It you want to be elite, you have to beat the elite. Tonight, the Sixers get their first chance to do just that when they face off against the Miami Heat in the building where their season ended last year.
First of all, forget about the back-to-back. The Sixers can get up for this game. The Sixers have to get up for this game. Miami may be well rested, Miami may be coming off three great halves of basketball, but none of that matters after they tip it off tonight. All that matters is that first-round playoff loss last season, who the Miami Heat are, and the fact that they're standing between the Sixers and where they want to be.
It looks like Dwyane Wade won't be playing, but it also looks like LeBron James is getting the hang of playing without Wade. The Heat are almost a completely different team from last season in terms of how they play. They've been pushing the ball at every opportunity. LeBron has become much more of a post-player than the three-point shooter. They've got Battier to take the tough defensive matchups on the perimeter so LeBron can either coast or freelance on that side of the ball, depending on how you want to look at it. Miami can give you a ton of different looks, including a portly look if they want to go with Eddy Curry at the five for a couple of minutes. There are a couple of keys to playing Miami. First, keep your floor balance at all times. If your guards get sucked down into the lane on the offensive end, Miami is going to expose you with a long pass and a dunk. If someone takes a corner jumper, the small on the other side of the floor must sprint back in the middle of the floor. In the half court, you want to entice LeBron to shoot jumpers, if you can. He isn't taking any threes at all this year (only 19 all year). According to Synergy Sports, LeBron is still a huge fan of isolation plays (77 FGA in iso situations), after isos come pick-and-rolls with LBJ handling (44 FGA) and then the post (34 FGA). Iguodala's defensive numbers in each situation are stellar, but he hasn't face a matchup like LeBron. There really is no matchup like LeBron.
The best defense is probably going to involve ball denial. Iguodala needs to work extra hard to keep the ball out of LeBron's hands, or at the very least make the Heat burn some shot clock before they can get the ball to him. If they do a good enough job at this, Miami will probably just cut out the middle man later in the game, and let LeBron run the point. This might be preferable. I like Iguodala's chances better against LBJ out on the floor than I do on the blocks. Jrue needs to put intense pressure on Norris Cole whenever he's running the point, try to push him to the sideline and throw traps and doubles at him. Cole is definitely turnover prone. If LeBron does get the ball on the blocks, double off Cole, Joel Anthony or Udonis Haslem. Do not double of James Jones, Mario Chalmers or Mike Miller. Those guys will burn you from deep. Battier basically only scores on corner threes and his release isn't what you'd call lightning quick. Just close on him if he catches in that spot, he's a zero on offense from pretty much all other spots.
If Wade plays, it's imperative that you make him work on both ends. Really test out that ankle. Like I said, though, it's doubtful he'll play. Chris Bosh has been much improved this season, mainly because he's taking less long twos and more shots at the rim. He's obviously capable of beating you, but he's far from the primary concern. Try to coerce him into taking long twos, in fact, if a LeBron/Bosh pick-and-roll turns into a pop for Bosh from 18-feet, that's a pretty good outcome. You just need to make sure he doesn't dive to the rim for an easy dunk.
On the offensive end, it's going to be very important to attack the weak spots. If you get Thad with Bosh on him, that's an advantage. Cole is a liability, Jrue needs to go right after him. Chalmers is a decent defender, but he can also be attacked. Whenever James Jones or Mike Miller are in the game, go right at them. Brand should be able to do work against Bosh and Haslem. It'll be interesting to see how much Miami plays Thad's nemesis, Joel Anthony, and if they do use him, will Thad's improved jumper come into play?
Like it or not, this game is probably going to come down to LeBron. If Iguodala can handle him on his own make him somewhat inefficient, the rest of the team can hold their own defensively. If Iguodala winds up needing help, the team is going to have to really scramble to check Miami's three-point shooters. I'd also like to see the Sixers slow the pace down a bit (Miami is #2 in the league with 95.2 possessions/game). One other thing, this is a game where Lou can really have a tremendous impact. Neither Chalmers nor Cole is really going to penetrate against him, so his defensive deficiencies won't be a killer and he'll be able to get his shot off against them on the other end. All he needs to do is break out of his horrific shooting slump.
The tip is at 7:30pm. This is your game thread. I'll be right here throughout, join me if you're still flying high from last night's win and you aren't quite ready to come down. By the by, the Sixers are 4-0 on the second night of a back-to-back so far this season.
Prediction: PHI 103, MIA 102. Tonight's the night.