Heat-Sixers Play-In preview: Key matchups, questions and X-factors

Philadelphia 76ers v Miami Heat
Philadelphia 76ers v Miami Heat / Megan Briggs/GettyImages

The Miami Heat weren’t supposed to be here. Not after last year’s NBA Finals run – yes, even as the eighth seed. That should have propelled the Heat to greater regular-season success, not doomed them to déjà vu. Instead, injuries and age took hold and the Heat are back to having to prove their worth not in the 82-game regular season but rather in the high-stakes play-in tournament for the second straight year.

Wednesday night’s opponent is the Philadelphia 76ers – a very different team than the Heat but here for similar reasons. After posting historic numbers through the first three months of the season, Joel Embiid was lost for two months because of a knee injury. The 76ers went 16-27 without Embiid but 31-8 with him, including 7-0 since his return. The 76ers have looked like a title contender for stretches of this season. The Heat have not. 

The Heat will have to go on the road (where they are an elite 24-17) and beat the 76ers to claim the seventh seed and skirt a first-round meeting with the top-seeded Boston Celtics. A loss on Wednesday would set up a win-or-go-home matchup against the winner of the Bulls-Hawks game.

So those are the stakes in Philadelphia on Wednesday. Win and face the New York Knicks in the playoffs as the No. 7 seed. Lose and face elimination in the play-in tournament or the daunting Celtics in the first round.

Here’s an Xs-and-Os preview of Heat-Sixers on Wednesday.

Key matchup: Joel Embiid vs Jimmy Butler

Everything starts here, not because Butler and Embiid will be guarding each other, but because they will be locked in a battle of stars. The Heat will need Butler to at least match Embiid’s production to have a puncher’s chance in this one.

Let’s be clear: the Jimmy Butler of the regular season is not near the level of Embiid. Even Embiid at something less than full strength has been shockingly productive. 

Here are Embiid’s averages in his five games since returning from injury: 30.4 points on 49.5% shooting, 9.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks.

Compare that to Butler’s last five games: 18.6 points on 55.6% shooting, 5.4 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.2 steals and zero blocks.

In the past, Butler has typically ramped up his play heading into the postseason. That hasn’t been the case as Miami stumbled into the play-in tournament.

But will “Playoff Jimmy” be summoned in the Heat’s greatest moment of need? It will take something close to that for Miami to leave Philadelphia with a win, not just because of what Embiid promises to produce but also because of what Philly’s second star threatens to contribute.

Key question: Who guards Tyrese Maxey?

In the four regular-season matchups between these two teams, Tyrese Maxey scored at least 30 points three times and shot 52% in those games. In their last meeting, on April 4, Maxey went off for 37 on 15 for 26 shooting. Here’s how Maxey scored against each of Miami's defenders in that game, according to NBA.com’s matchup data:

4 for 5 against Caleb Martin

4 for 5 against Terry Rozier

2 for 4 against Haywood Highsmith

2 for 4 against Duncan Robinson

3 for 5 against Bam Adebayo

1 for 3 against Nikola Jovic

0 for 1 against Jimmy Butler

1 for 1 against Jaime Jaquez Jr.

Who defends Maxey in this game will depend partly on whether Rozier (neck) and Robinson (lower back) are available. In the last two games without them, the Heat have started Herro and Martin in the backcourt. Starting Martin gives Miami a pair of longer options (Martin and Butler) to defend Maxey from the jump. Perhaps Erik Spoelstra leans in that direction.

Of all of Miami’s defenders, Highsmith did perhaps the best job guarding Maxey. He should get into the game early and could have his minutes mirror Maxey’s throughout.

X-factor: Tyler Herro

There are some similarities to last year’s Finals matchup against the Nuggets. The 76ers are built around the two-man game of a dominant big man and high-scoring point guard. There will be only so much defense in this game. Philadelphia scores 120.7 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the court. Can the Heat keep up?

Unless one of Embiid or Maxey has an off-shooting night, the Heat are going to have to keep pace with two All-Star-level scorers. Even if “Playoff Jimmy” makes a cameo, the Heat will need another player to step up. 

Bam Adebayo will be tasked with guarding Embiid and doesn’t have much room left on his plate. Rozier might not play. That leaves Tyler Herro. Herro is averaging 21 points on 47% shooting (37.5% on 3s), 5.2 rebounds and 5 assists in six games since returning from his knee and foot injuries. 

The Heat missed Herro in last year’s Finals because of his ability to pull up after coming around a ball screen. Herro did not play when these teams met earlier this month but you can see where he might get those opportunities against Philadelphia's drop coverage.

If Herro can knock down enough jumpers and force Philadelphia’s defense to react, it would create more space for Butler and Adebayo in the paint. The Heat managed to limit the 76ers to 109 points in the last meeting. If they can hold them to something similar and get more production from Butler and Herro, then they’ll have a chance to steal a game on the road and book a series with the Knicks.