Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) strips the ball from Philadelphia 76ers forward Robert Covington (33). File photo by Mark Goldman/UPI | License Photo
Back in the playoffs for the first time in six years, the Philadelphia 76ers got a bit of a pick-me-up on Thursday as they prepared for Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinals matchup with the Miami Heat at 5 p.m. on Saturday at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
"We had a nice team dinner, went over the game plan, shared a message from Julius Erving, Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson, exchanged some stories, some well swishes, and we wake up this morning and reset the game plan," 76ers coach Brett Brown said. "They understand the magnitude of this time of year."
It would be understandable if at least a few of the Sixers players didn't.
The last time third-seeded Philadelphia won 50 regular-season games -- the 2000-01 season -- Ben Simmons was 4 years old. His backup, No. 1 draft pick Markelle Fultz, was 2, and he turned 3 while the 76ers were in the midst of their postseason run to the NBA Finals that season.
It hasn't been 18 years since the 76ers started "The Process," though it may have felt that way. But even in this better-than-anticipated season, the team feels excited and prepared for its first playoff run since 2012.
Even the absence of star young center Joel Embiid -- who, Brown confirmed, will miss the beginning of the playoffs as he recovers from a broken orbital bone -- is doing little to dampen Philadelphia's spirits.
"We prepare the same way we've been preparing the last seven or so games without him," said Simmons, who has averaged a triple-double over the last month. "Stick with our defense, stick with our offense. We're ready to play; I love stepping up and playing against the best competition."
Against the sixth-seeded Heat, Embiid's presence could play a major factor.
Miami has a pair of stout centers in Hassan Whiteside, one of the league's best defenders, and rookie Bam Adebayo, who is one of the league's best rebounders per 48 minutes.
"They are tremendous rim protectors," Brown said. "You better go to jump or you better find perimeter shooters, because anything soft or non-purposeful is very difficult with those two bodies in there."
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said the Heat could turn to Adebayo more against a 76ers squad missing one of the premier post players in the game.
"He certainly brings something that could be needed in this series, which is that energy and physicality under the rim," Spoelstra said. "This is a big offensive rebounding team and you need more of your best rebounders out there."
Both teams enter the matchup coming off good Aprils, though the 76ers come in as the hottest team in the NBA with a franchise-best 16 straight wins. Miami ended the regular season winners of five of eight.
"This is a great competition," Spoelstra said. "You look at our games, we split them 2-2 and we had some crazy games. Both teams had big leads and lost them. This is what you want. Usually the 3-6 matchup is very competitive."
Neither team dominated the season series, with all four games between the teams taking place during a five-week stretch from early February to early March. Philadelphia won at home, 103-97, on Feb. 2, followed by a 104-102 Miami road win on Feb. 14. The teams met again two weeks later in Miami, with the 76ers scoring a 102-101 win, and the Heat closed out the season series with a 108-99 home win on March 8.
"They played us hard; they were really physical with us, especially down in Miami," Sixers guard J.J. Redick said. "They run multiple actions on offense so you really have to defend for the whole shot clock. They have a deep roster with a bunch of guys who play hard and play together. It's a big challenge for us."