After finishing the regular season on a 16-game winning streak, and capturing the third seed in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia 76ers will begin their NBA playoff journey on Saturday night against the sixth-seed Miami Heat.
This will be the Sixers’ first playoff appearance since the 2011-2012 season where they went a full seven games against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
However, unlike the 2011-12 team, this year’s team has much more promise and upside led by All-star Joel Embiid and Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons.
Both players will play major roles in deciding which team will come on top in this series. Speaking on Embiid, here are three things to keep an eye out for in this 3 vs. 6 matchup:
1. Joel Embiid’s health: Aforementioned, for the Sixers to win this series, Embiid is going to have to out duel Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside. The two have an ongoing beef that spans back to the preseason in October.
In four games this season against the Sixers, Whiteside is averaged 15.3 points and 9.5 rebounds in 27.3 minutes per game.
But the bad news is we won’t see Embiid in Game 1. According to Keith Pompey of the Philly.com, Sixers head coach Brett Brown confirmed on the Dan Patrick Show on Friday that Embiid will not play in the playoff opener.
It is not surprising to hear this news about Embiid as he has been sidelined since March 28 with an orbital fracture.
Without Embiid, the Sixers will lean on Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes at the center spot to provide a combo of offense and defense. Nevertheless, Whiteside will still have his moments in Game 1; the Sixers just have to limit them at key spots.
2. Dialing it up from distance: This playoff series pits two teams against each other who can light up from the outside. This season, the Heat are shooting 36 percent from three, which is good for 15th in the association. The Sixers, however, are better shooting at a 36.9 percent rate, good for eighth in the NBA.
Throughout this first-round series, the Sixers will have to keep an eye on Philly native Wayne Ellington, who is having a breakout year. The former Episcopal Academy standout is averaging 11.2 points, but shooting 39.2 percent from three-point range on 7.5 attempts per game.
If they can do a good job of closing out on him and on the flip side have J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, or Marco Belinelli get free for some shots, it should help the Sixers’ offense tremendously.
3. Markelle Fultz: Since making his return in late March, the No. 1 overall pick in this past summer’s draft has improved on the fly. On Wednesday night, Fultz became the youngest player to put together a triple-double (13 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) beating out Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball.
In his last 10 games, Fultz has done a great job of leading the Sixers’ second team off the bench. He’s creating opportunities for his teammates, getting to the basket, and showing confidence in his jump shot.
The former University of Washington product is averaging 7.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 3.4 assists in 17.7 minutes per game over those last 10 contest.
Fultz will need to continue to play this way for the Sixers to beat the Miami Heat. This may be a bold prediction, but expect him to have a 20-point game sometime in this series.