The top-seeded Miami Heat and fourth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Heat and Sixers beat the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors in the first round, respectively.
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How they got here
Miami Heat (53-29)
The Heat added Kyle Lowry and PJ Tucker to last year's underwhelming response to their 2020 NBA Finals team, leaning into their abrasive culture. The 36-year-olds played more games than either Jimmy Butler or Bam Adebayo, and even they missed double-digit outings, but the Heat still ground to the No. 1 seed.
Tyler Herro submitted a Sixth Man of the Year campaign, finishing as the team's cumulative leading scorer. Duncan Robinson recovered from a slow start to shoot 40% from 3-point range once the calendar turned to 2022. Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and Caleb Martin emerged as reliable role players, even more so than two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo, who returned late in the season after a series of career-threatening injuries.
The result was a capable offense and a stifling defense, which embarrassed Hawks star Trae Young in the first round. With Lowry and Butler nursing hamstring and knee injuries, respectively, Miami still handled Atlanta in a series-clinching Game 5 win. Health remains the Heat's biggest challenge, as tough as they are.
Philadelphia 76ers (51-31)
All-NBA point guard Ben Simmons refused to report to the team, so All-NBA center Joel Embiid took it upon himself to carry the Sixers, logging an MVP-caliber season and keeping Philadelphia afloat until the trade deadline. Embiid averaged a league-high 30.6 points per game on high efficiency and anchored a defense that sat just outside the top 10, despite the presence of several turnstiles in the Sixers' rotation.
Sixers executive Daryl Morey made a bold move at the deadline, dealing Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks for James Harden, who submarined his way out of Houston and Brooklyn in a year's time. Harden has been wildly disappointing in Philadelphia, but he can still accumulate numbers, and he showed up just enough to beat the depleted Toronto Raptors in a first-round series.
Devastating news broke on Friday night that Embiid suffered an orbital bone fracture with four minutes remaining in the close-out Game 6 blowout of the Raptors and is out indefinitely. He was already playing through a torn ligament in his shooting thumb. His absence turns the underdog Sixers into a long shot.
Philadelphia's backup center options include past-their-prime veterans DeAndre Jordan and Paul Millsap and second-year project Paul Reed, one of whom will be tasked with squaring up against Adebayo. This puts an enormous onus on Harden, whose ability to carry a contender at this point is in serious question, and Tyrese Maxey, whose development as a primary option now becomes more necessity than luxury.
Head to head
The Heat and Sixers tied their regular-season series, 2-2.
Theirs was a bizarre battle. Harden did not play in any of the four games. The Heat were missing Butler, Adebayo and Herro when they won their first meeting in mid-December, and Miami did not have Butler, Adebayo and Lowry on the floor together until their final showdown on March 21, when the Sixers won without Harden or Embiid. Good luck trying to translate any of that randomness to their playoff series.
Butler, Adebayo and Lowry will close games, so long as they are healthy. Tucker should be out there, given his experience fulfilling that role for the Milwaukee Bucks in last year's playoffs. Those four are the foundation of lineups that have outscored opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions over 544 minutes during the regular season. Herro is a logical choice for the fifth spot, but his defense can be targeted. Strus and Vincent have also earned Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's trust in the clutch throughout the season, so the Heat will likely tinker with their crunch-time five, depending on which end of the floor he needs more help.
The Sixers have played one meaningful game without Embiid since the Harden trade — against the Heat on March 21, when Harden was out, too. They pulled Jordan in favor of Millsap, who was +9 down the stretch. Millsap will get his shot playing alongside Harden, Maxey, Harris and one of three options for the fifth spot.
Danny Green is as playoff experienced as a player can be. Matisse Thybulle is a better defensive option at this point, but it will difficult keeping Georges Niang off the floor if he continues to shoot the way he has in these playoffs (12 for 18 in Philadelphia's first-round series). None of these options are all that appealing, but these are your options when losing a player who carries so much weight on both ends of the floor.
Matchup to watch
The Heat have options to throw at Harden. Lowry, if healthy, is still a solid defensive option on the perimeter. Butler, if healthy, can shut the water off. But Harden will hunt any matchup he can find. Miami also has options there, too. Herro and Robinson have holes in their defensive games. Harden will hardly be scared of Strus and Vincent, even if both might hold up against a one-time MVP who has lost a step.
Without Embiid as a focal point, Adebayo will also be lurking as a rim protector. It is a nightmare scenario for Harden, whose conditioning remains an issue. If he still had an extra gear, we probably would have seen it by now, but this series calls for everything he has left in the tank. How he navigates one of the league's toughest defenses, even in defeat, could tell us a lot about what we can expect from the rest of his career.
May 2: Philadelphia at Miami, 7:30 p.m. (TNT)
May 4: Philadelphia at Miami, 7:30 p.m. (TNT)
May 6: Miami at Philadelphia, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
May 8: Miami at Philadelphia, 8 p.m. (TNT)
May 10: Philadelphia at Miami, TBD (TNT)*
May 12: Miami at Philadelphia, TBD (ESPN)*
May 15: Philadelphia at Miami, TBD*
Miami Heat (-450)
Philadelphia 76ers (+350)
Heat in five.
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