The Miami Heat finished the 2017-18 season with a record of 44-38, good enough for sixth in the Eastern Conference, which means they’ll be taking on the third-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Coming into the playoffs, the 76ers have won 16 straight games (only three came against other playoff teams) while the Heat are 5-5 in their last 10. Philadelphia’s win streak is the longest in NBA history for a team heading directly to the postseason.
The two teams split the four games they played during the regular season with the home team winning each one. Every game was decided by less than 10 points.
The series schedule is as follows:
Game 1: Miami @ Philadelphia: Saturday, April 14, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
Game 2: Miami @ Philadelphia: Monday, April 16, 8 p.m. ET on TNT
Game 3: Philadelphia @ Miami: Thursday, April 19, 7 p.m. ET on TNT
Game 4: Philadelphia @ Miami: Saturday, April 21, 2:30 p.m. ET on TNT
Game 5: Miami @ Philadelphia: Tuesday, April 24, TBD (If necessary)
Game 6: Philadelphia @ Miami: Thursday, April 26, TBD (If necessary)
Game 7: Miami @ Philadelphia: Saturday, April 28, TBD (If necessary)
Now let’s get into the individual matchups and see who has the advantage.
1. Goran Dragic vs. Ben Simmons
Dragic is the better scorer and shooter, but Simmons tops him in virtually every other category on offense and defense. Simmons is also seven inches taller than the Slovenian.
The trick with this matchup is that we will more than likely see someone else guarding Simmons. Options include guard Josh Richardson, forward James Johnson or forward Justise Winslow, all of whom are more than capable of keeping the Australian rookie in check.
Dragic was named an All-Star for the first time in his career this season as he led the Heat in points (17.3) and assists (4.8) per game. As for Simmons, he averaged 15.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 8.1 assists per game.
The Heat’s point guard may have been named to the All-Star game over Simmons and may have more experience in the NBA, but it’s simple: Simmons, even with his struggles from the three-point line and the free-throw line, is just a better overall player.
2. Tyler Johnson vs. J.J. Redick
Johnson has always been a solid player for the Heat, but he struggled this season as his numbers dropped to 11.7 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game from 13.7, 4.0 and 3.2, respectively in 2016-17.
Redick is the 76ers’ second-leading scorer with an average of 17.1 points per game. He also shoots 42 percent from three. However, during the regular-season games against the Heat, Redick only shot 8-of-30 from three. The 33-year-old Duke University product is also the only regular Philadelphia starter to have any postseason experience, having appeared in 88 playoff games.
It’s a close battle between the two but Redick has been more consistent this season. He also has more experience in the playoffs, so that gives him the edge over Johnson.
3. Josh Richardson vs. Robert Covington
This is arguably the closest matchup out of the five. Richardson and Covington are both part of the “3-and-D” movement in the NBA. The two have constantly been given praise for their defense and this season they both finished in the top 25 for defensive win shares, according to the NBA.
Richardson and Covington had extremely similar statistical seasons with the only big difference coming in rebounds per game, where Covington edged out Richardson 5.4 to 3.5. Richardson topped Covington in points (12.9 to 12.6) and assists per game (2.9 to 2.0).
Although the two do a lot of the same things for their respective teams, Richardson offers a little more versatility as he is able to play either of the guard positions, creating for himself or others on offense. This will prove to be key for the Heat as he will able to relieve some pressure off Dragic and Johnson.
Next: Power Forward
4. James Johnson vs. Dario Saric
James Johnson went through some rough patches during the regular season but he wound up finishing strong. Over the last 15 games, he averaged 13.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. He also shot 55.2 percent from the field.
Dario Saric, the second-year Croatian, averaged 19.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game against Miami this season. He is a better scorer than Johnson is and he is more than capable of leading the 76ers in scoring if everyone else is slacking.
This is another close matchup, but given his offensive consistency and his performances against the Heat this season, Saric gets the nod.
5. Hassan Whiteside vs. Joel Embiid/Amir Johnson
Hassan Whiteside is the Heat’s X-factor in this series. If they are able to get him going, they’ll have a much greater chance of taking the series, especially considering Joel Embiid is out for at least Game 1.
Amir Johnson, who is expected to take Embiid’s place, is three inches shorter than Whiteside. The Heat need to take advantage of that. Whiteside averaged 19.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game against the 76ers this season (excluding the Feb. 2 game where he left early with a stomach virus).
As for Embiid, he has had his way against the Heat this season, averaging 19.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.0 blocks per game.
When both Whiteside and Embiid are on the court, the University of Kansas product gets the nod. However, when it’s Whiteside and Johnson on the court, it’s Whiteside by far. Embiid’s early absence could end up being what pushes the Heat over the top in this series.