76ers

Why Sixers should want the Heat, not the Celtics, in first round of NBA playoffs

Why Sixers should want the Heat, not the Celtics, in first round of NBA playoffs

The Sixers beat the Celtics three out of four times in the regular season, so the conventional wisdom suggests that Brett Brown should try everything in his power to engineer a first-round matchup with Boston.

He could even rest some starters and drop a couple winnable seeding games in Orlando in hopes of finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference.

Then you get Boston in a No. 3 vs. No. 6 first-round series and avoid top-seeded Milwaukee until the Eastern Conference Finals.

Nice theory, right?

Well, I’m here to tell you it’s totally wrong.

Instead of an early date with Boston, the Sixers should be angling to end up in a 4 vs. 5 series against their old buddy Jimmy Butler and the Heat.

But wait, didn’t the Sixers lose the season series to Miami, 3-1? 

Indeed, they did.

But the thing is, the playoffs are not the regular season. And this Miami team is very young and not playoff-tested. 

After Jimmy Butler, many of their other rotation players have little to no postseason experience. Bam Adebayo has played five playoff games. Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson will all be making their playoff debuts. 

Miami lives on those young guys making threes to space the floor for Butler and Adebayo. We’ll see if those shots fall in their first playoff series.

As for Miami’s recent additions, Jae Crowder brings toughness and veteran savvy, but there’s also a reason he’s on his fourth team in the last three seasons. Expecting him to be a playoff difference-maker is asking a lot.

Andre Iguodala obviously became a playoff legend with the Warriors. He’s also 36 years old and has averaged 4.4 points in 14 games since joining the Heat. Maybe Erik Spoelstra is just saving Iguodala for big moments in the playoffs. I’ll take my chances.

Also, while you may think that Joel Embiid matches up great with Boston, the truth is that his numbers were significantly better against Miami. In four games against the Heat this season, Embiid averaged 27.3 points and shot 56.3 percent from the field. 

It makes sense. The 6-foot-9 Adebayo is simply too small to deal with Embiid. Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk are too slow. 

Embiid’s stats against Boston? 21.3 points per game and 39.1 percent shooting from the field. He had one monster game against the Celtics (38 points on 12 for 21 shooting) and one awful game (11 points on 1 of 11 shooting). 

Boston is also simply a more complete team than Miami, with a plus-6.2 point differential per game compared to plus-3.3 for the Heat. The Celtics have three players who average at least 20 points per game (Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown) and another in Gordon Hayward who’s capable of going for 20 on any given night. That’s a lot more firepower than Miami brings to the table.

Also, Tatum emerged as one of the NBA’s best scorers in the last two months before the COVID-19 shutdown, averaging 27.9 points on 48.8 shooting from the field and 45.5 percent shooting from three-point range. His becoming an efficient, volume scorer makes defending the Celtics much more difficult. 

If you don’t double him, he goes off. If you double him, the Celtics have scorers all over the floor. And unlike Miami, those guys have extensive playoff experience.

The Sixers certainly could beat the Celtics in a playoff series. I wouldn’t be shocked. Playing Kemba Walker against Philadelphia’s big lineups exposes Boston defensively and maybe Embiid just goes off against Boston’s duo of Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter.

But Boston is going to be an extremely tough out. They can score, they can defend and Tatum’s transformation into a go-to guy gives them another dimension. Marcus Smart is one of the best defenders in the league, regardless of position. Many of those guys have been through the playoff wars. 

Unlike the previous two seasons, the Sixers won’t have an easy first-round playoff opponent this year. Miami would certainly be formidable. Butler would be a problem. But I’ll take my chances against that young Heat squad over a Boston team with better scorers and more playoff experience.

I think Miami, Milwaukee and the Boston/Toronto winner presents an easier path to reach the NBA Finals than having to beat Boston, Toronto and Milwaukee. 

You’ve got to beat the Bucks either way. But you can’t beat the Bucks unless you make it to that series. 

Survive and advance.

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Sixers' Ime Udoka is ‘biggest name to watch’ in Bulls’ head coaching search

Sixers' Ime Udoka is ‘biggest name to watch’ in Bulls’ head coaching search

Sixers assistant coach Ime Udoka is, according to NBC Sports NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh, “the biggest name to watch” in the Bulls’ search for a new head coach.

Chicago fired Jim Boylen on Friday. NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson reports former Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavs assistant Stephen Silas and Bucks assistant Darvin Ham are also expected to be included in Chicago's search. Bulls GM Marc Eversley used to be the Sixers’ vice president of player personnel. 

Udoka joined the Sixers this season after spending seven years as an assistant with the Spurs. In September, he said that he was responsible for game planning and strategizing against “eight or nine” opponents under Gregg Popovich. Brett Brown assigned him to be in charge of the Sixers’ defense, which is rated eighth in the NBA, and he's looked to install more aggressive defensive concepts. He’s a well-respected former player who, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania is also a candidate for the Nets job.

From the Sixers’ perspective, part of what may complicate this situation is Brown’s status. Here’s what Haberstroh wrote on that subject:  

Over the next few weeks, league insiders are keeping an eye on the situation in Philadelphia as the Sixers have underwhelmed for the second straight season. If the short-handed Sixers lose in the first round, Udoka could be in line for a promotion with the Sixers.

“The Sixers may not want another coach to leave their organization. Brown’s top assistant job has been a springboard to head-coaching positions throughout the NBA. Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, Phoenix’s Monty Williams and Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce’s last stops before their current gigs was the bench in Philly. 

In response to rumors last May that the Sixers’ second-round loss to the Raptors may have put Brown’s job in jeopardy, his players defended him vehemently. The team’s supersized roster has disappointed in this highly unusual, pandemic-affected season, as the presence of Al Horford has boosted the Sixers’ backup center play but generally not helped the team otherwise. Brown’s new-look starting lineup with Shake Milton at point guard and Ben Simmons at power forward only had three games together before Simmons injured his left knee. 

The Sixers’ first-round series against the Celtics begins on Monday night (see series schedule).

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How to watch Sixers at Rockets: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

How to watch Sixers at Rockets: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

Updated: 7:50 p.m. 

For the first time since the 2011-12 lockout year, the Sixers will play fewer than 82 games in a “regular” season. Their 73rd and final game before the postseason is Friday night against the Rockets.

Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) is out for the Sixers and Russell Westbrook is out for Houston with a right quad strain. Joel Embiid (left ankle soreness) will be go through pregame warmups and his status will be updated before game time, per a team spokesperson.

Here are the essentials:

When: 9 p.m. with Sixers Pregame Live at 8
Where: AdventHealth Arena
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

All about Monday 

Health and “spirit” are the two things Brett Brown has consistently said he hoped the Sixers would have intact for the postseason. The team’s health is significantly compromised with Ben Simmons out after undergoing surgery on his left knee, which is probably more important than an intangible quality like spirit. That said, the Sixers’ morale doesn’t seem too bad given the circumstances. There’s been a little time for everyone to wrap their head around Simmons’ injury and what it means, and the starting lineup enjoyed cheering on the reserves in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the Raptors.

The Sixers’ first-round series vs. the Celtics begins Monday night (see series schedule). It sounds simple enough … but just get to tip-off of Game 1 with the healthiest version of the current team. 

Is hot outside shooting sustainable? 

Before the NBA’s hiatus, the Sixers were shooting 36.2 percent from three-point range. They’re at 40.6 percent in Disney World, and Joel Embiid and Shake Milton are the only rotation players below their season averages from long range. 

That large of an increase is likely attributable to a small sample size, at least in part, but it does seem that players like Al Horford, Furkan Korkmaz and Alec Burks are comfortable and shooting with confidence. Perhaps it will carry over to the playoffs. 

Small-ball prep 

The Rockets will finish either No. 4 or No. 5 in the Western Conference, a distinction that means very little when there are no true home games. It would therefore be unsurprising if minutes were limited for Houston’s key players. 

One thing that will be interesting to watch regardless is how the Sixers will handle a team without a conventional center. Houston is an extreme practitioner of small ball, but the Sixers’ top lineups will generally be larger than the Celtics’. Horford’s perimeter defense will be tested by Boston.

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