The last two NBA Finals losers, the Heat and Suns, are in very similar positions in the second round of the playoffs. Both took care of business at home, then went on the road Friday night and got smoked.
Both still have a 2-1 lead, but the circumstances are quite 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 Sunday, you’ve got yourself a series with a different dynamic.
Phoenix, on the other hand, does not feel so on the verge of getting wrapped up in drama, even if Dallas follows up its 103-94 victory (it was double digits most of the way) with another win in Game 4. Maybe the Suns need to get back to making Luka Doncic do it all himself instead of spreading things around, but there’s not a tectonic shift to be had in this series that changes the simple fact of the Suns being better.
That’s never so much the case with Philadelphia, where the 76ers have the best player in the series on their side now, and it’s a question of whether Embiid can get enough support from his flawed supporting cast and Playoff Doc Rivers to overcome an elite player in his own right, Jimmy Butler, and an extremely well-coached and cohesive team behind him.
It’s also just as important to the 76ers that with Embiid back, James Harden doesn’t have any notions of being the top guy, and also Philadelphia can survive him turning the ball over seven times in a 20-point win. It’s just a lot easier for the Sixers to function when Embiid is the No. 1 option, and Harden thinks he’s the No. 2, but really he’s behind Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris in the pecking order offensively.
All of that makes it a lot more interesting to follow Philly-Miami going into Sunday than Dallas-Phoenix, and that’s before you even get to the Mavericks being coached by Jason Kidd. That series is still Phoenix’s to lose. You get the feeling that in the East, it might turn into the 76ers’ series to win.