- Game 3 of the Heat-Sixers series saw Joel Embiid don a protective mask, double techs and a bevy of hard fouls and Philadelphia showing that when it is at full strength, there's little you can do to stop it.
The Heat-Sixers series officially jumped the shark Thursday night, spawning 48 minutes of mostly controlled chaos that evolved (or perhaps devolved) into a resounding 128-108 Philadelphia win on the road, giving it an impressive 2–1 series lead. For much of the night there was little margin for error and plenty of extra activity, from three sets of double techs to chippy fouls to general pettiness, the game featured everything but actual defense, the tenor of the matchup turning angsty as Joel Embiid made his return to the court.
The saga of Embiid’s mask, of course, was an adventure unto itself. Shaking off weeks of rust, nursing his facial injury and donning the industrial-welder-meets-Zorro look, Embiid returned to the court and endeared himself well, recording 23 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in 30 minutes of action. He started slow, looking a step or two behind as he fumbled around the paint, but essentially sealed the game with a turnaround jumper from the foul line followed by his third three-pointer of the game, opening the Sixers’ lead to 12 points with less than five minutes remaining. The mask clearly bothered him—at one point he spiked it on the ground after getting fouled, and it came off several times. Embiid also chose to wear it atop his head as he shot free throws. His orbital fracture requires protection, and it doesn’t mean he has to like it—but it does mean the Heat’s odds of winning the series have come to a tipping point.
If it wasn’t already clear, the Sixers are the bigger dog here. As young and inexperienced as their rotation skews, it’s scary to realize that with Embiid on the floor, Philly is capable of winning a first-round series riding the strength of its talent alone. Ben Simmons was a plus-14 and sniffed a triple double? Par for the course. On a night where Embiid wasn’t 100% and J.J. Redick and Robert Covington made just two threes between them, Marco Belinelli, Justin Anderson and Ersan Ilyasova stepped up to supply scoring off the bench. That’s how playoff series are won.
The Heat, of course, know this, and continue to play a capable foil. For every touted first-rounder on the other side, Miami can roll out an underdog with an unconventional story. To split the talent difference at home, the Heat made things chippy. The second quarter was an odyssey unto itself, reaching an elevated competitive plane that appears here to stay.
First Dwyane Wade appeared to fling Anderson out of bounds, which led to a double technical. Shortly afterward, Anderson came back with a hard foul on a leaping Hassan Whiteside. James Johnson (the player you least want to fight in the entire NBA) and Ben Simmons got double techs for jawing. Embiid lost his mask in a collision … and then Justise Winslow deliberately stepped on it, dislodging the visor protecting his eyes and forcing the big man to the bench temporarily (there was replacement eyewear on hand). Winslow was individually impressive apart from that literal heel turn, totaling 19 points and 10 rebounds and jawing with Embiid as the pair traded blocks later on.
In the end, mucking the game up can only take you so far—after trading possessions each step of the way for three quarters, the Heat couldn’t muster the firepower to close. Wade won’t be able to bail them out every night, Whiteside was borderline unplayable and Philly’s mastery of drive-and-kick as authored by Simmons appears a legitimate postseason recipe. When the Sixers want to play fast they have the components to dictate the flow, no matter the situation. And now they have Embiid, who even at partial strength shifts the dimensions of the floor enough to tip the scales.
Game 4 is Saturday.