The Heat Is On: Sixers Play Game One in Miami

The Heat Is On: Sixers Play Game One in Miami

No matter where you look, you're not going to find the Sixers getting much love from the playoff predictors. Everywhere in the NBA community, it's Heat in Five, Heat in Four, Heat in Two and the Sixers are going to be so demoralized that they forfeit the series, or wait a minute, you mean the Heat don't just have a first round bye? Nobody, and I mean nobody, is predicting the Sixers to pull off the upset. And can you blame them? A team that overachieved to get to 41-41, against a team that could potentially be a dynasty in the making? Which they went 0-3 against in the regular season, and seem overmatched against in just about every comaprison?

No, it's not some weird national prejudice that has the Heat as unequivocal favorites in this series, and I'm not going to be the first person to tell you that the odds should say otherwise. Without an injury, a deus ex machina, or a couple blind strokes of dumb f'ing luck, it's going to be hard bordering on impossible for the Sixers to win this series. But does that mean we shouldn't be watching anyway? Of course not. Here's a couple things to look out for in this series, that could be of interest even if the team doesn't end up winning.

  • Can they win one of the first two games in Miami? Students of recent Sixers history will of course note that they've had pretty good luck with game ones, winning in both Detroit in '08 and Orlando in '09 in series that they were similar underdogs (though maybe not quite to the degree that they are here). And Miami has a disadvantage that neither of those teams had—complete nationwide scorn, which could see the media take up the Sixers as a grassroots movement of sorts if it loos like they even have a chance to hang with the Heat. It could make us a fun story for a while, have people feeling good about the team even if they eventually bow out for the series.
  • Can the team's bench give them any sort of advantage? As was pointed out on a recent Bill Simmons podcast, the advantage that the Sixers should have with their bench—one of the best in the NBA, as opposed to the Heat's, which is undoubtedly one of the weakest—is minimized by the fact that the Heat can play their big three nearly 48 minutes a game in the playoffs, and not necessitate the drop-off. Still, they're gonna have to dip into their stocks of Joel Anthonys and Eddie Houses for at least a little while, and if Thad and Lou can come in at that point and burst out in the one-or-two-man 8-0 runs that they're certainly capable of, it could keep us competitive in a number of games that would otherwise get ugly real quick.
  • Can Jrue and Evan give us hope for the future? Neither of the team's two young pups have seen anything like playoff basketball before, and the experience here could be absolutely invaluable for the pair moving forward. Can the two step up, show maturity beyond their years, and whet the fans' appetites for what could be a number of playoff appearances to come for the two as Liberty Ballers? Remember, Evan had his best game of the season's first two months in the home opener against Miami, and Jrue ended the season on something of a tear, posting double digits in scoring in each of his last 12 games. Not only would strong performances from the the two help the team immeasurably in the series, it would show progress towards the future for the Sixers that would certainly NOT be gleaned by giving Andres Nocioni 20 minutes a game. (You listening, Dougie?)
  • Can anyone on this team make a big shot late in the game? For all his late-game failures in the two seasons since, Andre Iguodala did hit some absolutely enormous shots in the first-round series against Orlando in '09. Expecting a repeat performance might not be realistic, but if someone on this damn team could show a willingness to step up in such situations—even just Jodie Meeks hitting a dagger three with a minute and a half to go—it would certainly go a long way against a team in the Heat that showed almost as impressive a knack for late-game choke jobs as the Sixers did over the course of the season. Donyell Marshall is not working through that door, kids, and for the last time, using Jason Kapono as a floor-spacer and potential big-shot-maker in crunch time is absolutely, 100% not an option.
  • Can this team try to actually win this series? Look, it's not impossible. It's pretty close—this isn't hockey or baseball, where once you get in, any team can win. If the Sixers were to pull it off, this would almost certainly be the biggest NBA post-season upset of the 21st century. But it wouldn't be the biggest seeding-wise—the 8th-seeded Warriors took down the top-seeded Mavs half a decade ago. And nobody expected the sub-.500 Hawks to be able to hang with the regular-season-best Celtics three years ago, and the Hawks ended up pushing them to seven games—as did the 7th-seeded Bulls a year later. Would I bet on it happening? No. Would I believe it was likely to happen up until the final seconds ticked off the Sixers' fourth victory in the series? No. But it's not impossible. The Heat aren't world-beaters yet, and there have been stretches this season where the Sixers have played as well as anyone. A couple breaks early, and who knows? Philly could end up being the surprise story of the playoffs.

It's worth watching to see all this stuff. And anyway, as Michael Levin pointed out yesterday, even if the team gets swept, it's been way more fun to watch them this year than anyone could have predicted, and we should leave with a good feeling about the season regardless. The future, if not exceptionally bright for the team, is also not nearly as dim as was previously anticipated, and next season should be an interesting one regardless. So let's watch this series without expectation, and just hope that our boys can show the Heat, themselves and the world a little something, and see where it goes from there. Miracles happen every day in this world, you know.

3:30 tip from the American Airlines Arena. Let's get heroic.

Best of NBA: Curry, Warriors demolish Cavaliers, 126-91, at home

Best of NBA: Curry, Warriors demolish Cavaliers, 126-91, at home

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors certainly looked ready to trade some more blows with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers come June.

The two-time reigning MVP hit five 3-pointers and had 20 points while matching his season best with 11 assists in Golden State's 126-91 rout of the defending champs Monday.

Klay Thompson scored 26 points with five 3s, and Curry made four steals. Draymond Green produced his third triple-double of the season with 11 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists while matching his career best with five blocks -- and had another dustup with King James in the process.

James had 20 points on 6-of-18 shooting and eight rebounds, and he and Green became the talk once more as their relationship turned even more testy.

Kevin Durant added 21 points, six rebounds, five assists and three blocks for the Warriors in a much-hyped matchup merely weeks after Golden State lost 109-108 in Cleveland on Christmas (see full recap).

Thomas explodes for 17 in fourth quarter to lift Celtics over Hornets
BOSTON -- Isaiah Thomas scored 17 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter, and the surging Boston Celtics beat the Charlotte Hornets 108-98 on Monday night for their ninth victory in 11games.

It was Thomas' 25th straight game with 20 or more points. He's been putting up big final quarters of late -- scoring 20 or more three times this season. No other NBA player had done it more than once entering Monday.

Al Horford had 22 points, while Kelly Olynyk and Jae Crowder added 15 apiece for Boston, which has won all three meetings with Charlotte this season.

Kemba Walker scored 24 points and Marvin Williams 21 for the Hornets, who lost their fifth straight -- all on the road.

Thomas scored 13 straight points, pushing Boston ahead 93-83 with his 3-pointer from the left wing with 7 minutes left.

Boston led 80-71 entering the final period (see full recap).

Wizards remain hot with win over Trail Blazers
WASHINGTON  -- Bradley Beal scored 25 points and John Wall had 24 as the Washington Wizards took a page from the Portland Trail Blazers' playbook by hitting 13 3-pointers in a comfortable 120-101 victory on Monday afternoon.

The Wizards, who rely less on the 3-pointer than almost any NBA team, were 13 of 23 from beyond the arc in their 12th consecutive home victory. The 3-pointer-heavy Trail Blazers shot 8 of 26 on 3-point attempts.

After Washington coach Scott Brooks called Portland guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum as good as any backcourt in the league, Beal and John Wall outplayed them. Lillard led the Blazers with 22 points and McCollum had 12, but they combined to shoot 11 of 29 from the floor.

The Wizards have won four of their last five games (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Penguins halt Capitals 9-game streak with wild 8-7 OT win

Best of NHL: Penguins halt Capitals 9-game streak with wild 8-7 OT win

PITTSBURGH -- Conor Sheary scored 34 seconds into overtime and the Pittsburgh Penguins ended the Washington Capitals' nine-game winning streak with a wild 8-7 victory Monday night that included nine second-period goals.

Sheary had two goals and an assist for the Penguins, who snapped a three-game losing streak. Evgeni Malkin picked up his 11th career hat trick during a frenetic second period, and Sidney Crosby collected his NHL-leading 27th goal to go with two assists. Bryan Rust and Nick Bonino also scored for Pittsburgh, and Matt Murray got the win despite allowing seven goals on 28 shots.

The Penguins trailed 3-0 before scoring six goals in less than 11 minutes in the second period, more goals than the Capitals had allowed in a game all season. Pittsburgh led 6-5 after 40 minutes.

Lars Eller scored twice for Washington, and T.J. Oshie, Brett Connolly, Nicklas Backstrom, Justin Williams and Andre Burakovsky also found the net. Philipp Grubauer made eight saves after coming on in relief of Braden Holtby, who was pulled during Pittsburgh's second-period deluge (see full recap).

Eichel scores twice to give Sabres' 4-1 win over Stars
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Jack Eichel scored two goals and the Buffalo Sabres defeated the Dallas Stars 4-1 on Monday.

Tyler Ennis scored 19 seconds into the first period. Ennis returned after missing 30 games with a groin injury that required surgery.

Jake McCabe also had a goal and Robin Lehner made 31 saves after missing the past three games with an illness.

The Sabres snapped a two-game losing streak and beat the Stars for the first time in four matchups.

Radek Faksa scored for the Stars in the opener of a three-game road trip. Kari Lehtonen stopped 25 shots. Dallas has lost two in a row and six of eight (see full recap).

Bishop anchors Lightning to 2-1 win over Kings
LOS ANGELES -- Brian Boyle scored the go-ahead goal late in the second period, and the Tampa Bay Lightning opened a six-game road trip with a 2-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Monday.

Ben Bishop made an early mistake that led to Kyle Clifford's goal for the Kings, but bounced back to make 31 saves in his second start back from a three-week absence with a lower-body injury.

Tyler Johnson scored in the first period for the Lightning, who won for just the second time in seven games.

Peter Budaj stopped 27 shots for the Kings.

Both teams played without stars due to illness. Kings captain Anze Kopitar missed his first game since Nov. 20, and All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman missed his first game of the season for Tampa Bay (see full recap).