Friday, April 22, 2011

Sixers haven't tested Heat

By John McMullen

Philadelphia - Things haven't gone exactly as planned for the Miami Heat this season but Erik Spoelstra's club is now riding high after pushing the 76ers to the brink of elimination Thursday in front of a raucous crowd in South Philly.

Talk of 70 wins for the Heat this season quickly evaporated when the star- studded team got off to a pedestrian 9-8 start. Meanwhile, on at least two occasions, there was serious speculation that Pat Riley would come down from the front office and take over as head coach for the underrated Spoelstra.

But, for all the criticism Miami endured during the regular season, if you stepped back to take a look at the final standings, you found 58 wins next to the Heat's name, a Southeast Division championship, the second seed in the Eastern Conference and a date with a banged-up, overmatched Philadelphia team in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

Still, when the postseason started you could feel an air of uncertainty around the Heat. An almost queasiness among its fan base that was only magnified when the Sixers raced out to a 31-19 lead after the first 12 minutes of basketball in Game 1.

After that wake-up call, Miami outscored the Sixers by 39 points over the next seven quarters in the set to take a 2-0 edge, and then ripped the Sixers' collective heart out with a dominating fourth quarter performance on Thursday to put Doug Collins' overachieving club a game away from vacation.

The Heat have been very impressive against the Sixers. The big three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have been as advertised, and Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony have settled in nicely as energy players that provide defense off the bench.

That said, understand this Philadelphia team isn't any real kind of test for Miami. The Sixers are more like simple addition and subtraction versus the algebra and calculus to come if the NBA's version of The Evil Empire hopes to reach its ultimate goal, the NBA championship.

The Heat's biggest problem during the regular season was closing out games. Despite possessing two of the best finishers in the league in James and Wade, Miami came up short time and time again in pressure situations. However, if there was a worse team than the Heat in the NBA at finishing things, at least among the teams that made the postseason, it was Philadelphia, a club whose leading scorer (Elton Brand) averaged just 15.0 points per game.

The Sixers, an extremely young team, are built on energy and athleticism, something that is virtually meaningless when James and Wade are on the floor. Sure, you can outwork the two Miami superstars but you aren't matching their athletic ability, at least with a similar skill set.

"We know what they are capable of," Spoelstra said of the Sixers before Game 3 got started. "If you are not ready for their speed and athleticism at the tip, they can hurt you. We have to hit first and sustain in a hostile environment."

The Philadelphia fans certainly did their part in Game 3. They sold out the normally sparsely filled Wells Fargo Center, chanted "Beat the Heat" from the opening moments and booed LeBron every time he touched the ball early. But, much like their team, the fans eventually wilted under the onslaught of "The Heatles."

"We have been dealing with extreme circumstances from the beginning of the year," Spoelstra said. "Our guys revel in it and we have become like a band of brothers."

Not so fast.

Spoelstra and his charges haven't hit a real roadblock yet. Yeah, 58 wins and an impending sweep of the Sixers is nice but remember LeBron got 66 and 62 wins during his final two years in Cleveland with a supporting cast he labeled as ill-suited to take home the ultimate goal.

The real tests for Miami will come down the line against a fundamentally sound defensive team on the perimeter that has a significant shot blocker coming from the weakside and can make open looks when they present themselves. The Sixers only fill one-third of that equation.

Philadelphia has enough edge defenders to put the screws on the Heat occasionally but with Spencer Hawes, Tony Battie or Marreese Speights patrolling the middle, "The King" and D-Wade can drive at will and rescue any play at any time. Meanwhile, Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams have constantly come up small at the offensive end and the Zach Zarba's of the world have been blowing the whistle on reputation.

What happens when Dwight Howard meets a James or Wade driving to the bucket?

What happens when Ray Allen takes that wide open three-ball?

What happens when Derrick Rose draws a phantom foul in the waning moments of a game?

This series can't continue forever.

The Heat are still learning to play with each other and often stand around in the half court set when things bog down, watching and waiting for James or Wade to bail them out. Heck, even in this series, the Sixers starters have outscored Miami's 67-48 when on the floor together.

"Early in the season the ball was stagnant," Collins said of the Miami's offense. "I've been real impressed [lately] with their offensive efficiency. They have better ball movement, better player movement."

The Sixers' coach is right -- the Heat are improving but they have significant flaws -- flaws that Philadelphia simply can't exploit.

I'm betting someone else can.

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