Philadelphia – Joel Embiid spent the week reeling from a concussion. His broken thumb needs surgery.
MVP forms? not yet. But Embiid donned his black mask and injected the 76 – and a volatile fan base – with renewed ambitions for the championship.
Embiid inspired the 76ers with a comeback from a facial injury, Danny Green and Therese Maxi each scoring 21 points and Philadelphia beat the Miami Heat 99-79 in Game Three of the Eastern Conference semifinals Friday night.
“We have a good chance of winning everything,” Embiid said. “We have to maintain our health.”
The Heat leads the series 2-1. Game four on Sunday in Philadelphia.
Wearing a hammer-tested mask, Embiid earned 18 points and 11 rebounds after missing the first two games of the series with a right orbital fracture and a mild concussion in the final round. Embiid hasn’t been the dominant force he’s been all season and has been tired as the match went on. With Green, Maxey and James Harden all crushing in the Rally Heat with big buckets, Embiid didn’t have to carry the Sixers.
But the 76ers sure were thrilled to have him back.
“Any plan where Joel can be part of the plan is a much better plan,” said coach Doc Rivers.
Even Rivers couldn’t come up with a plan that included the play that helped turn the game off: Maxi sprinted down the court to save the basketball with an over-the-shoulder kick. The 76 players held the ball and Embiid buried a fleeing bucket and fired the free throw to lead 86-74.
Embiid was good. Green was better. The green buried 6 of 7 three-pointers during three quarters, most notably those that brightened Miami’s hits and extended the Sixers’ lead to 54-50 and 57-51. Green missed 9 out of 10 3s in Game 2.
Despite this, Tyler Hero had a crucial thirty of his own in the last minute and lifted the Heat to 68-65 to close in third. He was 14 years old and joined Jimmy Butler as the only player in the double-digit Heat. Butler Heat led with 33 points.
“You add an atmosphere to any team, whether at home or abroad, the game, the scouts report, is changing drastically,” Butler said. “It’s been like that throughout his career.”
Maxey’s last 3-pointer made it 92-77, and suddenly, the Sixers were enjoying new life in the series.
The 76ers have never won a playoff series in 19 attempts after losing their first two games.
The return of the NBA champion helps those odds.
“Even when he’s not himself, he helps us a lot,” Green said.
Embiid said he had been acquitted the day before and that the hope he could play had caused Philly a sensation. As he ran to warm up in his mask, Sixers fans groaned and began “MVP! The best players! The chants are one of the mainstays of the ring.
When Sixers’ public address announcer Matt Cord declared that there were “no injuries” in the pre-game report, Sixers fans took off. Embiid easily heard the loudest applause during the squad introductions and the Sixers were energized by his presence. It was hard to tell that Embiid had missed so much time at times.
“I knew his presence was going to have an impact,” Rivers said. “I was positive of it.”
He was only 5 out of 12 from Earth in 36 minutes. Embiid is still playing with a right thumb ligament injury that will require off-season surgery.
“It’s about doing everything possible to protect him as much as possible,” Embiid said.
Embiid – who has led the 76ers with 30.6 points and 11.7 rebounds this season – impacted Game 3 only through his presence. Miami All-Star center Pam Adebayo, who scored 24 points in Game 1 and 23 in Game Two, finished with just five points in the first half.
“I was really (furious) watching another big guy playing well against my team,” Embiid said.
Embiid laughed, though, after the match on social media. He tweeted an image of “The Wire” character Stringer Bell with a quote from the scene on the show: “I want you to get the word out we’ve backed it up.”
The big guy is already back – and so are the 76ers.
“That’s what you should expect,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said. “He’s an MVP-caliber.”