How seriously are the Philadelphia 76ers taking the push to be the top seed in the Eastern Conference? Joel Embiid was in the lineup for Saturday’s game against the Detroit Pistons. Why is that so significant? Because it was a back-to-back for the Sixers against an opponent that they would have been clear favorites to beat even if Embiid had sat out.
In this trip down to Miami, the Sixers have just a 1.5-game cushion for the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. That is because the Brooklyn Nets beat the Spurs on Wednesday to close the gap ever so slightly.
The Heat have something to play for as well. What happens this week could swing the balance of home court advantage in the first round. Miami is stuck in something of a standings love triangle with the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks for the #4 seed.
Philadelphia is rested, but the Heat are a -1 favorite with a total of 218.5 at Bovada Sportsbook a popular online sportsbook as the first game of the TNT doubleheader. Joel Embiid is questionable, hence the line.
We should see a really big effort from the Sixers in this game. They just had an eight-game winning streak snapped on Tuesday by the Indiana Pacers. This is the front-end of a back-to-back with the Magic at home on Friday. That doesn’t seem like a game that Embiid would play, but you never know. It could all hinge on the standings. The Sixers may also make the call to keep Embiid at home for this one. It is all so touch-and-go in the NBA at present.
Philadelphia is one of the best defensive teams in the NBA in a season where very few teams around the league are giving much of an effort on that end of the floor. The 76ers and Heat are actually neck and neck for the second-fewest points allowed per game in the Eastern Conference. Neither team is close to the Knicks, but it is nice to see that somebody still values defense out there.
The difference between the Sixers and the Knicks and Heat is that Philadelphia can actually score a little. The Heat and Knicks are both around the bottom five in points per game. Philadelphia is right around league average offensively. Obviously that projection goes up when Embiid is on the floor.
Embiid’s 29.2 points per game are very important to Philadelphia, given that he is the only player that has scored at least 20 points per contest this season. He’s also the team’s leading rebounder by a large margin. Philadelphia is something of a throwback team in that they don’t shoot a lot of threes. Three-point shooting has really become a much bigger thing of late, but the Sixers have the sixth-lowest rate of 3P Attempts and rank around the middle of the pack in terms of making them.
The Miami Heat grade as a top-10 offense on two-point shots, but have had some issues on their long-distance jumpers as well. As a result, they’ve been a team that has had to rely a lot on defense. It has actually been their MO for a while, especially since LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade all went their separate ways. It is a team that has had to win with defense and a style that has really worked out well.
The Heat go into this game having won six of seven. There were a lot of questions as to whether or not this would be a team forced into the NBA’s play-in tournament to decide the #7 and #8 seeds for the playoffs, but it looks as though Miami will avoid that fate. A lot of teams have been pushing hard to avoid that fate if they can help it.
It wasn’t long ago that Jimmy Butler, who has taken on a huge leadership role with the Heat, called out his teammates and made it a point to push them forward, presumably to avoid this high-variance play-in tournament. Butler has led with his words and his play, as he’s averaged just under 22 points per game and leads the team with over seven assists per contest.
You would think, judging by how well Miami grades in points per game allowed, that they would stand out defensively in some way. They’re at or below the midpoint defending both twos and threes, so what is the explanation? The answer is turnovers. Miami’s TOV% is the second-best mark in the NBA, so they’ve taken possessions away from opponents and have been able to slow the game down with the second-lowest Pace in the league.
76ers vs. Heat Free Pick
If there is one notable flaw with this Sixers team, it has been turnovers. They entered play on Wednesday ranked 21st in TOV% on offense. Philadelphia certainly has a more efficient offense on the shooting side than Miami, but those turnovers can be a great equalizer. It makes it hard for teams to get some margin on the Heat, who hang around in a lot of their games. I’d expect them to do the same here as winners of six of seven. With two home games against Orlando left on the schedule, Philadelphia comfortably controls its own destiny.
NBA Pick: Miami Heat