Sixers: What to watch for vs. Heat in second round

Tyrese Maxey, Sixers (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Tyrese Maxey, Sixers (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

The Sixers finished off the feisty Toronto Raptors on Thursday, paving the way for what promises to be a contentious second-round matchup with the Miami Heat. The two teams split the season series, but as the Toronto series showed, you probably shouldn’t read too far into the regular season numbers.

Miami is the number one seed for a reason, and the Sixers will probably enter the series as underdogs. With a strong culture of accountability and effort, the Heat tend to compete hard and to compete consistently. The Sixers, meanwhile, tend to battle bouts of sleepiness on the court. They’ll have to get over that if they want to push Miami.

That said, the Sixers do have the best player in the series — Joel Embiid — along with three high-level secondary stars in James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and Tobias Harris. There’s no doubt that Philadelphia has to the talent to win. That said, the pieces have to come together and the Sixers can’t fall victim to their own carelessness, a la games four and five against Toronto.

Here’s what fans should be on the lookout for.

What to watch in Sixers-Heat: Embiid’s thumb

Let’s start with the obvious one — Joel Embiid’s thumb. He finished the Toronto series strong, with 33 points and an explosive second half reminiscent of his poetic dominance in Game 3. In the two games prior, however, Embiid’s defensive activity dipped considerably and he was far quieter than normal on the offensive end.

Like the Raptors, Miami is an aggressive defensive team. They will bring bodies hard and fast, throwing hands around and making Embiid feel their presence in the paint. If he’s too mindful of contact with his thumb, the Heat defense will make Philadelphia pay. Bam Adebayo has a credible case for Defensive Player of the Year, and P.J. Tucker can punch above his weight class in the paint. Embiid has matched up well with Adebayo in the past, but the thumb injury is a new dynamic.

Where Embiid’s thumb poses the greatest threat, of course, is defense. The Sixers need a dominant defensive series from Embiid if they hope to advance. Philadelphia’s off-ball defense continues to look putrid and the Sixers’ only reliable guard defender is unplayable half the time. If Embiid’s thumb limits his activity the Heat are going to run the Sixers out of the building in ways Toronto never really could.