No LeBron James, no Dwyane Wade, no problem for the Miami Heat—at least so far. The defending NBA champions head into their Saturday evening clash with the Philadelphia 76ers at AmericanAirlines Arena possibly more confident than they've ever been.
Following the end of the Heat's historic 27-game winning streak, they seem to have done an understandable thing: hit the pause button. James and Wade have missed each of the team's past three games with leg injuries and have been joined with a rotating cast of secondary characters, including Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers.
With only Chris Bosh as the constant, Miami has somehow continued winning. The Heat took down the San Antonio Spurs last Sunday and the Charlotte Bobcats on Friday, losing only to the New York Knicks in a game Carmelo Anthony scored 50 points. Those victories have kept Miami in a firm lead for home-court advantage throughout the NBA playoffs—the only thing this Heat team has left to accomplish.
While it's uncertain if Wade and/or James will return to the lineup on Saturday, the 76ers will look to make their return—or non-return—a living nightmare.
Philadelphia has had a disappointing season from start to finish—spurred most prominently by Andrew Bynum's season-long absence—but has battled to a 6-4 record in its last 10 games. The Sixers are still mathematically eligible for the playoffs, but only in the sense you or I are "eligible" bachelors for Kate Upton. It isn't happening. That means all Doug Collins' squad has left is moral victories—like taking down the defending champs on their home floor.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of everything you need to know about Saturday night's clash.
Start Time: Saturday, April 6 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami
Team Records: Philadelphia 76ers (31-44), Miami Heat (59-16)
TV Info: ESPN
Live Stream: Watch ESPN
76ers Injury Report (Via CBS Sports)
G Dorrell Wright, Elbow, Questionable
C Andrew Bynum, Knee, Out for Season
G Jason Richardson, Knee, Out for Season
Heat Injury Report (Via CBS Sports)
G Ray Allen, Ankle, Questionable
G Dwyane Wade, Ankle, Questionable
F LeBron James, Hamstring, Questionable
Key Storyline: Will Wade and LeBron Finally Return to the Lineup?
Poor Chris Bosh. He's the largely forgotten member of the Heat's Big Three. A guy who does more for the team than anyone will ever give him credit for—and he doesn't even get to join the Bench Friends Club on the "injury" report.
Friday's game against the Bobcats marked three straight that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have sat out due to injury, the former a hamstring and the latter an ankle ailment. The Heat are surprisingly 2-1 without Wade and James during this stretch. Their offense has imploded, scoring less than 90 points per night, but the Heat have played strong defense—particularly Sunday against San Antonio.
It's been encouraging for Miami and troubling for the rest of the league that a roster that resembles Bosh's Toronto days can still compete on a nightly basis.
Their 2-1 record also isn't going to make the Heat be in any hurry to bring James and Wade back—and understandably so. Miami has long locked up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and has a four-game lead in the loss column over Oklahoma City and San Antonio for home-court advantage in the NBA Finals should they get there. So why not get your two best players some rest, even if they're technically still healthy enough to be on the floor?
It's a sound strategy. The Heat still have to make sure they don't keep their stars parked for too long, though, and Saturday is as good of time as any to bring them back.
Miami is on national television for the second consecutive night, so the suits at ESPN are undoubtedly hoping that's the case. Friday saw a LeBron-and-Wade-less Heat square off against a Charlotte team with the NBA's worst record. Not exactly appointment television.
And the Sixers' descent from preseason playoff favorite to lottery dweller doesn't make them all that intriguing by themselves either. Without James and Wade, the interest in this game from a mainstream level is going to hit the doldrums.
This game will either mark the return of two of the five best basketball players in basketball...or it's not.
That's really all this comes down to.
X-Factor: Heat Transition Offense
This will come as no surprise, but the Heat are a dreadful offensive club without Wade and James. They have scored no higher than 90 points in any of the past three games and have scored below their season 1.02 points per possession average in every game—including a paltry 0.92 Friday night versus Charlotte, per Synergy Sports.
No duh. Of course Miami is worse offensively without two of the best offensive forces in the league. But what's notable and what will be key to Saturday night's contest is how the Heat's offense has changed without James and Wade leading the attack.
By far the most notable switch has come in transition. According to Synergy Sports, the Heat have used 13.4 percent of their possessions—meaning where "used" means a possession ending in a field-goal attempt, turnover or free-throw attempts—in transition. They are unsurprisingly ascendant in the open court, scoring a league-best 1.22 points per possession.
In the three games without Wade and James, Miami has been dreadful. The Heat are still using 10.8 percent of their possessions in transition, per Synergy Sports, but their effectiveness has cratered. They've created just 19 points in transition over the past three games, good for an appalling 0.61 points per possession. That's half of their season-long rate and would be the worst in the NBA by a country mile.
Here is a little sampling of what Miami looks like in transition without its two stars.
It's clear from the second Allen touches the ball that he doesn't want to be handling it. He's instantly looking for a ball-handler, likely Norris Cole, but Cole is already sprinting his way down the floor with no intention of bringing the ball up. So, instead, 37-year-old Allen comes barreling into the middle of San Antonio's defense and throws up a garish shot that goes off the rim.
Instead, what Allen is initially looking to do on this play is what he has all season—sprint right to the half-court line, begin slowing his stride and setting up for an in-rhythm three-pointer from either the left corner or from either wing spot.
Again, much of whether the Heat are able to be effective in transition Saturday comes down to the status of Wade and James. The Sixers have been strong defensively in transition sets all season, ranking seventh at 1.1 points per possession, but Miami has torched Philadelphia in the open court this season to the tune of a 16-of-23 shooting performance, per Synergy.
Miami has cratered points over the past three games due to its lack of transition opportunities. If Wade and James stay out of the lineup, the Sixers may well win simply by getting to 91 points.
Key Matchup: Evan Turner vs. Miami's Isolation Defense
There's just one problem with the 91-point theory for Philly: The Sixers struggle to get there themselves. One of the worst and least-inventive clubs in the league, coach Doug Collins has taken a fair share of understandable criticism about the team's wretched offensive performance.
All it takes is a quick look at the stat sheet to see why the Sixers struggle so badly. They rank in the bottom 10 in shots taken in the restricted area and no team in the league takes more mid-range jumpers—the most inefficient shot in basketball.
When breaking it down into individual plays, Philadelphia is good at two things—posting up and isolation. Miami is a top-half team defensively in post-up situations, so the Sixers aren't going to be having any luck with that on Saturday even without Wade and James—sorry Spencer Hawes.
That being said, the Sixers could have a ton of success running isolation plays against Miami. According to Synergy Sports, the Heat are the second-worst isolation team in the NBA, giving up 0.89 points per possession. That contrasts with Philadelphia's ninth-place ranking on the offensive end, where it scores 0.84 points per possession. (Miami is the league's best ISO team offensively.)
The titular figures in the Sixers' isolation sets are (unsurprisingly) Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner. Two ball-dominant, dribble-heavy players, Turner and Holiday are responsible for about 63 percent of the Sixers' isolation finishes this season, per Synergy.
While it's Holiday who uses a lion's share of the possessions—37.25 percent to be exact—it's Turner who is more effective. The third-year forward is averaging 0.92 points per possession, which is right around Miami's league-best rate overall.
The reason Turner is so effective is his mid-range game. Turner came out of Ohio State breaking down people off the dribble and knocking down mid-range jumpers. That remains arguably his best feature in the NBA and will be critical for Philadelphia against Miami.
Projected Starting Lineups
PG: Jrue Holiday
SG: Damien Wilkins
SF: Evan Turner
PF: Thaddeus Young
C: Spencer Hawes
PG: Mario Chalmers
SG: Dwyane Wade/Ray Allen/Mike Miller
SF: LeBron James/Rashard Lewis
PF: Udonis Haslem
C: Chris Bosh
It's nearly impossible to pick a game when you don't know whether the contest's two best players are going to be in the lineup. So let's just work with what know—that Wade and James have missed the last three games—and assume the same for Saturday.
As such, don't be expecting too much scoring when you tune into ESPN. The Heat have struggled to make real headway on that end as we covered, and the Sixers' dreadful offense isn't going to spring to life overnight—even with Turner taking on Miami's isolation defense.
Bosh will likely see a ton of Thaddeus Young defensively, which also puts the Heat at a competitive disadvantage. Sixers win this game by sheer virtue of having all of their players, and the fact that Miami has to fold without the world's best player eventually.
Score Prediction: Philadelphia 76ers 91, Miami Heat 88