MIAMI — As the Heat prepare for their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers, Erik Spoelstra knows his team must get ready to face a group that is « totally different than the team we played this year, » because of the addition of former MVP James Harden to the Sixers’ lineup.
« He definitely changes the dynamic, » Spoelstra said after Friday’s practice. « You’re talking about an MVP player. A guy who can manipulate the game; he can hurt you whether he’s scoring or whether he’s assisting, or whether he’s just manipulating the defense. »
This will mark the first time that Harden, who was acquired just before February’s trade deadline from the Brooklyn Nets, will face the Heat as a member of the Sixers. Spoelstra knows that slowing down Harden and Sixers MVP candidate Joel Embiid will go a long way towards determining the winner of this series.
« They have two guys that really know how to draw fouls and do it exceptionally well, » Spoelstra said. « So you have to do things with great discipline, great focus, but you don’t want to back off on your aggressiveness and that’s that dance that we’ll be wrestling with this series. »
Heat center Bam Adebayo is looking forward to the upcoming battle with Embiid and knows the key in stopping both stars is making sure they are feeling a defensive presence everywhere they go on the floor.
« Execution and timely times to be physical, » Adebayo said. « We realize we can’t be physical with two dudes who shoot the most free throws as a duo. »
Always an outwardly confident group, the Heat know that they will have to stick to their defensive principles in order to win this series — especially with the way Embiid has been playing throughout the season.
« You’re going to have to double him, » Adebayo said. « It’s pretty simple. Getting the ball out his hands, making it difficult, just giving him difficult shots. And not letting him get in a rhythm. Keeping it where he’s got to think, he’s got to overthink. He’s got to pass when he doesn’t feel like passing. I feel like those are the biggest things. »
So what is it going to take to slow down the Sixers big man?
« One, I don’t have that answer right now, » Spoelstra said. « Two, I don’t know if we’ll get that answer. It’s not like we’re going to be able to stop a guy who is an MVP player. The point is we have to beat the Sixers. We have to make it tough on their main guys and do that consistently.And hopefully just wear on the team and get them out of their comfort zones more often than they can get to them.
« But he’s extremely skilled. You’re talking about somebody who has great physicality and size that can punish you in that regard, but he also has finesse. He has shooting ability, deep range, shotmaking. He’s got touch that’s uncanny in the paint. And then you add that element of also being able to create and open shots for other guys, but also be able to draw fouls at any point if you just lose concentration. »
The Heat had several players sit out Friday’s practice. Jimmy Butler (right knee soreness) Kyle Lowry (hamstring), PJ Tucker (calf), Tyler Herro (non-COVID illness) and Caleb Martin (ankle) were all out. Adebayo is confident that both Lowry, who missed Games 4 and 5 of the Heat’s first round series win over the Atlanta Hawks, and Butler, who missed Game 5 of the Hawks series, will be ready for Game 1 against the Sixers on Monday night.
« I’m expecting them to just get healthy day by day, honestly, » Adebayo said. « If they can go, they can go. If they’re not, we got to go out there regardless. You can’t push back Game 1. »