PHILADELPHIA — Two things that can’t be questioned are Joel Embiid’s toughness and his desire to win. Less than 24 hours after clearing the NBA‘s concussion protocol and wearing a protective mask to shield the broken orbital bone that he suffered in the first round against the Toronto Raptors, Embiid was out on the floor for Game 3 against the Miami Heat, trying to help his team get a much-needed win after they dropped the first two games in the series without him.
As if being fresh off of a concussion and operating with a broken face wasn’t enough, the MVP finalist is also still playing with a torn ligament in his thumb that will require surgery after the season. Such a laundry list of injury issues would keep a lot of players in street clothes on the sideline, but Embiid was out on the court, giving it his all, and his presence proved pivotal. With the big man in the lineup, the 76ers were able to pull out a 99-79 victory, their first of the series, which now sits at 2-1 in favor of Miami. But while the Heat still have the lead in the series, the overall outlook has been altered.
Statistically, Embiid didn’t have his best game — although an 18-point, 11-rebound performance being underwhelming is a testament to just how dominant Embiid typically is — but his sheer presence out on the floor made all the difference for Philadelphia, on both ends.
Offensively, Embiid commanded a ton of attention from Miami, as he always does, 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 focusing heavily on Embiid, Sixers shooters, like Danny Green (seven of nine from long range) and Tyrese Maxey (five of six), were afforded more space to work with. It’s not a coincidence that Philadelphia made more 3s in Game 3 than in Games 1 and 2 combined (14). Embiid himself shot just five of 12 from the floor, but he got to the foul line and converted eight of his 10 attempts.
On the other end, he was even more devastating. Just by being on the floor, Embiid provides Philadelphia with a level of rim protection that his backups, such as Paul Reed and De’Andre Jordan, simply can’t. There were countless times throughout the game that Embiid’s looming presence in the paint stifled perimeter penetration by forcing the driver to reconsider their action, and kick the ball out or settle for a tougher shot instead of driving to the rim.
Bam Adebayo’s individual production was also limited in a big way by Embiid’s return. Adebayo largely had his way against Philadelphia’s interior defense in the opening two games of the series. In Game 1 he had 24 points, 12 rebounds and four assists. In the second game he posted a similar stat line: 23 points, nine rebounds and three assists. He missed a total of six shots over those two games.
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 that the “Embiid effect.” After the game, Embiid admitted that watching Adebayo find success against the Sixers in the first two games bothered him, so slowing the Heat center down was clearly his tactical priority.
In Game 1, the Sixers posted a defensive rating of 114 as a team. In Game 2, that ballooned to 125.3. On Friday night, their team defensive rating was 89.8. Again, the Embiid effect.
“I feel like I pride myself, really, defensively,” Embiid said after the game. “And I feel that’s where my presence is really felt, on the defensive end. So that’s one of the main reasons why playing [tonight], I thought I could have a huge impact.”
In addition to that defensive impact, Embiid’s return generated a tangible buzz at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, and the team clearly fed off of that energy. The Sixers also admittedly played with more confidence knowing that their leader was in the battle with them, even if hampered.
“It’s game time. It’s winning time. 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 to this team. It’s very valuable to this team. That’s why he’s the MVP, and we fed off that and we got to just continue to keep pushing.”
While there was rampant speculation regarding when, and if, he would be able to return to game action this postseason, Embiid said that the possibility of not playing at all against Miami wasn’t something that he considered.
“When we figured out what really happened, I didn’t think about [not playing],” Embiid said. “I just thought about what I was gonna 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 was just doing whatever possible to try and come back.”
Miami will have now have to go back to the drawing board, because they don’t have a clear solution when it comes to slowing Embiid, who will likely continue to round back into form after missing over a week of basketball activity.
For Philadelphia, Embiid’s return came just in time. Plenty of teams have come back from an 0-2 deficit in a series. No team has ever come back from 0-3, and the first two games provided little evidence that the Sixers would have been able to win a game against the Heat without Embiid.
Now following his return, the series sits at a manageable 2-1 and feels drastically different than it did just a day ago.