Well, the pressure is off — for now. The 76ers won the series they were supposed to win and avoided the prospect of becoming the first team in NBA history to blow a 3-0 lead, and they, their fan base, and their futures bettors can exhale for a moment.
But only for a moment: On Monday, the pressure of trying to reach the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in this post-“Process” Joel Embiid era — in fact, for the first time since Allen Iverson’s prime in 2001 — returns.
The fourth-seeded Sixers, having trounced the Toronto Raptors 132-97 on Thursday to escape with a 4-2 series win, are small underdogs against the top-seeded Miami Heat in the East semifinals. The Heat won 53 games in the regular season (two more than the Sixers) and took care of business in five games against the Atlanta Hawks, earning a little more rest than Philly.
Both teams could use the rest, as Embiid is playing through a torn ligament in his thumb and averaged just shy of 39 minutes per game against Toronto, while both Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry missed the closeout game against the Hawks with knee inflammation and a hamstring strain, respectively.
The series odds might appear to some a continuation of the mild disrespect shown to Miami by oddsmakers all season, and to others a fair reflection of a matchup between two teams with comparable regular-season records, comparable talent levels, and comparable health uncertainty.
The Sixers are the underdogs, but not by much. Essentially, they’re the underdogs by the sort of odds a bettor would expect if two teams are closely matched and one has earned home-court advantage.
Series odds shopping
There isn’t a whole lot of variance in the series pricing at Pennsylvania’s regulated mobile sportsbooks, a sampling of which can be seen here:
As of midday Friday, FOX Bet was the best place to bet on the Sixers to reach the conference finals, and it’s also, thanks to an odds boost, the best book to bet on the Sixers to win in exactly six games, closing the series out at home. That’s normally priced at +500 at FOX Bet (the same as FanDuel and Kambi-connected books such as BetRivers), but is modestly boosted to +550.
Expect other PA sportsbooks to unveil other boosts and promotions as the tipoff for Game 1 nears.
Speaking of Game 1, Miami opened as a 4.5-point favorite at home at most books, but that moved to 4 at DraftKings, FanDuel, and PointsBet PA on Friday morning, and a notch further to 3.5 at BetMGM. The point total over/under varies from 207.5 to 209. On the moneyline, the 76ers are as high as +160 on the Kambi sites, which still had the Heat favored by 4.5 as of this writing.
Centers of attention
Embiid, his thumb, and his ability to establish himself as the best player on the court at key junctures are critical to the outcome of the series.
Certainly, James Harden stepping up like he did in Game 6 against the Raptors (he didn’t look like his prime self by any means, but he was roughly what GM Daryl Morey thought he was trading for, unlike most of the first five games) would be impactful, second-year breakout star Tyrese Maxey (21.3 ppg vs. Toronto) continuing to deliver in spurts is a help, another strong Tobias Harris series (17.8 ppg, 9.5 rpg vs. Toronto) would be welcome, and occasional fire from veteran Danny Green (16 made 3-pointers in the last five games) makes a huge difference.
But above all, it’s on Embiid’s shoulders. And he has a tough matchup in opposing center Bam Adebayo, who finished fourth in the NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting.
Interestingly, the two big men only went head-to-head once this season. On Dec. 15 in Philly, in a game the Heat won 101-96, Adebayo was out and Embiid had one of his worst games of the season, scoring only 17 points. On Jan. 15, the 76ers beat Miami 109-98 on the road, but again there was no Bam, and Embiid delivered a 32-12 stat line.
The only time Embiid and Adebayo faced off was on March 5, a 99-92 Heat win in Miami, and both struggled offensively. Embiid scored 22 points (with 15 rebounds) on just 4-for-15 shooting, while Adebayo tallied a mere 6 points (with 10 boards) on 3-for-10 shooting. Then-newly acquired Harden sat that one out, and he and Embiid both sat out on March 21 at home, a strange game in which Miami had all of its starters and the Sixers pulled off a massive upset behind a combined 38 bench points from Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz.
The teams split their four meetings, 2-2, and not a single game featured both squads at full strength.
When the Heat are at full strength, they’re one of the most balanced teams in the league. In addition to six-time all-stars Butler and Lowry and one-time all-star Adebayo, they feature presumptive Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro, veteran power forward P.J. Tucker, and shooting guards Max Strus, Victor Oladipo, and Duncan Robinson.
It will be interesting to see whether Sixers coach Doc Rivers starts Green or Matisse Thybulle, who was moved to the bench for the Raptors series because his vaccination status prevented him from playing road games. When he did play, for just 43 minutes total in three games, the defensive specialist struggled mightily on the offensive end.
16/1 to take the title?
With just one first-round playoff series yet to be decided, it’s been a romp for the top seeds so far. If the Memphis Grizzlies defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 6 Friday night (or, if necessary, Game 7 on Sunday), the top four seeds in each conference will have advanced.
And of those teams, excluding the Wolves, the 76ers have the second-longest odds to win it all.
The Kambi books are the most optimistic about the Sixers, pricing them at +1200 to win the title, while the most customer-friendly odds are DraftKings’ +1600. Only the Dallas Mavericks — like the Sixers, a 4-seed — are bigger ’dogs at +2000 at DK.
Not surprisingly, Philly has the longest odds to win the Eastern Conference. The Boston Celtics are favored at +150 at most books, the Heat are as high as +230, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks return +375, and the Sixers sit a distant fourth at +500 at DraftKings, BetMGM, and FOX Bet.
But, hey, one step at a time. If they beat Miami, they’ll have accomplished something no Sixers squad has done since Iverson was crossing and stepping over. Then they can start to think about bigger prizes.
Photo: Sam Navarro/USA TODAY