The last two NBA Finals losers, Heat and Suns, are in very similar positions in the second round of the playoffs. They both did business at home, then hit the streets and smoked on Friday night.
Both are still 2-1 up, but the circumstances are very different. Miami scored under 20 points in three of the four quarters of Game 3 in Philadelphia, where Joel Embiid returned to the 76ers’ lineup. The big man posted 18 points and 11 rebounds in the 99-79 route, and now if the Sixers can win on Sunday, they have a streak with a different dynamic.
Phoenix, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like there’s going to be any drama, even as Dallas follows up their 103-94 win (which was in double digits most of the time) with another win in Game 4. Maybe the The Suns needs to get Luka Doncic back into making everything himself instead of spreading things, but there’s no tectonic shift in this series that changes the simple fact that the Suns are better.
That’s never so much the case with Philadelphia, where the 76ers now have the best player in the series on their side, and it’s a question if Embiid can get enough support from his flawed supporting cast and playoff Doc Rivers to pick an elite player to defeat his own right, Jimmy Butler, and an extremely well-trained and cohesive team behind him.
Just as importantly for the 76ers, with Embiid back, James Harden has no notions of being the top guy, and Philadelphia too can survive turning the ball seven times in a 20-point win. It’s just a lot easier for the Sixers to function when Embiid is No. 1 and Harden thinks he’s No. 2, but in reality he’s offensively behind Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris in the pecking order.
All of that makes it a lot more interesting to follow Philly-Miami on Sunday than Dallas-Phoenix, and that’s before you even get to the Mavericks, coached by Jason Kidd. This series is still losing Phoenix. One has the feeling that in the east it might become the winning streak of the ’76.