By TIM REYNOLDS, AP Basketball Writer
MIAMI (AP) — In Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s mind, the injury situation with Joel Embiid doesn’t doom the Philadelphia 76ers.
He figures it’ll only steel their resolve.
Clearly, the 76ers are not going to be a better team without Embiid, the scoring champion and MVP finalist currently sidelined by a right orbital fracture and mild concussion. That said, the 76ers played the Heat once this season without Embiid — and won. They’ll try to do it again Monday night when Philadelphia visits Miami in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series.
“Whenever you’re dealing with a team that has to change a little bit, that immediately gets them a built-in sense of urgency,” Spoelstra said. “But again, what we’re trying to accomplish, it is so difficult. When you approach it that way, that just puts you there to compete at a high level, the necessary level that is going to be required.”
The Heat aren’t exactly in perfect health, either. Jimmy Butler has been slowed by a sore knee, Tyler Herro caught a cold that turned into an upper-respiratory-type mess — but not COVID-19 — and PJ Tucker has been dealing with a calf issue. (All three expect to play Monday.) And Philadelphia native Kyle Lowry missed the last two games of the first-round series against Atlanta with a hamstring strain, so the Heat can’t be certain when their point guard will be 100% again.
“I think both rosters are going into this battle knowing that both sides got enough to get the job done,” Butler said. “We’ve got a job to do. They’ve got a job to do. But I’m banking on the Miami Heat.”
The 76ers don’t need any hyperbole along the way to realizing that they can have success against Miami. They only need to pop in the tape from March 21.
Embiid didn’t play that night. The 76ers didn’t have James Harden, either. Didn’t matter. Philadelphia outrebounded Miami 45-34, outscored the Heat 45-30 from 3-point range and pulled off a 113-106 win.
“Well, the biggest adjustment is we don’t have Joel,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said, overstating the obvious for emphasis. “There’s no good thing to it. But we did have one game without Joel against them and honestly, we won the game but I thought it was more than they looked at we didn’t have Joel, I think James was out, so I think mentally that probably played a purpose in that game. That’s not going to happen now. They don’t care who we have on the floor.”
The 76ers went 6-8 without Embiid this season. Plus, with Harden, the 76ers still have a player who is four years removed from being an MVP and two years removed from being a back-to-back-to-back scoring champion.
“Truth be told, it’s just us figuring out what we can go to through the course of a game in the playoffs,” Philadelphia forward Tobias Harris said. “It’s always adapting and figure out how the other teams is playing, what they’re taking away, what they’re allowing, and for us to capitalize in that regard.”
Only six players (Tyrese Maxey, Isaiah Joe and Harris for the 76ers; Tucker, Duncan Robinson and Max Strus for the Heat) played in all four Philadelphia-Miami games this season. The 76ers’ defense was stellar, with Gabe Vincent (21.0 ppg in two games) the only Heat player to average more than 20. Team stats were incredibly close: Miami had slight edges in points (404-400) and assists (92-89 ), Philadelphia had the edge in rebounds (164-159). The 76ers shot 44.8%, Miami 44.6%.
It’s a matchup of two of the all-time winningest playoff coaches. Rivers (102 wins) is fourth on the NBA postseason list behind Phil Jackson (229), Pat Riley (171) and Gregg Popovich (170). Spoelstra (89) is eighth behind the top four, then Larry Brown (100), Red Auerbach (99) and Jerry Sloan (98). Fun fact: if Miami wins Games 1 and 2 of this series then Spoelstra would pass Riley — the Heat president and his boss — in playoff winning percentage.
This is the third Miami-Philadelphia playoff series. The other two were first-round matchups: Miami won in five games in 2011, Philadelphia won in five games in 2018. Each team has two players remaining on the roster from that series — Embiid and Furkan Korkmaz for the 76ers, Olympic gold medalist Bam Adebayo and Udonis Haslem for the Heat.
Home, road, it doesn’t matter to Harden. His career splits are uncanny. For his career, he averages 24.9 points at home, 24.5 on the road. In home games, he’s shot 44% from the field, 36% from 3-point range and 86% from the foul line. And on the road, he has the same percentages. But he’s shot only 39% at Miami as a pro, his fourth-lowest road percentage behind Charlotte (37%), Boston (38%) and Indiana (38%).
Embiid’s injury has sent Philadelphia down to the longest shot left in the playoffs, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. The 76ers are the biggest underdog in any of the four conference semifinal series. As the East and West Final Fours were beginning Sunday, Miami was the second favorite (narrowly behind Boston) in the East and had the fourth-best odds for the NBA title behind Phoenix, Golden State and the Celtics.
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