Friday's Heat-Sixers matchup could be just one of many games these teams play over the next month or so.
Storming the front line
Philadelphia and Miami share this commonality: both teams employ tough defenses without a shot-blocking anchor. But whereas the Heat have Erick Dampier to eat up space inside, the Sixers can be a bit thin underneath with Spencer Hawes and Elton Brand manning the post. The Sixers allow opponents to make 66 percent of their shots at the basket, the ninth-most successful rate in the NBA, so the Heat need to take advantage. Taking Chris Bosh’s lead, Miami must enter the game with an attacker’s mentality, which means no settling for 20-footers, off-balance leaners and fadeaway jumpers. We’ve witnessed a newfound aggressiveness from Bosh, stemming from his Portland postgame public venting. And with Zydrunas Ilgauskas still sidelined with a foot infection, Bosh’s pressure on the interior becomes all the more imperative. The Heat mustered only 10 shots at the rim (half their normal frequency) the last time these two teams met, in late November, and that simply won’t cut it this time around. The Sixers can be exposed down low and it’s up to the Big Three to hit ‘em where it hurts.
LeBron James vs. Andre Iguodala
LeBron probably won't encounter a more difficult defensive matchup than Iguodala, who might be the most underrated isolation defender in the league. Iguodala was listed as day-to-day after tweaking his knee early in the Sixers' win over Atlanta on Wednesday, but if he's on the floor, he'll be bodying up on LeBron in his usual role of stopper. Iguodala starts his defensive work early by trying to deny the most basic swing or entry pass to his matchup. If his man is set up on the weak side, Iguodala will crowd him, buying every inch so that a catch at 18 feet occurs at 20. Once the ball arrives, Iguodala always has his hands in the air and that lengthy wing span impairs his man's vision. Unless you're a knockdown shooter from 20, Iggy will generally offer a modicum of space, more concerned with cutting off driving lanes, something he does as well as anyone. Iguodala will do his best to force LeBron east-and-west, toward sidelines and baselines, walling off the paint with his quick feet and long reach. Given how well Iguodala moves and how often he's matched up against the opponent's most lethal wing scorer, his low foul rate is unbelievable. Among regular NBA swingmen, only Tayshaun Prince hacks less frequently. LeBron can settle for 21-footers -- they've certainly been dropping of late -- but his best course of action against Iguodala is to work the pick-and-roll with Bosh, gobble up whatever space Iguodala affords him, then make smart basketball plays that scramble the Sixers' disciplined D. On the other end, Iguodala has been handling the ball more, which means LeBron will have to apply the kind of pressure and attention he places on the Kevin Durants and Paul Pierces of the world. Leave the roving to someone else.
The Sixers' savvy D
It's amazing what the simple implementation of defensive principles can do for a team! Last season, a disoriented, identity-starved Philly team ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency. This season? The Sixers rank ninth overall. It isn't brain surgery, just a very disciplined, pragmatic brand of defense. First off, Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams and the other smalls fight like hell through every high screen. When the ball defender finds himself trailing, he gets a lot of help from his big men -- Brand, Hawes and Thad Young (let's leave Marreese Speights out of it, shall we?). Those mobile bigs will meet the penetrator in the paint, while still shading the screener. Brand, in particular, anchors this process. If the action breaks down the defense, the other big man will rotate over. We saw this executed beautifully against Boston a couple of weeks back, and again down the stretch versus Atlanta on Wednesday. Recovery is the key to the Sixers' defensive prowess, because Doug Collins likes his perimeter guys to stay at home on potent shooters (see below). That means the big man defending the screener must quickly drop back after his hard show. With their quickness, that's not so much a problem for the members of Philly's front line. They're a bit vulnerable at the rim (see above), but they compensate by making it more difficult to get there by denying entry passes and funneling ball handlers away from the middle of the floor where it's harder to feed the block.
Living by the 3
If you glance at the Heat’s game log, you’ll notice something pretty quickly: they die a lot by the 3. In fact, they’re 7-12 when they shoot worse than 30 percent from downtown. That effect isn’t entirely unique to the Heat; the 3-point shot is a crucial ingredient to every team’s success. But 3-point shooting becomes even more critical on Friday with the Sixers in town. They might have the best downtown defense in the league. Consider this: opponents have shot a league-low 31.8 percent from deep against the Sixers since the All-Star break, which is easily the worst rate in the NBA. The Sixers wield super-stretchy perimeter defenders in Iguodala, Young and Holiday, so sharp kickouts to perimeter shooters will be vital for the Heat’s attack. Against the Sixers, there’s no room for hesitation and indecisiveness from the Heat’s spot-up shooters. Keep a tab on Mike Bibby, Mike Miller, James Jones and Eddie House from beyond the arc. If they’re not receiving kickouts from the Big Three or finding pockets on the perimeter, chances are the Heat won’t walk away from this one with a win.
Pay attention to Philly's deceptive break and early offense
Pop quiz (and you'll never guess): Which team in the NBA has scored more points in transition this season? The answer is Philadelphia -- and only the Pacers, Wizards and Nuggets use a higher percentage of their possessions in transition. That seems wholly counterintuitive considering the Sixers' middling pace, but when you break their transition attack down to its component parts, it makes a lot of sense. They protect the defensive glass, don't turn the ball over once they secure and have a bunch of guys who know how to run the floor. In fact, they're the only team in the league that has four guys who have recorded at least 70 buckets in transition (Holiday, Iguodala, Young and Jodie Meeks). That four-wide-out package serves them well. When they get out, the Sixers' big men cause trouble with rim runs and early post-up and drag screens with Holiday and Iguodala. The Heat defend the break fairly well, but when they're not fully engaged, they have a tendency to ball watch when shots go up. Philadelphia has to work much harder for clean looks when it brings the ball up, and the Heat should do everything in their power to confine the Sixers to the half court.