Between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, the two likely playoff opponents, it seemed most folks were leaning toward the Celtics as, perhaps, being the better opponent for the 76ers. If you looked strictly at this year's head-to-head results, the Sixers have fared much better against Boston than Miami. If you look at recent play, the Celtics are fading while the Heat are surging. And if you look at age, Boston is rickety and Miami is in its prime.
But none of that matters too much right now since we know precisely who the Sixers will be playing: the Miami Heat. And if that isn't concerning you as a Sixers' fan, you'll be concerned after reading this blog post. We could argue the ensuing point, but it's very possible that the Heat are the only playoff opponent capable of sweeping the Sixers. Chicago Bulls? Nope, the Sixers would definitely win games on them. The Celtics? The Sixers would absolutely win one at home, possibly even snag one at the TD Garden. Same for the Atlanta Hawks and the Orlando Magic, although obviously they are lower playoff seeds anyway.
The Sixers are left with the Heat, who pose the greatest challenge, but also present the highest reward: a national spotlight, an opportunity to defeat the "bad guys", a chance to get the nation on board if they can push this series past what most expect, and the best TV slots. All in all, a lot of exposure and excitement because of the (supposed) rock-star-dom of the Heat.
Before we get to this upcoming series, here's the news coming from practice today at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine: Andre Iguodala (right knee tendinitis) is officially listed as a game-time decison for Wednesday night's game against the Detroit Pistons. Iguodala spent some time today on the elliptical machine, but the Sixers didn't practice long. They mostly watched tape of those 19 offensive rebounds surrendered to the Orlando Magic, as well as snippets of loose balls they didn't snag. Would be very surprised if Iguodala played tomorrow against Detroit. Lou Williams (strained right hamstring) was on the court for practice, doing some shooting. About 45 minutes after practice ended, Lou was doing some light sprints to test the hamstring. He won't play against the Pistons, but it's looking increasingly likely that he'll be ready for the playoff opener either on Saturday or Sunday (we'll know late Wednesday night when the NBA releases the TV schedule).
Do the 76ers have any chance against the Heat?
"I feel good about it," said Sixers coach Doug Collins, referring to Lou's status. "He’s got more of a bounce in his step now. You can see he’s feeling better, he’s more outgoing. When you get hurt sometimes you get real quiet because you feel like you’re not a part of it. He’s starting to get some of that juice back, which is good. Unless there’s a setback, I feel good that he’s going to be able to go ... If you were to ask me right now, I’d think he would be able to go."
That's at least a little bit of good news for the Sixers, who've had a difficult final two weeks of the season. Despite saying repeatedly that they wanted a strong finish to this season, the last 12 days have been anything but. (Collins, from today's practice, "I’m not sure we didn’t have a bit of an emotional letdown after we made the playoffs. I think our guys, there was such a sense of accomplishment, which it was. Ever since halftime of the Milwaukee game, we just haven’t been ourselves.)
The Sixers have lost 4 of their last 5 games and are doing exactly what they said they can't do: they're limping into the playoffs. Wednesday's game is important only because it matters that this team finishes 42-40 instead of 41-41, if for no other reason than simply because it sounds better. It also matters that they start doing the things -- blocking out, winning loose balls, making shots -- they'll absolutely need to do in order to avoid a sweep against Miami.
And now, a primer for the upcoming Heat/Sixers series:
*If you're a Sixers' fan, how worried should you be? Pretty darn worried. Take it from someone who watched last month's loss at AmericanAirlines Arena. This game was played back when the Sixers were (relatively) healthy and had been playing very well for months. In the second quarter, the Sixers were ahead 16 points when Miami called a timeout. Collins said he braced his team during that timeout: watch out, he told them, they're about to make a push. Didn't matter. It looked like trying to avoid the wind, the Sixers just couldn't get out of the way -- the Heat was everywhere. This happened twice during that game and that's all Miami needed to secure the victory. The rest of the time, the other 36-40 minutes, Miami didn't even look all that interested. A month later, it's the playoffs, which is precisely what the Heat has been pointing toward for the last, oh, 80 games or so. Even if the Heat amp it up only slightly, it's just way too much for the Sixers to handle. They don't have the offensive explosion or the interior defense to withstand these sorts of spurts.
*If you're a Sixers' fan, how much does this end-of-season slide matter? This is a tough one to answer. No matter how well Collins can get them back on track, it's still a bump in their rhythm. I think two weeks ago, most of the top Eastern Conference teams would have wanted to avoid the Sixers in the first round. Now, the Heat are probably pretty happy they're playing the Sixers instead of the New York Knicks. The key to all of this is Lou. If he can seamlessly slide back into his role (he did this very well when returning from a broken jaw last season), then the Sixers have a fighting chance to make this series respectable. If he is out of sync and can't score, this is going to go south (no pun intended) quite quickly.
*If you're a Sixers fan, is there any hope? Yes, there is. Like we said earlier, this series is high-risk, high-reward. The Sixers could easily get swept, but the one thing about these guys is that they have responded well in situations where nothing is expected of them. They like that role. There are three keys to making this a hard-fought series: keeping turnovers under 10, getting 80 percent of the loose balls, and having Lou and Jodie Meeks hitting outside shots.
If any one of those three factors isn't executed, the Sixers can't win. If they turn the ball over 12-plus times, the Heat will have 20 fastbreak points off of those turnovers. If the Sixers aren't hustling to get more possessions than Miami, they won't be able to keep up with Miami offensively. And if Lou and Jodie aren't tacking on 12-15 points a game with outside shooting, the Sixers will get burned trying to labor through their sets.
Feeling good yet?
If you want to follow on Twitter throughout the playoffs, you can do that here: Deep Sixer. Also, a video of Collins from today's practice should be embedded below.
p.s. Here's this quote today from center Spencer Hawes. When asked about how the Sixers will need to match the Heat's physicality, Hawes said, "It's not like we're going up against the '91 Pistons."
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