The Miami Heat closed out the regular season without All-Star point guard Goran Dragic in the lineup.
They will not open the playoffs that way.
Dragic, who has been battling a bone bruise in hi right knee and sat out Wednesday's win over Toronto, will practice with his his teammates Friday and is expected to be back in the lineup Saturday night when the Heat opens the playoffs at Philadelphia.
"It feels way better now than it was two days ago," Dragic said after the team watched film and had a team lunch in preparation for the start of the playoffs. " I’m going to feel it, but it’s not going to slow me down or anything. Even when you play through the games, it’s a lot of adrenaline and basically you don’t feel it.”
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- The Heat has lost 12 of its last 14 games on the road, but coach Erik Spoelstra doesn't see that being a huge hurdle in this series. The playoffs, he said, are a different animal.
"I wouldn't necessarily say we've struggled," Spoelstra said. "That's only if you're looking at the result. We felt we were getting better and stronger and building some resilience. That's the tough thing about this league if you're only judging the wins and losses during the regular season. You can't see the progress. We saw progress. Now there was frustration. There were things to work through. We had a lot of close games, a lot of those road games were tough losses where we had tough losses or where we were in the driver's seat in the fourth quarter. But those were teaching moments for this team. We feel we're battle-tested. I don't know if there's a team right now in the league more battle-tested than us in close games. "
Nobody played in more clutch games -- games in which the score differential was five points or less with under five minutes to play in regulation -- than the Heat.
- No team enters the playoffs with a longer winning streak than the Sixers and missing its All-Star center hasn’t been an issue.
Even without Joel Embiid (orbital fracture), who is still unlikely to play against the Heat when in Game 1, the Sixers have stormed into the postseason winners of 16 in a row playing an up-tempo style yet still remaining one of the best defensive teams in the league. Philadelphia ranks first in opponent field goal percentage (43.4 percent), rebounding (47.4 per game) and is second in assists (27.1 per game).
So what does the league’s hottest team think about the Heat, a team they split four meetings against during the regular season?
“We’ve got the momentum,” Sixers forward Robert Covington told NBC Sports Philadelphia on Thursday. “We’re a whole different team from the last time we played them.”
“They’re a physical team, got some shooters and experienced players,” Ben Simmons told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “But at the same time, we have a lot of players who are ready to step up and play.”
- One player the Heat didn't see at all in the regular season series was rookie No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, who is averaging 7.6 points and 4.6 assists in the 10 games since returning from a right shoulder injury that sidelined him for 68 games.
“It’s very impressive that he’s come back in such good rhythm and be able to fit in with the team seamlessly,” Spoelstra said. “But he’s an aggressive, dynamic playmaker off the dribble. He’s another guy that can get in the paint and create some havoc.”
- The Sixers are focused on the challenge of slowing down Heat center Hassan Whiteside should Embiid not play on Saturday. Whiteside, who is averaging 14.0 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, is one of eight active Heat players averaging 10 or more points per game.
“They’re a really big team,” Ersan Ilyasova told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “Obviously with Whiteside they’re really good in the paint. They have (Kelly) Olynyk, who’s kind of a stretch, big guy, can shoot. They’re a really tough team. They added Dwyane Wade. He’s playing at a high level right now … I think the biggest thing for us is going to be use our home-court advantage. In the first two games we have to come out with a lot of energy and do the same thing we did over this 50-win stretch. We have to play our basketball and focus on ourselves.”