Most compelling storyline
Will a consistent go-to guy be the success or downfall of this series?
Joel Embiid suffered a right orbital fracture and mild concussion in their final game of the first round. He has also been playing the entire postseason with a torn ligament in his right thumb. This puts Philadelphia in a serious handicap as there is no timetable yet for Embiid’s return.
With Embiid out, James Harden has a target on his back. He will carry the burden of being the 76ers’ primary scorer and facilitator. With one go-to guy out of the rotation, it will be more obvious that the Heat’s defense needs to close in on Harden, forcing Philadelphia to find options other than their main man.
However, this is Harden we’re talking about. The All-Star guard is so familiar with being the focal point as he was the main man of his Houston Rockets team for years. Plus, his experience as a veteran in the playoffs will come in handy as the series progresses.
On the other side of the scale, what makes the Heat so dangerous is their unpredictability. Miami is loaded with a ton of talent that is more than capable of carrying their team to a win. In the first round against the Atlanta Hawks alone, there were four different players who scored the most points in the five-game series. Those guys were Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, and Victor Oladipo.
However, it is that same unpredictability that can ultimately lead to their downfall. Butler is considered to be their go-to guy given his talent and veteran experience, but there have been instances where he could not close out the game entirely on his own.
In a series that’s expected to be extremely close, there’s a level of comfort fans get when they know they can run to someone when things are going wrong.
There are two players on the floor that will play under a microscope for this series and for relatively similar reasons.
Without Embiid, the weight of the 76ers’ offense will fall under Harden’s shoulders. While this may be a “burden” Harden will have to carry until Embiid returns, one guy may see this as an opportunity.
Tobias Harris has been playing a less valuable role since the arrival of Harden. Before the All-Star break, Harris was averaging 18.7 points in around 15 attempts. After the break and eventual trade that brought in Harden, Harris dropped to an average of 14.3 points in almost 12 attempts. Sure, a difference of three attempts may not be so big on paper, but it goes to show how his scoring is no longer a requirement for him.
But now that Embiid may be out of the picture in this second round, Harris is expected to put up more shots for his team. Philadelphia may have to rely on Harris and Harden to serve as the primary scorers while their big man is recovering from all the injuries.
On the other hand, Miami escaped their final game, thanks to a guy who barely appears in the rotation. Victor Oladipo needs to get things going as he is given a greater responsibility off the bench. Kyle Lowry has yet to return after sustaining a hamstring injury in Game 3 against the Hawks. He remains day-to-day, opening up one rotational slot for the Heat.
Oladipo was quick to grab this opportunity, dropping 23 points on 8-of-16 shooting, including three shots from long distance. This comes after playing only eight games in the regular season. While the Heat have never tested out his consistency being in and out of rotation, in the times Oladipo did see time on the floor, he made sure to deliver. In one game he dropped 40, in another 21. He is the definition of “staying ready” and is an important piece for Miami in Lowry’s absence.
To take the series, the 76ers will need to fill in the void. They are an excellent scoring team and they hold the second-best offense with a rating of 119.5. The bench will play a huge part of continuing their scoring success as losing Embiid leaves a huge gap.
It is also too often overlooked how Philadelphia will miss Embiid’s impact on defense. This responsibility will fall on the shoulders of DeAndre Jordan, who is expected to replace Embiid while he’s recovering.
Meanwhile, the Heat need to lock it down on defense yet again. In their series against the Hawks, Miami clamped down Trae Young and forced him to make just 15.4 points a game, on 31.9 percent shooting from the field and a measly 18.4 percent from the 3. If they can do to Harden the same thing they did to Young, then the 76ers will be in deep trouble.
The Heat also need to stay consistent or improve their 3-pointers to move on to the Eastern Conference Finals. Tyler Herro needs to get his shots to fall more consistently as he only made 17.9 percent of his attempts from downtown. In their first-round series, the Heat shot 34.4 percent from long range. If they can lock it down on defense and get their 3-pointers to land, then this team will be deadly.