Miami Heat vs. Philadelphia 76ers: 5 Things to Watch For

The Philadelphia 76ers (3-10) will host the Miami Heat (4-8) at 7pm, where they’ll be searching for their 4th straight home win.

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The Philadelphia 76ers have found themselves in a groove lately at home, snatching 3 straight victories in the Wells Fargo Center behind energized play and an admittedly weak schedule. Now, with the Miami Heat coming to town and the Sixers enjoying the luxury of a couple days rest, there’s a very real chance that we see that home win streak extended to 4.

The Heat have been banged up as of late, but have managed to gradually get healthier. Justise Winslow, who sat out during Miami’s Saturday night win over the Washington Wizards with a sore left wrist, is questionable to play tonight according to Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Miami has picked it up as of late in recent games, especially on the offensive end — where they struggled towards the beginning of the season. The team lost a lot of firepower this offseason with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh effectively done with their careers in South Beach, but the likes of Dragic and star center Hassan Whiteside have been able to pick up some of the slack.

Dion Waiters, a Philadelphia native, has also gained some confidence as of late and appears to be carrying that into his hometown. He told the Miami Herald that he’s probably got around 100 tickets for friends and family.

The Sixers have also played better lately on both sides of the ball, with Joel Embiid and Nik Stauskas both tallying big scoring nights en  route to the team’s 120-105 win over Phoenix on Saturday with 26 and 21 points respectively.

Here are 5 things to watch tonight:

Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid v.s. Hassan Whiteside

While Joel Embiid’s recent matchup with Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t live up the expectations that were established coming into the game, there’s a good chance we get a more appealing battle underneath tonight. Hassan Whiteside will almost certainly be guarding Embiid tonight and vice versa, pitting the league’s top shot blocker against Philadelphia’s rookie standout.

In terms of difficult tests for Embiid, this could very well be his toughest yet. Whiteside’s physical stature is just as freakish as that of Embiid, and his rim protections skills are among the most prolific we’ve seen in recent years. Whiteside is second in the league with 2.75 blocks per contest, and leads the NBA rebounding average with 16.2 per game.

Embiid has proven himself capable of single-handedly carrying the offense in limited minutes this season, but his ability to produce in such short periods of time against a defender as skilled as Whiteside is worth keeping an eye on. This has been a much improved team throughout, but the offense still runs through the post — which is where the Heat are best equipped to hold Philly in check.

Embiid’s defense will also be tested, as Whiteside is a dominant presence around the basket. He doesn’t have a lot of moves to fall back on, but is tough to keep contained at the rim and is a killer on the offensive glass if not properly boxed out. He leads the Heat is scoring as well, with 17.7 points per contest.

With guys like Towns and Myles Turner being lauded as the future of the center position, Whiteside’s stellar play this year has been grossly under-appreciated. Whiteside has been the Heat’s most consistent entity on both sides of the ball, and gives Embiid a two-way challenge that is perhaps his most difficult yet from a physical perspective.

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Robert Covington’s effectiveness

As it stands, Covington is shooting an abysmal 25 percent from both the field and the 3-point line — a slump that has made his early-season goings rough in almost every facet. As somebody who was one of the Sixers’ most consistent perimeter scorers last season, Covington’s inability to find a groove has been an unexpected occurrence  and one that he’ll likely need to rectify if he hopes to retain the starting gig long term.

The Heat are capable of throwing good defenders Covington’s way too, especially if Winslow is healthy enough play tonight. This is a highly athletic Miami backcourt, and one that has showcased their ability to defend well alongside Whiteside’s presence in the post all season long. Covington, despite his struggles, is likely to be a focal point off their defensive pressure — making his ability to knock down shots increasingly more important tonight.

If RoCo is able to exploit Miami’s defense and make shots against one of the more active backcourts in the league, it should be a nice boost of confidence moving forward as he tries to regain his footing in the Sixers’ new-look offense.

His body language and engagement defensively has been off and on as well, another worthwhile aspect to keep an eye on given how quickly players like Waiters, Josh Richardson, and Tyler Johnson can fill it up when they find their own respective shots from night to night.

Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Dion Waiters’ hometown performance

Waiters was the Philadelphia 76ers’ biggest free agency acquisition that never was this offseason, as the rumors of him returning home to Philly were never able to come to fruition. Now, the area native is coming home with a fairly expansive amount of confidence as I alluded to earlier, as he answered with a resounding “oh h— yeah!” when asked by the Palm Beach Post if he was excited to be back home.

For all the knocks that Waiters takes from critics on a near-daily basis, there’s one thing that’s a certainty when analyzing his game — he can score the basketball. Waiters finds immense joy in tearing up his opponents, especially when there’s extra motivation behind doing so — as there will be tonight.

Family will be in attendance  and he’ll assuredly want to put on a show for them if possible. That means Gerald Henderson and whoever else is covering him throughout the course of the game will need to stay on their heels and devote the majority of their energy towards keeping the spearhead of Miami’s backcourt presence in check tonight.

If Philadelphia can keep Waiters in check, that relegates the majority of Miami’s offensive production to the likes of Dragic and Whiteside, and dangerous but much more manageable focal point.

The importance of keeping Waiters in check is further explained by his point averages in wins and losses this season. The fourth-year guard is averaging 17 points per contest in wins this season, while tallying a total of just 10.8 in losses.

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Sauce’s hot streak

Outside of Joel Embiid, it has been Nik Stauskas who has been stealing the majority of headlines regarding the Sixers lately. After two seasons of lackluster play and inconsistent shooting, the Michigan stud has broken out in a big way off the bench this year, and has been a massive boost of energy and floor spacing that Philadelphia hasn’t had in recent seasons.

Sauce Castillo has put up double digit scoring nights in each of Philadelphia’s last six games, and has been a model of consistency for an otherwise inconsistent bench unit. His aggressiveness in getting to the basket and improved decision making with the ball has allowed him to fit extremely well in his new niche in the Sixers’ rotation.

This is the most confident version of Stauskas we’ve seen since his days as the head man at Michigan, and his ability to continue his recent hot streak is going to play a large role in swaying the outcome of tonight’s game. As is the case with Covington, the Heat are going to be able to put athletic bodies on Sauce on the exterior, which will force him to make smart plays with the basketball and take advantage of the opportunities he’s able to exploit.

As somebody who has shot 46 percent from deep so far this season –12 percent above his career average — Stauskas’ proficiency from deep has made him one of the league’s most improved rotational pieces thus far, making such a unique matchup a pivotal test as he begins to establish some long term relevancy that he didn’t have coming into the season.

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How aggressive El Chacho is

Over the course of the past couple of games, Sergio Rodriguez has taken considerable time to get into a rhythm on a nightly basis. He tends to begin games somewhat slow, then gradually begin to penetrate the defense and become more and more aggressive as the game progresses, and awkward trend that he can ideally break tonight.

While scoring is far from his strong suit, when Rodriguez is searching out offensive possessions rather than differing to the pieces around him, the entire team flows more cohesively — even if it means that he takes a few more shots early on. His ability to get into the teeth of the defense opens up space for Embiid around the basket, while his proficiency in pick-and-pop scenarios leads to players like Ersan Ilyasova and Dario Saric, as well as Embiid, seeing plenty of solid looks on the outside.

Rodriguez has also shown he’s more than capable of knocking down jumpers when the opportunities are available, and keeping the likes of Goran Dragic busy on the defensive end could benefit the Sixers on defense in return.

For a team that hasn’t seen consistent point guard play since Michael Carter-Williams‘ rookie season, Rodriguez has been a pleasurable addition to the squad. His playmaking is the still the main catalyst behind the Sixers’ offensive scheme, and how aggressive he is usually determines — to some extent — how much the ball moves on offense.

This is a Philadelphia 76ers team that has been able to really find their stride offensively at home, and if Rodriguez comes out of the gates firing on all cylinders than the expectation could be for that trend to continue.

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