The Miami Heat is one of the biggest underdogs in these NBA playoffs, something that strikes us as perhaps a wild overestimation of the young Philadelphia 76ers, on whom all of the pressure awaits.
More on that in a bit. First, a quick appreciation of the Heat's rather relentless franchise competitiveness. It is earned. The Big 3 broke up, the national spotlight ran away, and yet, as usual, one pro team is back to doing all of the heavy lifting in South Florida sports. It is what underpins all the talk about Heat "culture" — that, somehow, Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra are going to find a way to compete and wring the most from a mostly blue-collar team that does it with defense and depth.
Remarkably this is the Heat's 20th playoff appearance in 30 franchise seasons, a 66.7 percent rate. That ranks second among all Eastern Conference clubs, trailing only the Boston Celtics. Our other pro teams? The Dolphins are 23 playoffs in 52 seasons (44.2%), including a severe skid of only two playoffs in the past 16 seasons. The Panthers are 5 for 24 (20.8%). And the Marlins are 2 for 26 (7.7%).
The new Marlins owners thought it would be smart to trade the team's best players and now the British Virgin Islands Marlins, a.k.a. Fire-Sale Fish, have the abysmal record and attendance that is the direct result.
The Dolphins must have thought that seemed like a great idea in parting this off-season with their best players, too.
The Panthers, for all of their youthful promise, continue to find ways to fall short.
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Heat does heavy lifting for Miami sports
But here comes the Heat. Again. And this is a team well-suited to use its overlooked underdog status as fuel in the first-round series that begins Saturday night in Philadelphia.
This is the Sixers' best season and best team since Allen Iverson's 2001, and Philly's first time in the playoffs since 2012. They enter on the wing of an NBA-best 16-game winning streak, which has prognosticators and bettors swooning.
But none of that means a young team bereft of postseason experience will rise above the pressure, the burden of being a heavy favorite with home-court advantage. And that burden is quantifiable
ESPN's Basketball Power Index gives Philly a 78 percent likelihood of advancing past the Heat, for example. The respected FiveThirtyEight.com site puts it at 88 percent to Miami's 12. Bovada's betting line against winning the NBA championship has the Heat at a plus-12500 — longest odds of any of the 16 playoff teams. If Miami wants to play the disrespect card, it has a whole deck handy.
The disparity in assumptions about this series is irrational and out of alignment. These teams stood nose-to-nose like prizefighters at a weigh-in during the regular season, each winning two games — and Miami winning the last two. Total points were Heat's 409 to Sixers' 407. Does that forebode a lopsided or short seven-game series?
Sixers' heavy favorite's role a mystery
Besides that, Philly is likely to be without star center Joel Embiid at least for Saturday's opener, after which he will wear a protective mask after sustaining a broken bone around his left eye in a March 28 collision with a teammate. Although he has not officially been declared out, "I don't think I'm ready to play," Embiid said this week.
The Sixers are 8-0 since Embiid went out, but six of those wins were against non-playoff teams. His absence from this series, for however long, hugely benefits Miami. His return of course will bring a jolt of the delicious, weird rivalry between Embiid and Heat counterpart Hassan Whiteside, a couple of millennials who seem to delight at volleying barbs at each other via social media. They are Yankees-Red Sox, but uno a uno.
Embiid and Ben Simmons front a dynamic young core of Sixers talent. And 19-year-old Markelle Fultz this week became the youngest player ever to achieve a triple-double. That and a 16-game win streak explain the odds here. That is why plenty of Heat fans hoped Miami finished with the seventh seed instead of the sixth to draw Boston instead — Boston without injured Kyrie Irving.
Miami in contrast to Philly is a veteran team led by Goran Dragic, almost 32, and Dwyane Wade, 36, off the bench. Whiteside is seen as young because he bloomed late and doesn't always lead the league in maturity, but even he is almost 29. The Heat is exceptionally more playoff-experienced than Philly, though, and Spoelstra is a master at flexing his deep bench suited to particular opponents. Spoelstra vs. 76ers coach Brett Brown, making his postseason debut, figures as a distinct edge for Miami in the opening round.
The 76ers unquestionably are the "it team" in this postseason, bursting onto the stage after averaging only 19 wins the previous four seasons, including a 10-72 record just two years ago.
The Heat is the team so easy to underestimate and look past — so dangerous when that happens.
Experience matters in an NBA postseason. Coaching matters. And there is something to the idea of dues-paying and learning to win at this higher level, of stumbling before you soar.
Heat in six games.