Heat vs. 76ers: Joel Embiid shows incredible toughness in return, helping propel Philadelphia to Game 3 victory

PHILADELPHIA – Two things that cannot be questioned are Joel Embiid’s toughness and his will to win. Less than 24 hours after clearing the NBA’s concussion protocol and wearing a protective mask to shield the fractured orbital bone he sustained in the first round against the Toronto Raptors, Embiid was down for Game 3 against the Miami Heat and tried to help his team clinch a much-needed win after dropping the first two games of the series without him.

As if being fresh from a concussion and having surgery on a fractured face wasn’t enough, the MVP finalist is also playing with a torn thumb ligament that will require post-season surgery. Such a laundry list of injury woes would keep many street-clothed players on the sidelines, but Embiid was on the pitch giving his all and his presence proved crucial. With the big man in the lineup, the 76ers were able to claim a 99-79 win, their first in the series, which is now 2-1 in favor of Miami. But while the Heat still holds the lead in the series, the overall outlook has been changed.

Statistically, Embiid didn’t have his best game — although an underperforming 18 points and 11 rebounds is a testament to how dominant Embiid usually is — but his sheer presence on the floor made all the difference for Philadelphia, on both ends.

Offensively, Embiid drew a lot of attention from Miami, as always, and the fact that the Sixers shot nearly 50 percent from long range (16 of 33) is a direct result of that attention. With Miami heavily focused on Embiid, Sixers shooters like Danny Green (seven of nine from long range) and Tyrese Maxey (five of six) were given more room to work. It’s no coincidence that Philadelphia scored more 3s in Game 3 than in Games 1 and 2 combined (14). Embiid himself only shot five of 12 from the ground, but he got to the foul line and converted eight of his 10 attempts.

On the other hand, he was even more devastating. Just by being on the ground, Embiid offers Philadelphia a level of edge protection that its backups like Paul Reed and De’Andre Jordan just can’t. Countless times throughout the match, Embiid’s menacing presence in the paint smothered incursion into the area, forcing the driver to reconsider his action and kick the ball out, or settle for a harder shot rather than up to drive to the edge.

Bam Adebayo’s individual production has also been severely curtailed by Embiid’s return. Adebayo largely outplayed Philadelphia’s central defense in the first two games of the series. In Game 1 he had 24 points, 12 rebounds and four assists. In the second game, he posted similar stats: 23 points, nine rebounds and three assists. In those two games, he missed a total of six shots.

On Friday night, Adebayo was held to just nine points, three rebounds and one assist. He missed seven of his nine shot attempts. You could call this the “Embiid Effect”. After the game, Embiid admitted that it bothered him to watch Adebayo succeed in the first two games against the Sixers. As such, slowing down the heat center was clearly his tactical priority.

In Game 1, the Sixers posted a 114 defensive rating as a team. In Game 2, that rose to 125.3. On Friday night, her team’s defensive rating was 89.8. Again the Embiid effect.

“I feel like I’m really proud of myself defensively,” Embiid said after the game. “And I feel like I have a real presence there defensively. So that’s one of the main reasons I play [tonight]I thought I could have a big impact.”

Adding to that defensive effect, Embiid’s return on Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center created a noticeable buzz, and the team clearly benefited from that energy. The Sixers also admittedly played more confidently, knowing their leader was in the fight with them, albeit disabled.

“It’s game time. It’s time to win. It’s the playoffs. Joel knew how much we needed him and he delivered,” James Harden said of Embiid after the game. “His dominance on both ends of the ball is very important for this team. It’s very valuable for this team. That’s why he’s the MVP and we’ve fed off that and we just have to keep pushing.”

While there was wild speculation as to when and if he might return to action this postseason, Embiid said he hadn’t considered the possibility of not playing Miami at all.

“When we found out what really happened, I didn’t think about it [not playing]’ Embid said. “I was just thinking about what I would do to make sure I was back at any point in the series. Whether it was Game 1 or Game 2 or Game 3 or Game 4. I just did everything to try to come back.”

Miami must now return to the drawing board because they don’t have a clear solution when it comes to slowing down Embiid, who is likely to bounce back into shape after more than a week of basketball activity.

Embiid’s return came just in time for Philadelphia. Many teams have come back from falling 2-0 down in a series. No team has ever come back from 3-0, and the first two games offered little evidence that the Sixers could have won a game against the Heat without Embiid.

Now on his return, the series sits at a manageable 2-1 and feels drastically different than it was a day ago. Heat vs. 76ers: Joel Embiid shows incredible toughness in return, helping propel Philadelphia to Game 3 victory

Justin Scacco

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