The Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers split their four-game regular season series with each team winning both games on its home floor in dramatic fashion.
Is it fair to expect more of the same when the teams open a first round playoff series Saturday night in Philadelphia?
Let's examine who owns the edge as the series gets set to begin:
Sixers rookie Ben Simmons (6-10, 230) is more LeBron James than he is the typical NBA point guard. Simmons, 20, doesn't attempt three-point shots (he's 0 for 11 this season), but he averages 15.8 points (on 54.5 percent shooting), 8.1 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game for a team that averages 109.8 points per game (seventh-most in the NBA) and ranks second in assists (27.1 per game). In the Heat's wins over Philadelphia Simmons not only averaged five fewer shots, but he also averaged just 10.5 points per game. In Philly's wins, he averaged 19 points, nine rebounds and 7.5 assists. Veteran J.J. Redick (6-4, 200), the Sixers' second-leading scorer with 17.2 points per game this season, shot 42 percent from three-point range. in the regular season. But against the Heat he was only 8 of 30 from beyond the arc (26.7 percent).
Redick's Heat counterpart Tyler Johnson (6-4, 190) has actually averaged more points (12.3 per game) and shot the ball better versus Philadelphia (18 of 36 from field, 9 of 18 from 3) than his season averages of 43.6 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from beyond the arc. Heat All-Star point guard Goran Dragic (6-3, 190), meanwhile, has gone the opposite direction, scoring less (14 points per game) and shooting only 37.5 percent from both the field and three-point range (6 of 16) in his four games against Philly this season. The Sixers usually put small forward Robert Covington (6-9, 225) on Dragic for defensive purposes. Dragic is also entering the playoffs with a bone bruise on his right knee that's bothered him for the past month.
Covington led the NBA in deflections this season and while opponents still managed to shoot 46 percent against him (0.3 percent better than their averages) he's widely considered one of the best defensive players in the league. Offensively, he averaged only 7.5 points and shot 20.9 percent from the field while going 5 of 24 from three-point range in four games against the Heat this season, far off his season averages of 12.6 points, 41.3 percent field goal shooting and 36.9 percent three-point shooting. Meanwhile, teammate Dario Saric (6-10, 223) has led the Sixers in scoring against the Heat (19.3 per game) while shooting 49 percent from the field and 44.8 percent on threes (13 of 29).
The Heat's Josh Richardson has averaged only 9.3 points per game and shot 38.5 percent from the field in four games against the Sixers this season. He's 7 of 15 though on threes (46.7 percent on threes). Richardson's biggest contribution will likely come when he guards Simmons. James Johnson (6-9, 240) has not performed well against Philly (7.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists). He's averaged only 20.3 minutes against the Sixers (eighth on the team). Over the Heat's last 15 games, though, he's been better overall (13.5 points per game, 6.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists) while shooting 55.3 percent from the field. Edge: Even.
Sixers All-Star Joel Embiid (7-0, 250) has been ruled out for Game 1 and its unclear when he will return. But Embiid, who has been out with an orbital fracture to his right eye since March 28 and will wear a mask when he returns, is one of the league's best players (22.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.8 blocks) on both ends of the floor. The Sixers have outscored opponents by 485 points this season in the 63 games he's played in. In three regular season games against the Heat, Embiid has been a team-best plus-22 while averaging 19 points. 8.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and a block a game.
Heat center Hassan Whiteside, meanwhile,has played well against the Sixers, averaging 15.3 points on 60 percent shooting to go with 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. He outplayed Embiid the last time the teams met on March 8. If you throw out Whiteside's four-point, 18-minute performance the first time the teams met on Feb. 2 (he left the game with a stomach virus in the third quarter), he's averaged 19 points over the last three meetings. With Embiid out for Game 1, the Sixers will likely counter with 6-9, 240-pound Amir Johnson, who has averaged 6.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in place of Embiid over the last eight games. Edge: Even.
Sixers veterans Ersan Ilyasova (6-10, 235) and Marco Belinelli (6-5, 210) are two playoff experienced, quality scorers off the bench. Ilyasova has averaged 10.8 points per game and shot 36.1 percent from three-point range while Belinelli has scored 13.6 points per game and shot 38.5 percent from three. Belinelli played in three games against the Heat and was 8 of 16 from three in those games. Guard Markelle Fultz (6-4, 200) is the new intriguing addition to mix in the series for Philadephia having not played against Miami at all during his 68-game injury absence. In the 10 games he's played since his return, Fultz has averaged 7.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists in nearly 18 minutes a game off the bench.
Since the All-Star break, though, no team has gotten more production off the bench than the Heat, which has averaged an NBA-best 48.8 points per game. Miami's bench ranks No. 2 in the NBA in plus/minus since the break (+54). The Sixers ranks eighth (+23). Dwyane Wade (6-4, 200) has actually been the Heat's leading scorer against Philly this season (17.0 points per game, 50 percent field goals). Against the Sixers, Philadelphia-born Heat guard Wayne Ellington (6-5, 200) has not shot the ball well (32 percent from three-point range) or lit up the scoreboard (8.8 points per game), but he's plus-35 (opponents have shot only 9 of 32 against him when he's defended their shots). The only player more effective in terms of plus/minus for Miami against Philadelphia has been forward Kelly Olynyk (7-0, 245). He's plus-37 while averaging 12.7 points and shooting 54.5 percent in three games against the Sixers. Rookie center Bam Adebayo, meanwhile, has held Philadelphia to only 33.3 percent (9 of 27) shooting on shots he's defended over the four regular season meetings. Edge: Heat.
Philadelphia's Brett Brown, 57, deserves credit for not only leading the Sixers to the fifth-best record in the league at 52-30 after all the losing he's had to endure his first four seasons on the job, but for building Philadelphia into the No. 1 defensive team in the league in terms of opponent field goal percentage (43.4 percent). The former Spurs assistant under Gregg Popovich has been patient through Embiid's injuries and even through the losing seasons established good habits in his young players.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, 47, has two championship rings and plenty of playoff experience. He's had to juggle a roster that's battled injuries and had an ever-evolving rotation with as many as 11 to 12 players. The Heat enter fourth in the league in fewest points allowed (102.9 per game) and seventh in opponent field goal percentage (45 percentage). Edge: Heat.
Miami has pulled off road wins at top-seeded Toronto and No. 2-seeded Boston this season in the regular season and will need to win at least once in Philadelphia to advance beyond this series. The Sixers, though, own the fifth-best home record in the league this season (30-11) and a league-best 23-2 at home since Jan. 1. Yes, Philadelphia doesn't have as much playoff experience as the Heat does (Wade and Udonis Haslem have played in 319 games and started 256 of them combined). But the Sixers aren't totally devoid of experience with Belinelli having won a championship ring with the Spurs in 2014 and Redick with 88 postseason games between his time with the Magic, Clippers and Bucks. In the end, the Heat's road record (2-12 over its last 14 games) looms large here. Edge: Sixers.
Sixers win in 7 games.