I got enough entertainment value out of my Miami Heat division future to make it all worth it, so to cash on the final day of the regular season was a cherry on top.
The Heat beat Toronto in overtime on Wednesday to clinch the Southeast Division and move up to the 6-seed in the East, setting up a matchup with the hottest team in basketball: the Philadelphia 76ers.
Philly won’t have Joel Embiid in this game, and perhaps not for the entire series. That hasn’t stopped the oddsmakers from making the Sixers big favorites in Game 1. They’re giving a full seven full points on their home floor.
I love the Heat with the points in this game. Nine of Miami’s first 13 losses this season were by more than seven. At that point, the Heat was 11–13 but then it got hot.
It finished 33–25 and of those 25 losses, only six were by double-digits. No team has played more close games than the Heat has this season and I would be surprised if this one didn’t come down to the final few minutes, given the Heat’s tendency and the pressure on an inexperienced team. Fans in Philly are excited about this moment but also a bit nervous; I suspect those two feelings will be in reverse proportion for the players.
Then there’s the Embiid injury. It seems as though Philadelphia’s success without him down the stretch has eased the frenzy that I was expecting there to be if he wasn’t ready for Game 1. Don’t be fooled — this is a big deal. All season, Philadelphia has been significantly better on both sides of the floor with Embiid. Now it’s playoff time and the team isn’t at full strength.
The Heat is deep, scrappy, well-coached and matches up well with Philadelphia. It can use James Johnson to defend Ben Simmons; Josh Richardson could offer a different look; but Justise Winslow may be the best option of all.
Winslow is the guy to keep an eye on, not just defensively but everywhere. He played great in the final couple weeks after missing some time in the middle of the season and struggling to find a consistent role in the rotation. His three-point shot has been more accurate and he has been taking the ball to the rim confidently. On a team without a clear best player, Winslow has the opportunity to be as good as any for Miami.
I’m not calling an upset in this game, nor am I calling one for the series (though I realize the genuine possibility). Everybody is loving Philadelphia right now, but things change in the playoffs and without Embiid, I just don’t see Philly pulling away, especially not in this game. Play this one for double.
Free Pick: Miami +7
P.S. Check out our bracket contest before today’s deadline to enter.