After missing two games with concussion symptoms and an orbital fracture, Joel Embiid returned to the Sixers‘ lineup on Friday to raucous applause from the home crowd. He donned his famous black mask and gutted out 36 minutes of impactful basketball despite not being able to condition properly since sustaining his injury in Game 6 against Toronto.
The Sixers also got strong contributions from Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, and James Harden en route to a forceful 99-79 victory. Miami is still in the driver’s seat up 2-1 ahead of Sunday’s Game 4, but Philadelphia has announced itself as a genuine threat. Now, it’s up to the team to carry this momentum into the weekend.
Here’s what we learned.
Sixers-Heat Game 3 takeaways: The power of Joel Embiid
There’s no better way of putting it. Embiid’s presence changes the entire calculus of the game for Philadelphia and Miami, even when he’s not particularly productive on the offensive end. The Sixers’ MVP candidate only managed 18 points on 5-of-12 shooting, but the team looked completely different with him guarding the middle of the court.
Miami scored 79 points (just one point above their season high) after spending the first two games torching Philly’s thatch-roof defense. Bam Adebayo scored nine points on nine shots after torturing the Sixers’ backup bigs in Miami. The Heat are due for some positive shooting regression in Game 4, but everyone outside of Jimmy Butler struggled for the Heat. The Sixers played with more physicality and consecutiveness in this game, spurred on by both the dire situation and the safety net Embiid provides in the middle of the court.
The Sixers felt Embiid’s presence amply on the offensive end too. He didn’t do too much self-creating, but the mere threat of his iso’s forced the Heat to retract some of those double and triple-teams Harden faced in the first two games. The result was an explosive 15-point first half from Harden, who set the tone offensively ahead of Tyrese Maxey’s blistering second-half showcase.
Embiid opens up so much for his teammates. The Sixers probably won’t get another 21-point night from Danny Green, and there is definitely reason to believe the Heat offense won’t be quite so subdued on Sunday, but this is clearly a completely different series with Embiid in the equation. We’ll see if it’s ultimately enough to swing the outcome in Philadelphia’s favor, but not going down 0-3 is obviously a critical first step.