It’s Celtics or 76ers up next, with NBA scout saying there should be one clear Heat preference

MIAMI – Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s 3:30 p.m. Game 7 between the Boston Celtics and visiting Philadelphia 76ers, there will be a degree of familiarity for the Miami Heat once their opponent in the Eastern Conference finals is determined.

The Heat defeated the 76ers 4-2 in last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals, before losing 4-3 to the Celtics in the 2022 East finals.

Still, based on the perspective of an NBA scout with more than three decades of experience in the league, there is a preferable option for Erik Spoelstra’s team in the best-of-seven series that opens Wednesday night on the court of Sunday’s winner.

In the view of the scout, who spoke to the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Saturday under a request of anonymity because of his employment with another team, the Heat’s Sunday rooting interest should be apparent.

“You’d rather play Philadelphia,” the scout said, with the Heat already locked into the East finals after Friday night’s 96-92 victory over the New York Knicks at Kaseya Center won that series 4-2. “Their depth isn’t as good. They’re very, very reliant on James Harden, and he’s been extremely up and down.”

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Q: So what are the aspects where you see the Heat with the more favorable matchup if the 76ers advance out of that series?

Scout: “[76ers center Joel] Embiid is a given. How is Bam [Adebayo] going to do against him? As well as anybody. He’s going to get his 29. But [James] Harden is defensible. Miami’s got a bunch of guys who can guard him. And they’re too dependent on him. And then the rest, [Tyrese] Maxey is great. But you’re seeing what’s happening with Tobias Harris. When it counts, he’s a no-show.”

Q: So, conversely, why wouldn’t the Heat want to face the Celtics?

Scout: “If they win Sunday, it’ll mean their confidence is back. They’ll have won an amazing sixth game, and the seventh game. So their confidence is back. Unlike the 76ers, their subsidiary players step up. That shows the quality of their depth is so superior to Philadelphia. I mean, Marcus Smart can be great. Malcolm Brogdon can be great. Derrick White can be great. Robert Williams can be very good.”

Q: So let’s go to each team. Which player or situation can be a swing vote in a series against the Heat? Let’s start with the Celtics.

Scout: “Can the Heat score? I mean, can they make threes at a rate like they did last season? If they can’t make shots, Boston is a very good defensive team and can score. You don’t want to become too Jimmy Butler dependent. My concern is if they’ll be able to score at a winning rate.”

Q: So let’s go to the other side, the assumption is that it comes down to stopping Embiid?

Scout: “No, I think Embiid is a given. I think it’s Harden. You’ve got to stop Harden. He scores, they win. Their fortunes have strictly depended on him. Look at the Boston series, when he’s good, they’ve been good. When he doesn’t show up, they don’t show up.”

Q: How could each potential opponent force Spoelstra to make a dramatic change from the formula that has been so successful so far for the Heat in the playoffs? Let’s start with the Celtics.

Scout: “Boston’s small lineup. If they start Robert Williams and Al Horford, you’re set with Bam and [Kevin] Love. I think the Celtics are going to start small, their lineup with Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Smart and White back in. So, yes, absolutely I would start [Caleb] Martin instead of Love. Absolutely yes. No doubt about it. Kevin Love would have a short stint if he starts.”

Q: What about the 76ers? What makes Spoelstra change dramatically?

Scout: “I know the thought is that you have to design something against Embiid. I disagree. You just live with his 32 points. But he’s also turnover prone. You mix it up. You don’t double team every time. You come from his blind side. You give him a lot of looks. But he’s the MVP. If there’s one thing you go at, you make Harden play defense. He’s not good defensively. Tire him out. But, no, you don’t change lineups against Philly. You can put Love on [P.J.] Tucker.”

Q: Who stands as the potential Jimmy Butler stoppers? Start with the Celtics.

Scout: “Well, Smart, I think. I wouldn’t call him stopper. But Smart could stop him some. That’s a problem for them. Smart’s smaller. But White’s too small. Brown? Maybe.”

Q: And for the 76ers, Tucker as Butler stopper?

Scout: “It makes sense. You have Embiid on Bam, Harris on Love and the guards guarding the guards. Tucker is the best matchup there, the most favorable for Philly.”

Q: As for the coaching, Spoelstra seemingly would be an advantage over the Celtics’ Joe Mazzulla or the 76ers Doc Rivers, right?

Scout: “The only thing with Philadelphia is Doc has [assistants] Dave Joerger, they got Dan Burke. They got a real good staff. That ameliorates somewhat the Doc concerns. But Erik and Mazzulla, that’s a dramatic difference.”

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