Wednesday, April 13, 2011

NBA Playoff Preview, Round 1: #2 Miami Heat-#7 Philadelphia 76ers

This is now our third and final preview of potentially-competitive Eastern Conference first round series (we skipped Bulls-Pacers for obvious reasons).  We've already predicted the Magic to beat the Hawks in six games and the Celtics to defeat the Knicks in six games.  Now we're moving on to the series between the second-seeded Miami Heat and the seventh-seeded Philadelphia 76ers.  While the Heat's Big 3 (see left) may be disappointed not to have the top seed in the East, the upstart 76ers are just happy to be in the postseason after finishing 27-55 last season.  To decide who will win this matchup, we'll look at the four usual categories: head-to-head, recent play, season play, and playoff experience.  Can the 76ers pull the upset?  Hit the jump to find out.

Any playoff preview in any sport should begin by reviewing the head-to-head history between the two teams to see if it gives any clues as to how the postseason series will turn out.  That's what we'll do here.

10/27: Miami @ Philadelphia--Heat win 97-87
11/26: Philadelphia @ Miami--Heat win 99-90
3/25: Philadelphia @ Miami--Heat win 111-99

The Heat and 76ers only played three times this season (unusual for intra-conference foes), and Miami has prevailed in all three meetings.  The games were decided by 10, nine, and 12 points, respectively, so the Heat have maintained a rather uniform dominance over the seventh-seeded Sixers.  Though Miami has added several rotation players--such as Mike Bibby and Erick Dampier--during the course of the regular season, they still dispatched the 76ers in March with as much ease as they did in October and November.  This history paints a pretty simple picture of the upcoming series between Miami and Philadelphia, one in which the Sixers might keep the game close for awhile (like they did for 42 minutes in March) but ultimately succumb to the Big 3.  Given the lopsided season series...
Head-to-head: large edge to Miami

Wade and his new teammates are hot at the right time
Those three regular season games are only a small sample size of an 82-game season, however, so we should turn to each team's recent performance to judge how momentum might factor into this first round matchup.  The Miami Heat will be hot heading into the playoffs, as it appears that Dwayne Wade (see right), LeBron James, and Chris Bosh have really learned how to play together.  The Heat currently have a three-game winning streak, which includes victories over fellow playoff teams Atlanta and Boston.  They've also compiled a 13-3 record since March 18th, with wins over the Lakers, Spurs, and Nuggets.  Unlike the Heat, who just keep on rolling towards the postseason, the 76ers enter the playoffs as more of a mixed bag.  They're a respectable 13-11 since the All-Star Break, but that pales in comparison to the Heat's recent 13-3 run.  The Sixers have salvaged quality wins over the Bulls, Hawks, and Celtics, but they also have poor losses to Sacramento and Milwaukee in the last three weeks.  They've been just as mediocre on the road (5-6) in the second half of the season as they have been at home (8-5).  The Sixers, unlike the Heat, have been unable to put the ranks of mediocrity behind them in recent weeks, meaning they'll meander into the playoffs as a team without direction.
Recent performance: edge Miami

We should also look at the season as a whole to judge these teams because playing (up to) seven games against the same team is much more of a marathon than a sprint.  Long-term averages tend to take hold, and flukes usually cannot decide an entire series.  One interesting statistic for the Heat is their record in close games.  Miami has an NBA-best +7.3 point differential on the season, meaning that their wins often come by large margins.  The other side of that coin, though, is that their losses are small--and often avoidable.  Close games have been a battle for the Heat all year long: they started the season 1-8 in games decided by five points of less.  After winning four such games in a row, they then lost six consecutive close ones to end up 5-14 to date.  The Heat have been panned in the media for losing close games, with some predicting it will spell their doom in the playoffs.  The criticism is understandable given that, through March 6th, the Heat were 1-16 on game-winning or game-tying shots in the final seconds.  Though close games may be Miami's biggest weakness entering the postseason, their first opponent, Philadelphia, is not exactly well-prepared to exploit that vulnerability.  The Sixers are a mediocre-at-best 9-14 in games decided by five points or less, including a recent home loss to the Kings.  In fact, Philadelphia's overall point differential is only +1.6 this season, meaning that, not only are they below average in close games, but they also do not blow many teams out.  This means that the Sixers will have trouble winning most games against a quality opponent like the Heat.  And the Heat really are a quality opponent, with the third-best offensive efficiency and fifth-best defensive efficiency (according to ESPN's John Hollinger) in the NBA.  The 76ers by contrast, are middle-of-the road offensively (17th) and only solid defensively (10th); though they will not beat themselves with exceptionally poor play at any point, the Sixers are not able to dominate a game in the same way the Heat are.  That efficiency disparity, coupled with the Heat's 16-game advantage in the standings and the Sixers' inability to exploit Miami's weak play in close games, means...
Season performance: large edge Miami

Iguodala has been throwing down for the Sixers
for seven years, but will chemistry be enough?
Our last component in this preview will be each team's playoff experience--a measure of the intangibles that each squad bring to the floor in crunch time.  Any comparison of the two head coaches seems to be a wash, as Miami's Erik Spoelstra and Philadelphia's Doug Collins do not bring much postseason success with them to this series.  Spoelstra was an assistant coach on the Heat's 2006 NBA Championship team, but he is only in his third year as a head coach.  Though he led Miami to the playoffs in 2008 and 2009, his teams got bounced in the first round both times.  Collins has been to the playoffs five times, but he has a 15-23 (.395) career winning percentage there.  He twice made it to the second round, but the most recent time was when Michael Jordan got him there in 1989; Collins has never been to a Conference Championship series.  Therefore, neither coach has much of a leg-up in terms of experience, and the intangibles in this series will largely come down to the players.  Philadelphia's core players have built some familiarity with each other over the years: Thaddeus Young, Louis Williams, and Andre Iguodala (see left) have all been with the Sixers for at least four years, while Elton Brand is in his third year with the team.  They've even been to the playoffs twice in that span as well, in 2008 and 2009.  The Heat, by contrast, have almost no familiarity with one another before this season.  The Big 3 all played on different teams their entire careers (except for All-Star Games and Team USA), and newly-acquired point guard Mike Bibby had never played with Bosh, Wade, or James at any point before.  The only long-term chemistry that exists on this team is that between LeBron and center Zyndrunas Ilgauskas, who played together for seven seasons in Cleveland.  However, Ilguaskas is a marginal player at best at this point in his career, averaging only 10.5 minutes per game since the start of March.  Though they had not played much together as a unit before this season, the Heat's players individually have a wealth of playoff experience.  LeBron and Ilguaskas have been to the Finals once, and Wade actually won a title in Miami.  Dampier was also on the Mavericks team that lost to Wade in the 2006 Finals, so the Heat players bring some deep postseason experience with them--but none of it was as a unit.  That's the big difference between these two teams: the Sixers have a bit of experience together, while the Heat have lots of experience separately.  For this reason...
Playoff experience: Tie--Tie on chemistry, Tie on coaching

Primarily because the Heat are the #2 seed and the Sixers are just #7, this series will not be as close as the other two in the East that we profiled.  The Heat have the advantage in the first three components of the preview, while the fourth comes out to a tie.  The Sixers' familiarity with one another--as well as the Heat's inability to hit a last-second shot--should win them a game.  The talent of the Big 3 will ultimately be too much, though, and...
Verdict: Miami over Philadelphia in 5 games


  1. If the games are close in the last couple minutes, the Sixers have a chance. Miami is not a great closing team. That being said, I don't think the games will be close.

  2. The Sixers have played good basketball, and they definitely have bought into Doug Collins' system, but I think that this is when LBJ, Bosh, and Wade are really going to take off. They got together for one reason, and now they are just a few weeks of good play away from making it happen--and a lot of the other contenders are looking pretty vulnerable.

  3. The Sixers have a lot of good things going for them in the years ahead, especially with Jrue Holiday starting to emerge. LeBron & Co. will be too much this series, though. It will show that the Sixers are one legit piece away from being a true contender.