Pre-game Update: Both swingman Andre Iguodala (right knee tendinitis) and Lou Williams (right hamstring strain) will play today against the Miami Heat. The Sixers had listed both players as "game-time decisions," but there was little doubt both would be active. Iguodala will start at small forward, Williams will come off the bench. Williams said he "wasn't 100 percent," but that he was "functional." He said he thinks his minutes will be limited, but that he's excited to be available to play. Today will be his first time playing 5 on 5 since straining the hamstring against the Milwaukee Bucks two weeks ago.
Here's the full primer in advance of today's game:
What: 76ers vs. Miami Heat, first-round playoff series
When: Game 1, Saturday afternoon, 3:30, airing on ABC
Probable starters: PG Jrue Holiday, SG Jodie Meeks, SF Andre Iguodala, PF Elton Brand, and C Spencer Hawes (Sixers); PG Mike Bibby, SG Dwyane Wade, SF LeBron James, PF Chris Bosh, and C Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Heat).
Injury update: The Sixers are listing Iguodala (right knee tendinitis) and Lou Williams (strained right hamstring) as game-time decisions, but coach Doug Collins is talking as if they’re a definite part of the game plan. Expect both of them to play.
Series prediction: Miami wins, 4-1.
Why: Here’s our analogy: for the Sixers, trying to defend the Heat will be like going out into the winter cold with only one glove or like trying to get warm with a too-small blanket. There’s just not enough to cover it all. If one area is cold, you expose another; it becomes an endless cycle.
The Sixers can put Iguodala on LeBron and then Wade will start dominating. If they pull the blanket over Wade, Bosh will start grabbing rebounds inside. Every time they readjust, something will be open, and eventually – even if the Sixers are hustling and scrambling – Miami will capitalize on that superior talent.
Holiday/Meeks vs. Bibby
Meeks/Holiday vs. Wade
Iguodala vs. James
Brand vs. Bosh
Hawes vs. Ilgauskas
Going down that list, the glaring concern is defending Wade. Who’s going to do it? In the last game between these two teams, Wade dominated. He scored 39 points and went baseline on Meeks repeatedly. That’s not a good matchup, but it’s also not helpful for the Sixers to take the one perimeter matchup they could win – the point guard matchup – and dedicate too much of Holiday’s energy on guarding Wade. Like earlier, you pull a little bit from one area to cover another and then you leave something else out in the cold. The important thing to remember, though, is that very quickly this game is going to get into substitutions and rotations. There’ll be foul trouble on both ends, adjustments, audibles called, etc – it’s in this time that the Sixers will need to press their advantage: their bench play. Maybe Collins will go to Thaddeus Young earlier, or find a gap in Miami’s defense that can be exploited (like the staff did at the Chicago Bulls, when Spencer Hawes scored 10-12 points on open mid-range jumpers).
The pick-and-roll: Miami knows how to defend it. And Miami knows how to execute it. It’s basketball’s most effective play and the Heat can dominate the top of the key with a simple screen and roll. Don’t think this won’t become a factor as this series progresses. The Heat can score by relaxing and running a pick-and-roll at the top of the key, while the Sixers will need to move, cut, and swing the ball just to get a comparable shot. This may seem like a small detail in the first half, or even the first game, but stacking all those possessions against each other (low-expended energy, simple execution vs. constant movement, thought) and this is a massive advantage in Miami’s favor. Which leads to …
The crucial factor: Jodie Meeks’ shooting (and, to some extent, Lou Williams’ perimeter shooting). Meeks is going to get his open looks in transition and off of offensive rebounds and broken plays. For the most part, these will be low-energy offensive possessions. They’ll be quick-hit and they’ll be high reward. The Sixers can’t come away empty on these possessions. Meeks can’t go cold like he has done at various stretches this season. If he is 0 for 5 or 1 for 7, even if the Sixers are hanging tough in a game, it will have been through grinding out difficult offensive scores. Running of off double-down screens and making successive baseline cuts is tiring. This will take its toll in the fourth quarter. Also, a side note to the importance of Meeks’ shooting is his connection with Iguodala. In a way, these two guys fuel each other. Iguodala takes pride in finding Meeks in transition or when the defense collapses. If the majority of these passes end in missed opportunity, this will have the effect of frustrating Iguodala, which anyone who follows this team knows is a distinct possibility. The Sixers must operate like an engine gathering steam: each play, each player, each possession, must contribute to the growing belief that they can beat Miami on that specific day. And Iguodala’s demeanor plays a huge factor in this. And Meeks making shots fuels Iguodala’s transition game.
Watch for this: The score at the end of the first quarter. At today’s practice, Collins said something interesting. He said that when he coached Michael Jordan, Jordan would approach the first game of a playoff series with the conviction that he could destroy his opponent’s faith and belief in the opening quarter of the opening game. Jordan wanted to deliver a message to the opponent: you can’t guard me, you can’t compete with us, don’t even try. Collins said he believes Wade and James have this same ability. What’s even more interesting is that the Heat has likely been bored with the regular season since January – if not earlier. Really, no team has more to prove than Miami. This is scary when you consider that the Sixers will start three players (Holiday, Meeks, Hawes) who have never before played in the playoffs. This can work in two ways: they won’t know enough to be scared, or they’re going to be blown away by the raised play.
Bottom line: Get ready for the truth to be revealed. It’s been a great regular season; we (those who’ve covered the team) have generally been complimentary of the performance of this team. And we’ve been that way for good reason. They jumped from 27 wins to 41 wins, which is nothing to complain about. But in the NBA, the jump from bad to mediocre is not in the least bit important if it’s not coupled with the inherent potential to jump from mediocre to good. As Collins said today: in the NBA, this second jump is the most difficult. You can make the first jump just through focus and hard work, playing hard all 82 games, but you can’t make the second jump unless you have something different: talent, yes, but also a core of belief. The Sixers have seven young players around whom they might be able to build something, but what that “something” might be, we really don’t know yet. This playoff series will reveal a lot about what’s needed in the off-season. The Heat will attack the Sixers’ weaknesses, exposing them for the fans as well as the front office. Two years ago, the Chicago Bulls were the eighth seed in the playoffs and they took the Boston Celtics, then the top seed, the full seven games – all of them contested until the final seconds. That was an example of a lower-seeded NBA team that was clearly on its way up the NBA hierarchy.
Which one will the Sixers reveal themselves as? And will the knowledge gleaned from these next two weeks (or perhaps more) provide a blueprint for pinpointing the necessary future additions?
It all begins tomorrow afternoon.
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