A message left up on the dry erase board inside a victorious and happy Miami Heat locker room Wednesday night served as a reminder for players to leave their iPads behind before heading home.
When players return to AmericanAirlines Arena Thursday morning what will be waiting for them is an encyclopedia’s worth of digitized cutups of gamefilm and scouting information on the NBA’s hottest team and their Round 1 playoff opponent: the Philadelphia 76ers (52-30).
Not that the Heat (44-38) truly need much of a refersher course. After all, sixth-seeded Miami and third-seeded Philadelphia, who meet Saturday night at 8 p.m. at the Wells Fargo Center (ESPN), played each other four times from Feb. 2 to March 8. Each time it produced highly entertaining and competitive games that went down to the wire.
The Sixers won both meetings in Philadelphia, holding off a late Heat rally on Feb. 2 and then coming back from 24 points down without All-Star center Joel Embiid to beat the Heat 104-102 only 12 days later.
Miami, meanwhile, defended its homecourt, getting a heroic 27-point effort and the game-winning shot from Dwyane Wade in a 102-101 victory on Feb. 27 before Hassan Whiteside got the better of Emiid a little more than a week later in a 108-99 Heat win.
Philadelphia has since gone on to win 17 of its last 18 games since its loss at Miami on March 8 including 16 wins in a row to finish the regular season, impressively moving past three-time defending conference champion Cleveland and four-time MVP LeBron James in the final standings.
“If we play the game we know we can play it will be a helluva series,” Wade said Wednesday night as he held up a glass of champagne to celebrate the end of his 15th season with close friend and teammate Udonis Haslem. “They obviously are playing phenomenal basketball with a lot of confidence and we have to go to their homecourt to start this thing off. But we think its going to be a great series between teams that really play hard all the way through and through. It’s going to be the little things that are going to win the series for either team. But we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
The Sixers, who are making their first playoff appearance since 2012 and coming off five consecutive losing seasons, have one of the best young teams in the league led by the 7-foot, 250-pound Embiid (22.9 points per game, 11.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game) and 6-10, 230-pound Australian-born Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons, who averaged 15.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 8.2 assists this season.
Philadelphia not only led the league in rebounding and ranked second in assists per game, but also led the NBA in defensive field goal percentage (43.4 percent) while averaging 109.8 points per game (7th in the NBA).
Embiid, who sustained an orbital fracture near his left eye when he collided with teammate Markelle Fultz on March 28 is unlikely to play Saturday, but he’s likely to return at some point during the series with a protective mask.
“He’s a game changer,” Heat forward Josh Richardson said. “He’s a great player. Every time he steps on the court, he draws everybody’s attention. If he comes back, that’s great for them. But we’re just going to have to accept that assignment.”
The Heat, which has never won a first round playoff series when it hasn’t had homecourt advantage (0-6 all-time), is also one of the best defensive teams in the league, allowing the fourth-fewest points per game (102.9) and ranking seventh in defensive rating (104.0). But it has struggled against teams that speed up the game and the Sixers rank fourth in the league in the pace (102.20).
“We got our work cut out for us, there’s no doubt about that,” Heat forward James Johnson said. “But regular season and playoffs are two totally different things. I’ve been on teams where we’ve swept teams during the [regular] season and then we got swept in the playoffs by the same team. So anything can happen.”
The Heat already snapped a 16-game winning streak earlier this season, beating the Boston Celtics back in late November. Last season, the Sixers snapped the Heat’s 13-game winning streak in February.
“They’re playing extremely well, but streaks are meant to be broken, right,” said Heat guard Wayne Ellington, a Philadelphia native who scored a career-high 32 points in Miami’s overtime win over No. 1 seeded Toronto Wednesday night in the regular season finale to setup the series against the Sixers.
“We feel like if you put us up against anybody in seven games, we can beat them. That’s the type of the team that we feel like we are. It’s going to be a dogfight no matter what. We’re excited, we’re geared up and we’re ready to roll.”
What’s the key to the series?
“Matching their toughness,” Richardson said. “I think they like to bully a lot of teams. We can’t let them come out and hit us in the mouth like they’re used to doing.”
Said Heat forward Justise Winslow: “Both teams are going to fight... it’s not going to be for the weak, mentally or physically. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
HEAT-SIXERS PLAYOFF SCHEDULE
Saturday: Game 1 in Philadelphia, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
Monday: Game 2 in Philadelphia, 8 p.m. (TNT)
Thursday, April 19: Game 3 in Miami, 7 p.m. (TNT)
Saturday, April 21: Game 4 in Miami, 2:30 p.m. (TNT)
Tuesday, April 24: Game 5 in Philadelphia, TBA (if necessary)
Thursday, April 26: Game 6 in Miami, TBA (if necessary)
Saturday, April 28: Game 7 in Philadelphia, TBA (TNT, if necessary)