MIAMI — There wasn’t much separating the Heat and Sixers in the regular season.
In 192 minutes, Miami outscored Philadelphia by two points over four matchups this year. The Heat and Sixers split their season series 2-2 and each game was decided by single digits, including a one-point Miami win and a two-point Philadelphia win.
But the oddsmakers believe the first-round playoff series between the Heat and Sixers won’t be as close as those numbers indicate. With Game 1 set for Saturday night at 8 in Philadelphia, Miami enters the series as the clear underdog against a team that’s on a 16-game winning streak but has not made the playoffs since 2012 and is coming off five consecutive losing seasons.
Bovada, an online sports book, has the Heat at 16-to-5 to win their seven-game series against the Sixers. The Wizards (4-to-1 vs. Raptors), Pacers (19-to-4 vs. Cavaliers), Spurs (6-to-1 vs. Warriors) and Timberwolves (10-to-1 vs. Rockets) are the only teams with longer odds than the Heat to win their first-round playoff series.
And the most likely scenario, according to Bovada, is the Sixers winning the series in five games.
“We don’t mind,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said of entering the playoffs in the underdog role. “We’ve been underdogs the last two years, so it’s kind of nice to fly under the radar. When you win those kind of big games then everybody is talking about it. We know that it’s not going to be easy. Of course, Philly is playing really great the last 16 games. But we split the series 2-2. We had our chances, so it’s going to be interesting.”
Joel Embiid’s injury makes the series even more interesting. Philadelphia’s All-Star center has been ruled out for Game 1 as he recovers from surgery to repair an orbital bone fracture, which also forced him to miss the final eight games of the regular season.
Amir Johnson is expected to start in Embiid’s place. But even without Embiid, Philadelphia is favored by seven points in Saturday’s game as they will rely on 6-foot-10, 230-pound point guard Ben Simmons to lead the way.
Simmons has averaged 15.6 points on 61.1 percent shooting to go with 9.5 rebounds and 9.3 assists while Embiid has been out. The sharpshooting duo of JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli have combined to average about six made 3-pointers per game on 44.3 percent shooting from long range during that time.
“Other guys stepping up and getting comfortable. They have a deep team,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said when asked what’s allowed the Sixers to post an 8-0 record during Embiid’s absence. “All of their bigs are very skilled, good defenders and they help their perimeter players. They have dynamic 3-point catch-and-shoot players very similar to us. They’ve been trending in the right way. When Embiid got hurt, they felt good about their rhythm and confidence.”
One thing working against the Heat is their recent struggles on the road. Miami is 2-12 in its past 14 games away from home, and it dropped both games played in Philadelphia this season.
But a lot of those road losses have been close, with seven of the 12 decided by four points or less and four coming in overtime.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say we’ve struggled. That’s only if you’re looking at the result,” Spoelstra said, dismissing the Heat’s perceived road woes. “We felt we were getting better and stronger and building some resilience. That’s the tough thing about this league if you’re only judging the wins and losses during the regular season. You can’t see the progress. We saw progress.
“Now, there was frustration. There were things to work through. We had a lot of close games, a lot of those road games were tough losses where we had tough losses or where we were in the driver’s seat in the fourth quarter. But those were teaching moments for this team. We feel we’re battle-tested. I don’t know if there’s a team right now in the league more battle-tested than us in close games.”
Spoelstra’s right about that. The Heat played in a league-high 53 clutch games — defined by the NBA as a game that has a margin of five points or fewer inside the final five minutes of the fourth quarter — during the regular season.
But the Heat have never won a first-round playoff series when they haven’t had home-court advantage (0-6 all-time). They believe they can defy the odds against the Sixers.
“We just stick with our process,” Spoelstra said of the Heat’s mindset. “That will be a fun environment for our guys. Our guys love to compete, they love tough challenges and that’s what this will be, no question about it.”
HEAT-SIXERS PLAYOFF STUFF