Heat, 76ers having similar seasons that feel very different, and a first-round playoff series could be looming


The Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers are having similar seasons that feel very different. The Sixers feel like the disappointment. The Heat, though not quite as much lately, have been the proverbial pleasant surprise. But it’s all added up to basically the same thing. Entering play on Monday, Miami (38-22) is No. 4 in the East while Philly (37-24) is No. 5. Just two games separate them in the loss column.

With the Bucks (52-8), Raptors (42-18) and Celtics (41-18) pretty firm in the top three spots, and the Magic (27-33) and Nets (26-33) way down the totem pole in the Nos. 7 and 8 spots, the only team that feels like it could interfere with a Sixers-Heat first-round playoff matchup is the No. 6 Indiana Pacers, who are tied with the Sixers in the loss column after Philly’s loss at the Clippers on Sunday. 

The Pacers (36-24) have the 10th-toughest remaining schedule in the league, while the Sixers have the fourth-easiest, which is in part why SportsLine is projecting Indiana to stay at No. 6 with the Heat and Sixers finishing 4-5 and meeting up in the first round, with the Heat securing home-court advantage. 

Obviously a lot could change between now and mid-April. Joel Embiid (sprained shoulder) and Ben Simmons (nerve impingement in back) are currently sidelined for the Sixers, and on Sunday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski described Simmons’ injury as murky. Simmons was originally given a two-week timetable for reevaluation. If he’s out longer than that, the Sixers could be in a lot of trouble. 

Or, conversely, Philly could get on a little win streak with a somewhat soft schedule in the month of March. If that happens, just you wait for all the stories about how the Sixers are better without Simmons. With the Sixers, the glass always seems to be half empty. Rather than the individual dominance of Simmons and Embiid being the focus of discussion, it’s always about how they contradict one another, how they can’t reach their ceilings together, and from there the Philly criticism flows downhill. 

Al Horford doesn’t fit. Tobias Harris is overpaid. Josh Richardson is out of his depth as a primary half-court initiator. The Sixers can’t collectively space the floor. Can’t shoot. Can’t generate consistent half-court offense, particularly late in games. And they sure as heck can’t win on the road. 

Entering Monday, the Sixers are an abysmal 9-22 on the road, which is the same mark as the Pistons and the Knicks. We could talk about how they’re a league-best 28-2 at home, but we don’t. The Sixers have become a punching bag. I’m guilty of it myself. It’s because the expectations surrounding them coming into the season were championship-contention high, and expectations are the root of frustration. 

With the Heat, there were no expectations of any significance, so their glass has been half full all season. They, too, struggle on the road; entering Monday, the Heat are just 13-18 away from American Airlines Arena. Like the Sixers, they dominate at home, where their 25-4 record is the third-best mark in the league. All season Jimmy Butler has been talked about as a fringe MVP candidate, but if you look closely he’s actually having the worst shooting season of his career and he’s struggled in the clutch, even though his “Jimmy Buckets” reputation suggests he’s a guy you can count on in tense times. 

If you throw out Butler’s rookie season in which he only played eight minutes a game, this is the worst 3-point shooting season of his career by an eye-popping margin; through Sunday, he’s shooting just 25 percent from 3, per Cleaning the Glass. That gets even worse in clutch situations, in which Butler is shooting 15.8 percent from 3 and just 30 percent overall from the field. All told, Butler’s 47.7 effective field-goal percentage is his worst since 2013-14 and the second-worst mark of his career excluding his rookie season. per CTG. 

Earlier this season, I asked Heat coach Erik Spoelstra about Butler’s shooting struggles, and he said two things. First, he noted Butler’s increased free-throw attempts as an obvious counter to his shooting percentages, and that still holds true; through Sunday, Butler is getting to the line a career-high 9.2 times per game and he’s shooting just under 84 percent. In clutch situations — defined as the last five minutes of a game within five points — Butler has shot 51 total free throws, which is the highest number in the league, per NBA.com. 

Spoelstra’s second rationale for Butler’s shooting struggles was that, at the time, it was still early in the season. Well, it’s not early anymore. And the point is this: Butler is having a great season, no question, but if he were having a shooting season like this in Philadelphia, there’s also no question it would be being talked about a lot more — What do you know, another Sixer who can’t shoot. Because in Philadelphia, again, the glass is half empty. 

Down in Miami, Butler is basically a hero. As is Bam Adebayo, a first-time All-Star. Adebayo, in many aspects, is a lesser version of Ben Simmons — an elite, versatile defender who can lead breaks and initiate offense as a really good passer at 6-foot-9. Nobody cares that he can’t shoot outside the paint. With Simmons, that’s the only thing anyone seems to care about. Again, I’m guilty of this, too. 

And so here we are, with two East teams who are great at home and terrible on the road and share many of the same characteristics perceived through two completely different lenses, and there’s a good chance they’re on a first-round collision course. If that series does happen, the Sixers will be playing for the opportunity to continue as they currently exist. Brett Brown will be coaching for his job. Simmons and Embiid will be trying to prove that one of them doesn’t have to go. Harris will be trying to validate his contract. We’re already hearing rumbles that the Sixers could look to trade Horford in the offseason. 

With the Heat, it’s all gravy. They could lose in the first round and they’ll still be a young team with an emerging star in Adebayo, a solidified star in Butler and nothing but cap space and optimism in front of them. They will be, ironically, in the same place the Sixers were in during the 2017-18 playoffs, when they rolled through the Heat in the first round and looked like a surefire future championship contender. The sun sets on that kind of hope quickly in the NBA. For the Heat, it’s still happy hour. For now. 





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