PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid spent the week groggy from a concussion. His busted thumb needs surgery.
MVP form? Not yet. But Embiid wore his black mask and injected the 76ers — and a skittish fanbase – with revitalized championship aspirations.
Embiid inspired the 76ers with his return from a facial injury, Danny Green and Tyrese Maxey each scored 21 points and Philadelphia beat the Miami Heat 99-79 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Friday night.
“We have a good chance to win it all,” Embiid said. “We’ve got to stay healthy.”
The Heat lead the series 2-1. Game 4 is Sunday in Philadelphia.
Wearing a hammer-tested mask, Embiid had 18 points and 11 rebounds after missing the first two games of the series with a right orbital fracture and a mild concussion suffered in the last round. Embiid wasn’t the dominant force he was throughout the season and tired as the game went on. With Green, Maxey and James Harden all crushing Heat rallies with big buckets, Embiid didn’t have to carry the Sixers.
But the 76ers sure were glad he was back.
“Any plan where you can have Joel as part of the plan is a much better plan,” coach Doc Rivers said.
Even Rivers couldn’t draw up a plan that included the play that helped put away the game: Maxey made a full-court sprint to save a basketball with an over-the-shoulder toss. The 76ers kept the ball and Embiid buried a fallaway bucket and sank the free throw for an 86-74 lead.
Embiid was good. Green was better. Green buried made 6 of 7 3-pointers through three quarters, highlighted by ones that snuffed Miami runs and stretched the Sixers’ lead to 54-50 and 57-51. Green missed 9 of 10 3s in Game 2.
Tyler Herro, though, had two critical 3s of his own in the final minute and pulled the Heat to 68-65 to close the third. He had 14 and joined Jimmy Butler as the only Heat in double digits. Butler led the Heat with 33 points.
“You add Jo to any team, home or away, the game, the scouting report, it changes drastically,” Butler said. “It’s been like that for his entire career.”
Maxey’s last 3-pointer made it 92-77, and, suddenly, the Sixers have new life in the series.
The 76ers have never won a playoff series in 19 tries after losing the first two games.
The NBA scoring champ’s return kind of helps those odds.
“Even when he’s not his normal self, he helps us a ton,” Green said.
Embiid said he was cleared a day earlier and just the hope he could play had Philly buzzing. When he jogged out for warmups wearing the mask, Sixers fans roared and started the “MVP! MVP!” chants that are a staple at the arena.
When Sixers public address announcer Matt Cord announced “there are no injuries” on the pregame report, Sixers fans went wild. Embiid easily heard the loudest ovation during lineup introductions and the Sixers were energized by his presence. It was hard to tell at times Embiid had missed so much time.
“I knew his presence would have an impact,” Rivers said. “I was positive of that.”
He was only 5 of 12 from the floor in 36 minutes. Embiid is still playing with a right thumb ligament injury that will require offseason surgery.
“It’s about doing whatever possible to protect it as much as possible,” Embiid said.
Embiid — who led the 76ers with 30.6 points and 11.7 rebounds this season — effected Game 3 just by his presence. Miami All-Star center Bam Adebayo, who scored 24 points in Game 1 and 23 in Game 2, was held to just five in the first half.
“I was really (angry) watching another big man play well against my team,” Embiid said.
Embiid had a laugh, though, after the game on social media. He tweeted a picture of “The Wire” character Stringer Bell with a quote from the scene in the show: “I want you to put the word out that we back up.”
The big man is indeed back up — and so are the 76ers.
“This is what you have to expect,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s an MVP-caliber player.”