76ers' depth and versatility present challenge

LeBron JamesSteve Mitchell/US Presswire

The Sixers' Andre Iguodala has had success this season defending LeBron James.

When Dwyane Wade picked up the box score after the Heat’s game with the 76ers last month, he couldn’t help but be impressed and a little bewildered.

The Heat won the game 111-99 to complete a three-game regular-season sweep of Philadelphia, their first-round playoff opponent starting Saturday. But what caught Wade’s attention was looking at the output of the 76ers’ roster. There were seven different players who played at least 25 minutes but none who played more than 40. All took between 10 and 14 shots and six of them scored in double figures.

“That was amazing to me,” Wade said. “It just shows a team that is consistent and very deep.”

What Wade was saying, without breaking decorum by being so blunt, is that the 76ers are basically the anti-Heat. Instead of having All-Stars at the top carrying a sometimes overwhelming burden as is standard procedure in Miami, the 76ers rely on a wide distribution of responsibility and don’t have any All-Stars. Having the stars usually works better -- the Heat won 58 games and the 76ers won 41 -- but there’s no doubting the difference in the franchises’ construction.

The only player on the 76ers' roster who has made an All-Star team is Elton Brand, but he hasn’t done it since signing in 2008. The Sixers play like it. After a 3-13 start, Philadelphia finished the season 38-28 to get to .500 and the No. 7 playoff seed mostly by relying on depth and parity.

“They’re a unique team in terms of their depth,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They bring people off the bench that you can’t relax on, ever. They go nine or 10 deep and they don’t really have any lapses in energy or athleticism.”

Because they don’t have much size and have versatile bench players, the 76ers tend to play smaller and quicker lineups that look to get baskets in transition. Coach Doug Collins, who has overhauled the way the team played since training camp to turn things around, uses Brand at center and reserve Thaddeus Young at either forward spot.

Just as versatile is Andre Iguodala, who is the closest player on the team to an All-Star. He can play three positions during a game. Iguodala is also a very effective wing defender, one of the best in the NBA. He’s actually been one of the few players in the league who has an impressive résumé against LeBron James.

In three games against the Heat this season, Iguodala has held James to 25 percent shooting when he’s guarding the two-time Most Valuable Player. When James was being guarded by another Sixer, his shooting average soared to 56 percent.

But the 76ers’ great strength, pushing the ball in transition, has also hurt them against the Heat. With Wade and James, the Heat are one of the best teams in the league in the open floor. And playing fast was a detriment for the 76ers.

All three regular-season games were close in the fourth quarter, as the 76ers’ bench, which bested the Heat’s by a stunning 41-9 margin in the last meeting, was repeatedly able to make up ground when Wade, James or Chris Bosh headed for their rest. Eventually, though, the Heat won all of the games by at least nine points, as their transition game eventually prevailed. The Heat averaged 21.3 points in transition in those games and shot 79 percent in transition offense. That is something difficult to overcome for the underdog.

Nonetheless, the Heat are entering the series with the so-called “appropriate fear” that every favorite claims to have in the first round.

“It always has been tough games against the Sixers,” Wade said. “It’s a grind-out team, a tough group of guys. Every game is going to come down to the fourth quarter.”