David Murphy: Five teams besides the Nets that the Sixers should fear in the NBA playoffs

Bam Adebayo #13 and Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat celebrate a play against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the third quarter at American Airlines Arena on Jan. 4, 2021 in Miami, Florida. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images/TNS)
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David Murphy The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

There’s an argument to be made that, two years ago, the Sixers ran into the only team in the NBA that would have stopped them from winning an NBA title. I happen to buy that argument. Had they beaten the Raptors in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semis, the Sixers would have been my easy pick to beat the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals, after which they would have run into a Warriors team that was missing both Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant by the end of the series.

This year, the league looks a bit different. While the Nets are clearly the Sixers’ biggest obstacle to both a berth in the NBA Finals and a title, the playoff field is loaded with teams that could give them trouble. Below are the five teams the Sixers should fear the most (not including the Raptors, who could be a devil of a first-round matchup if they somehow get in).

In their last three head-to-head matchups, the Miami Heat are 3-0 and Jimmy Butler is averaging 25.2 points, and 2.0 steals, while Ben Simmons has averaged 11.8 points and 3.6 turnovers on 47.8% shooting.

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1) Miami Heat

The teams that slow down the Sixers’ offense are the teams that can make Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid uncomfortable, and the Heat’s roster seems custom made to do that. A playoff series against the Heat would likely come down to Embiid’s ability to offset the significant problems that Miami’s tough, versatile roster can cause for the rest of the lineup.

Historically, Embiid has had little trouble doing as he pleases when matching up against Heat big man Bam Adebayo. In eight career games, he is averaging 25.1 points and 12.1 rebounds while shooting 50% from the field. Question is, can he be a bigger x-factor than Jimmy Butler, who would be the one player on the court who has shown the ability to dominate a tightly contested playoffs series.

Butler is an alpha in a way that Simmons has rarely shown himself to be. In their last three head-to-head matchups, the Heat are 3-0 and Butler is averaging 25.2 points, and 2.0 steals, while Simmons has averaged 11.8 points and 3.6 turnovers on 47.8% shooting. Factor in the presence of wings like Trevor Ariza, Andre Iguodala, and Avery Bradley and ballhandlers like Kendrick Nunn, Goran Dragic, and Victor Oladipo, and the Heat have the potential to give the Sixers some serious headaches on both ends of the court. Erik Spoelstra is one of the game’s sharpest coaches, and he has a roster that would allow him to attack the Sixers from a variety of angles.

2) Denver Nuggets

There’s a chance I’m suffering from a case of recency bias, given that the Sixers are less than a week removed from a 105-95 stinker against the Nuggets. It’s also fair to note that they were playing without Embiid, and that Embiid is 4-1 in his career against Nikola Jokic, and, thus, that you can’t read too much into the fact that the Sixers have lost four of their last six games to Denver dating back to Jan. 2019.

Still, the fact remains, the Nuggets are the sort of team that has historically given these Sixers all kinds of problems. In Jamal Murray, they have one of the game’s better shotmakers off the dribble. In Will Barton and Michael Porter Jr., they have two more perimeter players who can hurt you from behind the three-point line or beat you to a spot. And Jokic can create space for the entire lineup with his passing skills and by drawing a rim-protector like Embiid away from the basket.

Over the last two seasons, Murray has shot 28-of-54 from the field and 8-of-19 from three-point range, scoring 66 points in 109 minutes against the Sixers. His 30-point outburst in last week’s Sixers loss was an exhibition of his game-breaking potential.

Furthermore, Embiid’s head-to-head numbers against Jokic are well below average in almost every department except wins (19.8 points, 5.0 turnovers, 37.7 % shooting). Good news is, if the Sixers are playing the Nuggets in the postseason, they are in the NBA Finals.

3) Milwaukee Bucks

There would be plenty of reason for optimism in a series against the Bucks, starting with the two quarters of defense we saw the Sixers play back on March 17. There’s also plenty of reason for concern, starting with the third and fourth quarters of that game, when Giannis Antetokounmpo exploded to lead Milwaukee to a 109-105 come-from-behind win. With Simmons and Embiid — the latter of whom missed that March 17 loss — the Sixers can throw a lot of different matchups at Antetokounmpo, and it’s fair to wonder whether the Bucks have enough legitimate playmakers around him. But the fact remains, the Greek Freak is 8-2 against the Sixers in the Simmons-Embiid era.

Things have been more even in the eight games that Embiid has played against Giannis, but the Bucks have still won five of those, with Antetokounmpo averaging 34 points and 14.1 rebounds while shooting 53% from the field. And they’ve long been a team that has given Simmons problems. He’s never scored more than 16 points against them and has scored 10 or fewer in five of 10, including outings of four, five, six, and eight points.

4) Phoenix Suns

The Sixers have lost all three of the games they’ve played against the Suns over the last three seasons, including a 120-111 shootout in the desert in mid-February. While Embiid had a dominant night on the offensive end of the court in that February loss, scoring 35 points on 12-of-23 shooting, he finished with a minus-2 as the Sixers could not find a way to keep Devin Booker and Chris Paul from doing whatever they pleased with the ball in their hands. Booker, in particular, is a problem whom the Sixers have yet to solve. In his last three games against them, the guard is averaging 37 points on 40-of-66 shooting from the field. Meanwhile, the Suns’ bench outscored the Sixers’ bench, 49-20, in their last outing.

5) Los Angeles Lakers

The Sixers are 5-1 against the Lakers over the last three years, their only loss coming in a game in which neither Ben Simmons nor Joel Embiid played. This season, they’ve beaten the Lakers in both of their matchups, although the most recent win came on a night where L.A. was playing without both of their stars.

LeBron James has lost five of his last six games against the Sixers, dating back to his time in Cleveland. Meanwhile, Embiid is averaging 27.7 points per game in his last three matchups against Anthony Davis. Even if the Lakers get healthy, the Sixers match up well with them. Then again, you won’t make much money betting against LeBron.

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