The Sixers are taking their talents to South Beach.
They will face the Heat in the first round of the playoffs, kicking off Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Sixers (52-30) defeated the Bucks Wednesday, 130-95, to lock in the third seed and capture their 16th straight win (see observations). The Heat (44-38) beat the top-ranked Raptors in overtime to clinch sixth.
“They’re a physical team, got some shooters and experienced players,” Ben Simmons said. “But at the same time, we have a lot of players who are ready to step up and play.”
The Sixers and Heat split the regular-season series, 2-2. The Sixers were riding the momentum of the Super Bowl when they topped the Heat, 103-97, at home on Feb. 2. They met two weeks later in Philadelphia just before the All-Star break. Playing without Joel Embiid, the Sixers staged a 24-point comeback, 104-102.
The series shifted when the Heat returned to Miami on Feb. 27. Dwyane Wade had a monster fourth quarter and hit the game-winner to give the Heat a 102-101 victory. The Heat got the best of the Sixers again on March 8, 108-99.
“[We have to] clean up on our mistakes," Amir Johnson said. "We’re going to continue playing with our pace, keep on moving the ball. We’ve just got to know our personnel, [get out in] transition, we know they fly up and down, and be relentless on the boards."
The Sixers are a different squad now than just over a month ago in their last meeting. They have found success in a more uptempo, three-point-heavy style without Embiid (concussion, orbital fracture) in their past seven games.
More significantly, the Sixers have revamped their bench with Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova and Markelle Fultz. The veteran reserves played in their previous matchup but they had just started to find their rhythm at that point.
“We’ve got the momentum,” Robert Covington said. “We’re a whole different team from the last time we played them.”
Hassan Whiteside, who has battled with Embiid this season, stands out in this matchup. Since Embiid said he is “unlikely” to play in Game 1 (see story), the Sixers will have to focus on defending Whiteside, who is averaging 15.3 points, 9.5 boards and 2.3 blocks against them this season. The Heat, though, have had nine players averaging double digits since the All-Star break.
“They’re a really big team. Obviously with Whiteside they’re really good in the paint,” Ilyasova said. “They have (Kelly) Olynyk, who’s kind of a stretch, big guy, can shoot. They’re a really tough team. They added Dwyane Wade. He’s playing at a high level right now … I think the biggest thing for us is going to be use our home-court advantage. In the first two games we have to come out with a lot of energy and do the same thing we did over this 50-win stretch. We have to play our basketball and focus on ourselves.”
The Sixers will begin game-planning for the Heat, yet the key to their success still is their own style of basketball.
“We’ve just got to play the way we’ve been playing,” Simmons said. “Whatever Coach is drawing up, we’ve got to stick with it, communicate on the floor, and play as a team.”