76ers MVP finalist Joel Embiid returned to the court on Friday and all of a sudden, this looks like a series.
Philadelphia’s big man was absent for the first two games of the series in Miami while dealing with a concussion and an orbital fracture that he suffered in the first round. With their superstar back in the starting lineup, the 76ers trounced the Heat, 99–79, to cut Miami’s series lead to 2–1. Here are three thoughts on Philadelphia’s crucial Game 3 victory.
The Masked Man Saved the Day
Embiid, sporting a black mask as a constant, visible reminder of the injuries he’s playing through, took the court for the first time in over a week Friday night. Across 36 minutes, he gave the 76ers 18 points, 11 rebounds and, most importantly, a win. It’s too early to know if this was truly the turning point of the series for Philadelphia—it could have been, and it sure felt that way at the Wells Fargo Center when the buzzer sounded. But if Embiid hadn’t played and the 76ers fell down 3–0, the series would essentially be over. Now, there’s a chance.
The orbital fracture that kept Embiid out of Games 1 and 2 in Miami did not keep him out of the paint in Game 3. He got to the line for 10 free throw attempts and showed the Heat bigs that his injury status won’t affect his style of play.
It wasn’t a conventional MVP performance for Embiid, as he shot 5-for-12 from the field and had four turnovers. Poor shooting and giveaways aside, he earned his MVP chants from Philly fans with key plays in the fourth quarter, like an and-one jump shot to stretch the lead to double-digits with less than five minutes to go and a late block on Bam Adebayo.
Beyond the emotional lift, Embiid’s playing allowed coach Doc Rivers to trim the failed center rotation that the Heat had taken advantage of. Deandre Jordan, Paul Millsap and Charles Bassey did not play in Game 3. Embiid helped Philadelphia win the rebounding battle, 44–35, and he helped neutralize Adebayo, who finished with nine points and five fouls after being a dominant force in the two games in Miami.
Butler’s Solo Show
Jimmy Butler had his way in the paint en route to his third 30-point game of the playoffs. No other Heat player joined him, as it was a dismal shooting performance for the No. 1 seed. Butler scored 33 points and hit 12 of his 22 shots—the rest of the team shot 15-for-55. Only Tyler Herro, who went 5-15, joined Butler with double-digit points.
It’s a wonder Miami was even in the game as late as it was given its poor offensive play beyond Butler. He had nine of the team’s 14 fourth-quarter points. That push, in Miami’s lowest-scoring frame, wasn’t enough to cut into the 76ers’ lead.
Butler is the only Heat player averaging 20 points per game in the playoffs. Herro did so in the regular season and Adebayo (19.1) was on the cusp. But Butler’s co-stars have been inconsistent through eight playoff games, though Miami did win Game 5 against Atlanta without him. Kyle Lowry rejoined the team for the first time since Game 3 of the first-round series and finished with zero points in 25 minutes of play.
Miami’s depth is one of its biggest strengths. Butler, Adebayo, Herro, Victor Oladipo, and even Duncan Robinson have each led the team in scoring for at least one game in the playoffs. That deep lineup of scorers—and shooters—did not show up Friday and the Heat hit a series-low seven three-pointers. Butler needs more assistance on the offensive end going forward after Miami was held under 80 points, a rarity in the modern NBA.
Green, 76ers Finally Hit Their Threes
Danny Green’s 21 points off threes were the difference in this game. Philadelphia’s veteran forward sank seven three balls, which matched a playoff career high from his historic Finals performance with the Spurs. Green was 2-for-14 from deep in the series heading into Game 3 after shooting 1-for-9 from beyond the arc in Game 2. He destroyed the Heat from the corners and kept the floor spaced after the Heat had little to worry about beyond the arc in the first two games.
Green’s performance was the biggest surprise for Philadelphia, but he wasn’t the only Sixers player hitting from outside. Tyrese Maxey heated up in the second half and finished with five makes from beyond the arc while James Harden, Tobias Harris, Georges Niang and Shake Milton each made one. The 76ers made more threes (16) than in Games 1 and 2 combined (14) and Green alone matched Miami’s three-point output on the evening.
Philadelphia has been one of the better three-point shooting teams in the postseason on a relatively low number of attempts. With four players averaging two or more made threes, the 76ers have to once again outshoot or come close to outshooting the Heat to extend this series.
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