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Don’t expect to see vintage Playoff Jimmy this time around

In Sports
April 17, 2024

The NBA’s play-in tournament continues Wednesday with showdowns in the East: Sixers-Heat and Bulls-Hawks. Which two teams will win their play-in games? And can any of the East’s play-in teams win a round in the playoffs against the Celtics or Knicks? Our writers weigh in.

Dan Devine: Sixers. Philly has outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions in Joel Embiid’s minutes this season. They’re 31-8 when he plays — a 65-win pace. He’s averaged 30.4 points in 30.5 minutes per game on .641 true shooting since returning, and the Sixers haven’t lost since his reintroduction — a span that includes a 109-105 win in Miami. Embiid’s reportedly good to go for Wednesday; demons are only scary until you exorcise them.

Dan Titus: Sixers. Both teams won two games in their regular-season matchups, but it’s worth noting that the Sixers beat the Heat in the only game where Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler were both active. The Heat had the second-best road record in the Eastern Conference this year (24-17) while holding the Sixers to 101 PPG at home. Still, I’m taking the Sixers since they have the healthier squad and Miami will be without combo guard Terry Rozier.

Jake Fischer: Sixers. I’m ready for the Tobias Harris moment! He has become so maligned among Sixers fans. There’s the rich history of Jimmy Butler walking off the floor and calling him out. What better way to cap a bow on all this with a massive, unexpected shining performance in a win from the upcoming free agent — while the Philly faithful are already dreaming about Paul George arriving in the offseason.

2. Bulls vs. Hawks: Who wins?

Fischer: Bulls. During their regular-season finale against New York, the Bulls looked the part of a team that believes it can scrap around and steal a few playoff wins. DeMar DeRozan remains one of the most dangerous fourth-quarter scorers in the game. Alex Caruso can blanket either Dejounte Murray or Trae Young when called upon. Coby White has evolved into a genuine game-changer. You can kinda squint and see the Bulls are one frontcourt partner for Nikola Vučević away from something legitimate.

Devine: Bulls. In theory, Atlanta has more star-level talent. But the Hawks have lost the last six games that Trae Young has appeared in; the three-guard lineup of Young, Dejounte Murray and Bogdan Bogdanovic has been a net negative; the Bulls have defended Young well with Alex Caruso and Ayo Dosunmu on the ball; and I trust DeMar DeRozan to find a way to generate some points more than I trust the Hawks — fresh off giving up 157 to Indiana — to defend at all.

Titus: Hawks. Since the play-in tournament’s inception, road teams are 7-13 straight up, but I’m bucking the trend and going with Atlanta. Trae Young is averaging 28 PPG in play-in games and now that he’s back to his typical workload, I expect the Hawks to lean on their guard play and outpace the Bulls to an upset. The Bulls were bottom-three in opponent 3s made and attempted this year, so it’s an area the Hawks’ sharpshooting can exploit.

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) drives past Philadelphia 76ers guard Kyle Lowry (7) during the first half at Kaseya Center in Miami on Thursday, April 4, 2024. (D.A. Varela/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Can the Heat survive the play-in tournament again and make another postseason run? (D.A. Varela/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

3. Will any of the East play-in teams make it out of the first round of the playoffs?

Titus: Yes, the Philadelphia 76ers. Do you know what’s divine? Joel Embiid’s 16-3 record (when active) against the Knicks. The Sixers have the bodies to slow down Jalen Brunson, and we’ve yet to see another player step up as a reliable bucket-getter for the Knicks outside of Donte DiVincenzo. With these factors in play, it’s clear the Sixers are the team to beat, and the Knicks’ prolonged quest for a title will end on a trip down I-95 South.

Fischer: No, I think Boston and New York are too strong and complete — even if the Knicks are without Julius Randle — to falter so early after such strong seasons. New York arguably rosters the strongest center platoon to combat Joel Embiid with Mitchell Robinson, Isaiah Hartenstein and Precious Achiuwa. The Heat, with Terry Rozier currently sidelined due to a neck injury, are going to need the perfect blend of Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro to score with either of these two top seeds.

Devine: Nope. The basketball gods will reward the Knicks’ purity of heart in actually going after the No. 2 seed on the final day of the season rather than trying to duck Embiid. And as many palpitations as the sight of Jimmy Butler might cause in Greater Boston if the Heat survive the 8-vs.-9 game, I don’t think this version of the Heat has the goods to take down this version of the Celtics.

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