Finally, we start to find out if the star-laden--but pockmarked--roster of the Miami Heat is ready to win a championship. The story of Pat Riley's team is one of overwhelming expectation. Even reasonable people like Jeff Van Gundy got lost in the glare of Miami's stares, declaring them a threat to the Bulls' record of 72 wins in a season. It was inevitable that the Heat would underachieve. How could it not? However, that doesn't mean Miami can't win the title. The Heat enter the postseason on a 15-3 finishing kick and the league's best overall point differential.
If Miami underachieve, the Sixers overachieved, or at least that's the storyline most are sticking to. Doug Collins worked wonders in validating my preseason prediction of the Sixers as my surprise playoff entrant. In fact, the Collins simply brought Philadelphia back up to the level of mediocrity in which the Sixers were mired before last season's Eddie Jordan debacle. There is a difference between this Philly team and the .500ish teams that made the postseason in 2008 and 2009: It's younger. There is more upside, with youngsters Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young taking on important roles. So even though the Sixers will be heavy underdogs against Miami, the experience will be invaluable to Collins' young crew.
WHEN MIAMI HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.5 possessions per 48 minutes (21st NBA)
Miami Offensive Rating: 113.8 points per 100 possessions (3rd NBA)
Philadelphia Defensive Rating: 106.8 points per 100 possessions (10th NBA)
As solid as the Philadelphia defense was under Collins, the Heat put up an aggregate 114.3 Offensive Rating in sweeping three games from the Sixers by an average of 10.3 points. While the Sixers have one of the league's premier perimeter stoppers in Andre Iguodala, the Heat of course counter with two of the most dynamic offensive wings of the last decade in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. As good as Iggy is, he can only guard one of them at a time.
In the regular-season matchups, it was Wade that took center stage against Philadelphia, using up 35 percent of possessions while on the floor and averaging 30.7 points per game, eight more than James. While Iguodala presumably did what he could to slow down James, the rest of the Sixers defense was broken down by the extra help needed when the likes of Jodie Meeks and Evan Turner were battling Wade. Spot-up shooters James Jones and Mike Bibby combined to shoot 14-of-22 from three-point range against Philly and Wade averaged 6.7 assists, two more than his season average. Even if Iguodala can render James a mere mortal, which is not a given, the Sixers have to strike a balance between helping Wade's primary defender and leaving the three-point line unattended. It's a dilemma that faces all Miami opponents, whether it's Wade or James serving as Eric Spoelstra's offensive focal point.
Young averaged 26.5 minutes per game against Miami, but I'd expect that to go up considerably. Young is a good candidate for guarding the face-up oriented Bosh, quick enough to cut him off when he puts the ball on the floor and long enough to bother his lefty jumper. If Miami wanted to expoit Young on the block with Bosh, I'm sure Collins would be willing to live with that. Because Miami doesn't have a true offensive post threat among its big men, Collins can get away with Young pairing with Elton Brand as his primary frontcourt combo. This configuration allows Young to check Bosh and Brand to operate as a help defender against Wade. For these reasons, I would expect Spencer Hawes' minutes to be a little down from regular-season levels.
Miami didn't play at a particularly fast pace this season, but that's mostly because the halfcourt offense was methodical. The Heat are capable of breathtaking displays of fullcourt basketball, not surprising given the presence of Wade and James. It's essental that the Sixers take care of the ball on offense, because the effect of turnovers on their defense will be devastating. Under Collins, the Sixers turned the ball over on just 14.2 percent of their possessions, the best figure in the league. However, in the three games against the Heat, Philly turned the ball over 16.9 percent of the time, a rate that would have landed them in the league's bottom five.
WHEN PHILADELPHIA HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.2 possessions per 48 minutes (14th NBA)
Philadelphia Offensive Rating: 108.4 points per 100 possessions (17th NBA)
Miami Defensive Rating: 104.9 points per 100 possessions (5th NBA)
If you're looking for hopeful signs for the Sixers and you don't mind employing some arbitrary endpoints, consider this: From Jan. 22 to April 1, the Sixers went on a 23-11 run. During that same span, Miami was 23-10. Philly had an 111.7 Offensive Rating in that time, which would have ranked ninth in the NBA over the full season. Unfortunately, there were those other 48 games. Nevertheless, it's easy to see that Collins' offense improved markedly over the course of the season.
The Philadelphia offense was egalitarian to a remarkable degree. Brand finished as the club's leading scorer at just 15.0 points per game. Iguodala, Holiday, Lou Williams, Young and Meeks all averaged in double figures. Holiday led the team by taking 12.2 shots per game. By contrast, James (18.8) and Wade (18.2) averaged about 50 percent more attempts. In many ways, the Sixer offensive philosophy, an invention born of necessity, is the flip side of that in Miami. Philadelphia ranked seventh in the league in estimated touches per minute, while Miami ranked 27th. The results did improve as the season went along, but Collins bemoaned his lack of a finisher for close games, a factor in the team's record of 8-17 in games decided by five points or less.
The Sixers played faster than I expected this season, ranking 14th in pace as Collins took advantage of all the young legs on his roster. Of the eight NBA squads Collins coached prior to this season, none ranked higher than 23rd in pace. Give the guy credit for some late-career adaptability.
Against Miami, the Sixers managed just a 101.5 Offensive Rating in the three losses. I mentioned the spike in turnovers, which hampered the attack even though Philadelphia shot a .502 eFG% that was above its season figure. The Sixers do need to shoot a high percentage against Miami, both to keep the scoreboard turning and to keep the Heat out of the transition game, but they really, really need to take care of the ball. Because of the need to hold players back to defend against the fastbreak, Collins won't be able to over-commit players to the offensive glass, an area which isn't a team strength in the first place.
You'd think that the Sixers' decentralized attack would make them a tough matchup against the Heat, though the results clearly demonstrate that hasn't been the case. Whether it's getting Brand on the block against Bosh, or freeing up Holiday in a matchup with Bibby, Collins has the luxury of calling plays based on situations and matchups, rather than always force-feeding the ball to a go-to player. Iguodala and Holiday share offense-initiating duties as well, so even that part of the attack is multi-headed. It sounds good in theory, but hasn't worked so well in practice.
Iguodala has to focus on defense, running the floor and making good decisions offense. James is a tough matchup for him, as he is for everyone, and if Iguodala tries to force the action, it could lead to the turnovers that would crush the Sixers on both ends of the floor. Holiday could be huge--his ability to create offense against Miami's substandard group of point guards might be an important touchstone for Collins.
Young could be the X-factor in all of this. His game blossomed under Collins, as he became one of the league's top bench players. He shed the label of "tweener" and replaced it with "versatile" and as long as he doesn't fall in love with his jumper, the Heat don't have a great answer for him on the defensive end.
The results of the head-to-head matchups are too overwhelming to ignore. The good matchups on the offensive end of the floor for Philadelphia are just two few and far between. If the Sixers can't keep scoring the ball, that's going to hurt their defense as much as anything. If Collins can't get his team into an offensive flow, it's going to bleed over to the other end of the court. Collins a brilliant tactician, but he just doesn't have the weapons to match up with Miami's star power. All Miami needs is one run per game to keep the Sixers at bay.
Heat in 4
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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