2022 Playoffs: East Semifinal | Heat (1) vs. 76ers (4)

Series preview: How will Heat-Sixers turn out with Joel Embiid injured?

There's been no timetable on Joel Embiid's return, but Philadelphia could be in deep trouble if he's unable to suit up.

Joel Embiid is out indefinitely because of a right orbital fracture and mild concussion.

• Heat-Sixers series coverage
• 2022 NBA playoffs schedule

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 in a loss to the Hawks. And so: They can’t have a similar experience, right?

Well: With Joel Embiid dealing with an uncertain status due to an orbital fracture and mild concussion, the chances of repeat disappointment are high for Philly. It’s a shame, really, because they enjoyed a breezy closeout of the Raptors following a brief scare the two games prior. And when the Sixers play up to their potential like that, they’re a very real title contender.

So what would this new reality look like without Embiid, possibly the most physically dominant player in basketball? Hard to say, but Tyrese Maxey must continue to play carefree with full confidence, James Harden must make plays with shots and passing and Tobias Harris needs to stand out while the role players fall into place. And even then, it’ll be a chore.

The Heat secured the best record and home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs, then brushed aside the Hawks in five games in the first round, even with Kyle Lowry missing two games and Jimmy Butler (one game) due to 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.

If Joel Embiid returns, how will the injury affect his game? And if he doesn't, can James Harden do enough to lift Philly past Miami?

3 Things to Watch

1. Another series and another testimonial on Harden awaits: The circumstances are a bit different with Embiid out, yet Harden has a chance to own the ball again and his fate. The last time he had such freedom, he enjoyed a robust stretch in Houston. Problem is, he seems a level below those Houston years 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 Jimmy Butler, who’ll see most of the Harden assignment, will use his tenacity to prove the latter.

2.  It’s Bam Adebayo time: The talented big man can, and probably should, swing this series squarely in Miami’s favor with Embiid out. Adebayo doesn’t need to worry about collecting fouls, and for Miami, there’s no need to double whomever the Sixers offer as Embiid’s replacement. Adebayo is a tremendous defensive player on his own, and now, he can save some of his energy for offense. Sure, this series now comes with an asterisk, yet Adebayo has a chance to rule.

3. Miami’s depth could be crucial: 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 (just 2-10 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.

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

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 Schuhmann

The pick

The series will begin with a feeling of deflation with Embiid potentially out, and he’ll take the suspense with him. The Sixers are built with him as the centerpiece, and it’s far too late to establish a new identity on the fly, especially this deep into the playoffs and against a team as consistently good as Miami. The shame is Embiid would’ve been the best player in the series by a sizable margin. Heat in 5.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated following the injury announcement of Joel Embiid.

* * *

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.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.