at PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Tip-off: Friday, 8:00 p.m. ET
Line: NA, Total: NA
Philly needs to keep fighting towards locking down a playoff spot.
Don't look now, but the Miami Heat may have home-court advantage for the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs once spring rolls around. The Heat have already surpassed the Wizards in the standings, and an extended injury absence for John Wall could sink Washington further down the table. The Philadelphia 76ers are in the inverse situation, where the primary competition (Detroit) for their current playoff seeding (No. 8) just added what now becomes its best player (Blake Griffin). While the Sixers feature far more talent than the other teams around the middle of the standings in the East, they'll need to overcome inexperience as they make a run at securing a playoff spot down the stretch. The Heat and the Sixers meet up in Philadelphia on Friday for a game that will showcase some of the conference's best young players. It will be the first time the two squads square off this season—four of Philly's next six games come against the Heat.
With seven players averaging double-digit scoring—eight, before SG Dion Waiters was injured for the season—the Heat have one of the most equitable offenses in the NBA. It's led by PG Goran Dragic, who has been one of the league's most underrated players for years now. With statistics approximating 17 PPG, 5 APG and 4 RPG, he was a legitimate candidate for the All-Star Game and is arguably having the best season of his career despite being on the wrong side of 30. C Hassan Whiteside is second in scoring, but does most of his damage as an elite rebounder and shot-blocker. Thanks to the arrival of big man reinforcements C Kelly Olynyk and C Bam Adebayo, Whiteside is playing about 26 MPG as opposed to over 32 last season. But, as he showed with 25 points and 14 rebounds in only 26 minutes against Dallas on Monday, the extra rest allows him to be even more impactful when he is on the court. Adebayo is still developing as a traditional big, but the veteran Olynyk has stepped right in to add a new dimension to the lineup as a nearly 40% shooter from three-point range. Entering Wednesday night's game against Cleveland, he had scored in double-digits in eight consecutive games. He's not the only unconventional big on the Heat, as PF James Johnson is second on the team is assists at 6-8, 240. Without Waiters gone, SF Josh Richardson and SGs Tyler Johnson and Wayne Ellington all have expanded roles. Ellington, in particular, has stepped up as a reliable shooter in crunch time.
C Joel Embiid is a starter on the All-Star team—Team Stephen, to be precise—and he's fully deserving of the distinction. In less than 32 minutes per game, he's averaging around 23.5 PPG, 11 RPG and 1.8 BPG. He's still being treated carefully by the team—they sat him for rest purposes on Monday against the Bucks—but certainly is playing bigger minutes than he did before getting injured last season. Rookie PG Ben Simmons has also emerged as an All-Star-caliber player (if not an actual All Star this year), confounding opponents with his size, athleticism and court vision at point guard—all without being able to shoot. He was efficient against the Bucks with 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting, but Philly lost by 12 and one wonders whether Simmons could have stepped up to take more shots with Embiid (and SG J.J. Redick and PG Jerryd Bayless) out of the lineup. Fortunately for the Sixers, Redick figures to be back by Friday and will bring some much-needed perimeter shooting to the lineup. PF Dario Saric (19 pts, 7-18 FG) and SF Robert Covington (13 pts, 3-12 FG) led Philadelphia in shot attempts against Milwaukee, and both are strong options on offense. Each does a good job of blending into a lineup that, with Embiid and Simmons, features two distinctly unique players.