they rely heavily on quick weakside rotations from their big men to clog up the middle. These rotations are inconsistent, particularly on straight-line drives from the wing, but Miami won’t be strolling down a red carpet all game, either. The weakness is in the secondary rotations, when either the second big man or a guard is meant to shade down and disrupt interior passing lanes once the initial drive has been thwarted.

Which means that off-ball movement, flashing to the area between the restricted circle and the free-throw line, could be disruptive, as it was in this possession, where Bosh simply made himself available and the 76ers left him by himself:

Of course the question, as it has been all season, is of Miami’s dedication to this type of movement. The HEAT could, in theory, earn the requisite four wins to take the series with only fleeting moments of crisp execution. They will not, however, be afforded that luxury in future rounds.

Philadelphia, lacking the offensive horses, does not have that luxury now. Where the HEAT must execute to get the most out of their talent, the 76ers, with talented offensive players that are nonetheless incapable of sustaining success with unsustainable, isolated off-the-dribble offense, must execute to win.

Which is why Miami’s defense will decide the series.

Getting Stops

Collins can put together brilliant schemes, triggering offensive action from both wings and the high post. The last thing he, and the 76ers, want is to rely on is stagnant, perimeter offense. So when Philadelphia is able to make a small run off turnovers and compile a few timely bailout shots along the way, they can control a game with deceptively simple sets that force a defense to be aware of every sector of the floor.

When they aren’t, a player like Spencer Hawes is able to get a shot like this:

But when the defense is both aware and quick on its feet, Hawes is forced into this:

Far beyond the abilities of Wade, James and Chris Bosh to get shot opportunities for themselves, Miami’s defense was the single greatest force in the previous meeting between these teams. Even after a 21-2 second-quarter Miami run, the HEAT had played from behind all evening. But then, down seven in the fourth quarter, the shackles came out and the 76ers were overwhelmed with possessions like this:

And this, perhaps the ultimate example of Miami's defensive capabilities:

The result was a 17-3 HEAT run and an eventual 12-point victory. Philadelphia did not have the answers.

The Big Picture

Miami’s advantages in this series are clear, and while the message of not taking Philadelphia lightly should be made often and with sincerity, mere wins should not suffice. Challenges will only grow exponentially should the HEAT advance, and with Miami about to begin forging its playoff identity, this series offers the opportunity to build habits of consistency. After all, that’s Spoelstra’s recipe for greatness, and only greatness will carry Miami to its desired destination.