James Harden didn’t play against the Miami HEAT in a Philadelphia 76ers uniform this season. Joel Embiid is out for Games 1 and 2 with a right orbital fracture, and it’s unknown whether he’ll be able to play in this series.
Those are the two most important things to know going in, elementary as it sounds. While injuries may leave the status of significant players in flux, the HEAT were never going to face a 76ers team that they have played before. Philadelphia only played a healthy HEAT team once this season, for that matter, but Miami didn’t acquire a former MVP at the trade deadline. They’re much more of a known quantity.
Philadelphia hasn’t just been good when Harden and Embiid were together, they were on an entirely different statistical level of dominance. Over 21 games, 603 minutes and 1,214 possessions, the 76ers posted an Offensive Rating of 124.1 and Defensive Rating of 108.4 when their two stars were on the court, good for a Net Rating of +15.8 per 100 possessions. For context, the 73-9 Golden State Warriors were a +10.6 per 100 in 2015-16. Granted, 21 games isn’t a full season and there were some lighter opponents mixed into that stretch, but great is great and those numbers for the two-man grouping translated nearly decimal for decimal to their first-round series against the Toronto Raptors.
At the very least, all indicators were that Miami was preparing for a team with a legitimate shot at winning the title. On a competitive level, they were looking forward to it.
“We want Joel to play,” Jimmy Butler said. “We want to go up against them at full strength and prove that we can hang with anybody and can beat anybody.”
For now, the 76ers won’t be full strength. They should, in theory, play very differently. With their star center playing, they’re an elite defense that keeps teams away from the rim and working in the mid-range. Without him – or Andre Drummond, sent to Brooklyn in the Harden trade – they’re well below average (allowing 117.8 points per 100). The offense holds up because Harden is an offense unto his own. Harden’s usage with Embiid on the floor was merely 21.1 percent, hardly star-level as Harden often played a true point-guard, playmaking role. When Embiid sat, that usage rate spiked to 36 percent – exactly how often he controlled the ball during his MVP, 65-win 2017-18 season with Houston.
Can we think of this iteration of Philadelphia as something close to Harden’s run with Houston? While tempting, it’s probably not a fair comparison. The 76ers, like Miami’s first-round opponent, isn’t lacking in shooters. But also like Atlanta, they aren’t quite replete with defensive-minded shooters who can hold up on a switch. There are some options in that vein, but not to the degree of a Rockets team that was designed from the ground up to switch absolutely everything – having P.J. Tucker helped there – while surrounding Harden with space. Those Rockets also had a guy who just helped lead the Phoenix Suns to the No. 1 overall seed in Chris Paul. Pretty good, that guy.
Still, they may have to try and play that way. The guess would be that either DeAndre Jordan or Paul Reed starts at center – Reed got all the backup minute in the Toronto series – and tries to fill the Clint Capela role diving to the rim. Paul Millsap is an option, too, but he hasn’t been in the rotation. The defense held up reasonably well when rookie Charles Bassey played, but he only played 168 minutes all year. 76ers coach Doc Rivers was extremely frugal with running Tobias Harris at center – who could theoretically unlock a switch-heavy lineup – using it for just 132 possessions with that look allowing 124.8 points per 100 possessions. In Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia does have defensive-minded wings who could be asked to switch.
As far as the numbers go, there aren’t a ton of great defensive options. Philadelphia was one of the slowest teams in the league playing through Embiid’s post-ups and isolations. Maybe Rivers, and all we can do is make educated stabs in the dark here, opts to play small, turn the speed dial and make it an offensive race. Miami has the defenders to play at any pace, but their offense – granted this is more of a half-court issue – can get stuck in a rut for four or five minute stretches.
The one player that Houston didn’t really have was someone like Tyrese Maxey. Well, they did have Eric Gordon who would occasionally catch-and-go off a Harden pass like he was shot out of a cannon, but Maxey has taken that skillset and, along with a vastly-improved jumper, made it his identity. It’s one thing to surround an offensive engine with shooters like Atlanta did with Trae Young. It’s another to have a player who can both shoot at a high level and attack the creases of a defense loaded up on Harden before that defense can recover its shape. A Maxey drive was already a highly-valuable proposition, producing 1.09 points-per-drive. When Harden is on the floor, a Maxey drive is worth and absurd 1.36 points-per-drive. Philadelphia has a portal to the paint in ways Atlanta never had.
Without Embiid’s gravity pulling defenders into the paint or wherever else he happens to be standing, is Miami going to try and defend Harden the same way that it did Young? For a refresher, it looked like this:
This is a tricky one. On one hand, what the HEAT did to Young wasn’t that far from how they usually defend. Miami may be known for being the most switch-heavy team outside of Boston – enabled by Tucker and Adebayo being two of the best switch defenders the league has or will ever see – but the core component of their scheme may be how they play the gaps. They don’t hug shooters and play the pick-and-roll with two players. They defend it with all five, planting bodies on either side of the primary defender to close off all avenues into the paint at the expense of giving up some threes. They’ll show help without helping, waiting for you to make your move. They’re William Wallace’s Army. Hold. Hold. Hold. You just drove the ball into a wooden stake.
They had to extend that style all the way out beyond the arc against Young’s range. The intended effect was the same. Young’s drives were down, he rarely got into the paint and his passes often went side-to-side as opposed to the far more dangerous North-South variety. The HEAT were so effective that Atlanta was 3-of-9 on Young’s lob attempts.
Harden is a little different. He’s bigger than Young, so it’s more difficult to cut off his passing lanes – nobody is LeBron James, but during the NBA Finals two years ago James’ size and vision made it incredibly difficult for the HEAT to help off shooters who, to anyone else, would be two passes away. He’s been around longer and has seen more coverages, which means he’s more familiar with how to manipulate them to his advantage. He’s also one of the best ever at drawing fouls, so if he knows where help is coming from he can use that contact to his advantage. The Maxey release valve is there.
And then there’s this: Harden’s efficiency has slipped. Four years ago he shot 54 percent on twos and 37 percent on threes – a remarkable number given how many of his threes are of the stepback variety. This season he’s at 47 percent from two and 33 percent from three. His true-shooting percentage is comparable, but that’s because true-shooting includes free-throws. His effective field-goal percentage is almost six points lower. Harden remains a genius level passer. Maybe it’s the passes that are the greater concern.
Consider this. As with Maxey, a Harden drive is incredibly valuable at 1.10 points-per-drive. But that number, tracked by Second Spectrum, includes assist opportunities created by the ballhandler. Drives where Harden passes are worth 1.27 points. Drives where he shoots, draws a foul or commits a turnover are worth 1.02 points. But if you take free-throws out of the equation and narrow Harden’s drives down to just shooting or turnovers, then the value drops all the way to 0.84 points-per-drive, No. 54-of-70 players with at least 250 drives this season. The same effect plays out with Harden’s isolation – Embiid doesn’t have the same split with his post-ups – and Philadelphia will surely attempt their fair share of matchup hunting.
If the pass is more dangerous than the shot, do you play it the same way to deter the shot? The key with the numbers we just referenced is that they were all drives, which means the ball went forward into the paint. With how Miami played Young, Young wasn’t driving at all.
However they play it, Miami cannot, by any means, rack up the fouls.
“They have two guys who really know how to draw fouls and do it exceptionally well,” Spoelstra said. “You have to do things with great discipline and great focus, but you don’t want to back off your aggressiveness and it’s that dance that we’ll be wrestling with all series.”
We don’t know how long Embiid is going to be out, so it’s worth touching on how Miami can go about handling the first center to win the scoring title since Shaquille O’Neal (1999-2000). As we went over with Harden, this is a series that’s going to be about the ever-exciting defensive spacing. About when to help, when to fake the help and when to stay home. Thrilling, I know. It’s more fun to talk about individual matchups, about guys going mano-a-mano, who goes at who, who stops who. That’s all good fodder for talk shows. That’s not quite how the HEAT defend, especially not with a center in Embiid who has effectively played his way out of single coverage. Even with Adebayo, the most versatile center defender on the planet, leaving him on an island with Embiid all game hasn’t proven to be a viable option. Even when it looks like two men in an arena, rewind the tape and you’ll notice the halfway help in the gaps limiting Embiid’s angles.
Take these three examples for how Miami has defended the MVP candidate. One with Adebayo defending, one with Max Strus caught on Embiid on a switch, and one with Dewayne Dedmon in the post. Watch the HEAT defenders who aren’t on Embiid.
It used to be that you could double-team Embiid and discombobulate him. As a value proposition, that’s still true. Embiid in the post against single coverage is worth 1.12 points-per-post, per Second Spectrum. When Embiid gets doubled – only Nikola Jokic was doubled more often in the post, and only he and Embiid were doubled more than 150 times this season – it’s worth 0.84 points. Seems obvious, just double team him every time, right? Not quite. There’s selection bias there. The doubles that work work because they catch Embiid off guard or happen with perfect timing when he decks the ball or come late in the shot clock. If you give him a steady diet, he’ll conquer any food group.
“There are no absolutes,” says Spoelstra, not a Sith Lord. “That’s the thing about great players. You can’t do the same thing and say this is going to be it and we’ll live and die with it. Great players will make you die with that. Their spacing has gotten a lot better, and they have more ways to attack it. In this last series they saw every conceivable trap, so I don’t think we’re going to have anything that’s going totally surprise them.”
Spoelstra and his staff are as good as it gets at scheming for an individual offensive force. That doesn’t always mean they’ll come out on top, they’ll just have a good plan. Where it gets tricky is when an opponent has more than one of those players. It warps the defensive spacing, upping the sheer number of details they have to mind minute to minute. On paper, a good counter to a team that switches a ton is a team with multiple players who are comfortable and effective attacking one-on-one matchups.
That’s where the quality and experience of Miami’s defenders come into play. Adebayo may be both the tip of the spear and the foundation of the building on that end, but it’s the free-lancing and creativity of Butler, Lowry and Tucker that doesn’t show up on paper. If Philadelphia gets whole, this becomes a fascinating matchup.
All this time talking about Philadelphia’s offense, what about Miami’s? There isn’t as much to analyze. The 76ers have size to hold up on switches – Harden is still a doorstop of a post defender, there’s no Trae Young to attack in their core group though there are some weak links in the chain – but they aren’t as experienced and tested at it. They play with a center, and that means a lot of drop coverage. When Embiid, who is agile enough to change up coverages, is that center and he’s fully engaged, he can have even the most dedicated paint attackers second-guessing on their forays. When that center isn’t a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, the floor opens up.
Whoever is manning the middle, Miami’s stable of dynamic shooters will be at the forefront. When the HEAT lost to the 76ers in the first round back in 2018 they had capable shooters, but they were mostly catch-and-shoot merchants who relied on the team’s drive-and-kick game. They didn’t have the personnel to consistently take advantage of the pockets of space available after a center set a screen. Now they do. They have Tyler Herro and Kyle Lowry, when he’s available to return from a hamstring injury (out for Game 1), to pull-up off the dribble. There’s a reason Gabe Vincent, more than capable off the bounce, set a then-career high with 26 points back in December. Embiid or not, the 76ers allow – or force, depending on how you look at it – nearly as many pull-up jumpers as the league-leading Utah Jazz. When the offense slows down, those shots should be there. Adebayo will have his choice of mid-range jumpers, though without Embiid around there are fewer reasons to pursue them.
And finally, there’s this. With Embiid, the 76ers are a solid defensive-rebounding team. Without him, they’re well situated in the bottom third of the league. Miami’s focus on second chances has come and gone over the course of the season depending on who was in the rotation, but they’ve proven themselves more than capable of dominating in those margins. Atlanta actually posted a better half-court points-per-play number in Games 2 through 5 of that series. That number doesn’t include offensive rebounds. The HEAT can play Find A Way basketball.
What was clearly set up to be a clash of conflicting styles and schemes has been blurred by injuries. That’s cause for disappointment when it comes to spectacle. There’s only so many great postseason series a franchise can be a part of. The possibility of one is tantalizing and exciting. It’s what you look forward to all season. What we know we’ll get remains high-level competition against a worthy opponent, but part of great is great players being available.
The HEAT shouldn’t care about any of that. Part of proving you can beat anybody is beating anybody, no matter who is on the court. Whoever plays in Game 1 or Game 5, this is about the win. This roster has proven themselves to be about nothing else.