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Sizing up Heat-76ers starts in middle but could come down to depth perception

Strength in numbers again will be put to the test for the Miami Heat in the NBA playoffs.

In the opening round, it was all for one, with four different leading scorers in five games, and all defensive eyes on Trae Young.

Erik Spoelstra’s team ultimately aced that test against the Atlanta Hawks.

This time, against the Philadelphia 76ers, a best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series that opens Monday at FTX Arena, the challenge figures to come in triplicate, based on the 76ers’ possibilities with center Joel Embiid and guards James Harden and Tyrese Maxey.

For the Heat, the counter will be waves of bodies, waves of defensive pressure, and, likely, waves of fans attempting to maximize the homecourt advantage.

“I mean, they’re good,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said of the impending series. “They’re deep. They’re veterans. We are going to play grown men, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Considering Harden has yet to face the Heat in a 76ers uniform, and considering Heat center Bam Adebayo participated in only two of the season’s four meetings of the teams, the 2-2 series split offers limited insight into what comes next.

With the 76ers arriving with respect for the higher seed.

“It’s going to be a challenge for us,” forward Tobias Harris said.

Ultimately what will come next for the series winner is a spot in the Eastern Conference finals against the winner of the Boston Celtics-Milwaukee Bucks series that opens Sunday in Boston.

So how will it play out? Several matchups will be telling.

Center: This will be the prime focus, considering the ability of Embiid to dominate not only in the paint, but also with silky jumpers that range beyond the 3-point line. However, Embiid also is playing with a sprained right thumb that will require offseason surgery. Adebayo, while lacking such an offensive repertoire, offers the ability to switch on to any Philadelphia player, including Harden and Maxey. Edge: 76ers.

Power forward: A wildcard in the series could be the 76ers’ Harris, who has the tools to put together a breakout offensive performance but rarely does. On the other side is the Heat’s P.J. Tucker, who has his own ability to dominate on the defensive end. Considering the possibilities of crossmatches and the utilization of zone by both teams, it remains to be seen how much the two match up. Edge: Even.

Small forward: Jimmy Butler typically gets up for matchups against his former teams, with that edginess to transcend his friendship with Embiid. This is a matchup where Butler might need to approach the offensive levels he reached against the Hawks. While the 76ers’ Danny Green has championship pedigree, he largely was uneven against the Raptors. Matisse Thybulle could also come into play here. Edge: Heat.

Shooting guard: Maxey has been a revelation over the second half of the season, arguably Philadelphia’s second best player. Max Strus, by contrast, mostly is a complementary component for the Heat. Expect a crossmatch here as well. It is highly unlikely Strus winds up defending Maxey on a regular basis, if at all. Edge: 76ers.

Point guard: There was a point when Harden was a given when it came to winning his matchup. This is not that time. Like Butler, figure on Lowry getting up to play against his hometown 76ers, just as he did during the Raptors run to their 2019 NBA championship. Again, expect a possible crossmatch here, with Butler or possibly even Tucker the opening defender against Harden. Edge: Heat.

Bench: This could be the swing vote in the series. The 76ers have “sometimes” depth. The Heat thrive with their depth, be it Tyler Herro, Victor Oladipo, Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin or Duncan Robinson. Worth watching here is how much, if at all, the 76ers go with a backup center. If they don’t, opportunities could be limited for the Heat’s Dewayne Dedmon, as was the case with his two minutes of action in Tuesday’s clincher against the Hawks. Edge: Heat.

Coach: Both the Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and 76ers’ Doc Rivers this season were named Top 15 coaches of all-time by their peers. So there will be quality on the sidelines. But the reality is that the most recent sample size favors Spoelsrta, including the way this season’s first round played out. Edge: Heat.

Intangibles: There are two primary elements here. First, the Heat hold homecourt advantage. And this could be a series where all seven games are required. Then there is the injury element, from Lowry’s hamstring strain to Butler’s knee soreness to Embiid’s thumb. Any attrition could sway the balance. Edge: Heat.

Forecast: Heat in six.

Heat vs. 76ers

(Best-of-7)

Game 1: Monday, FTX Arena, 7:30 p.m., TNT.

Game 2: May 4, FTX Arena, 7:30 p.m., TNT.

Game 3: May 6: Wells Fargo Center, 7 p.m., ESPN

Game 4: May 8, Wells Fargo Center, Time TBA, TV TBA

Game 5*: May 10, FTX Arena, Time TBA, TNT.

Game 6*: May 12, Wells Fargo Center, Time TBA, ESPN.

Game 7*: May 15, FTX Arena, Time TBA, TV TBA

* – If necessary.

(Note: No local television.)

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