MIAMI – The 76ers welcomed back their best player, and got back to their winning ways.
Donning a gray mask with a protective lens, Joel Embiid finished with 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists, and three blocks as the Sixers defeated the Miami Heat, 128-108, Thursday night in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at AmericanAirlines Arena. Philly will take a 2-1 series advantage into Game 4 on Saturday afternoon at the same arena.
The Sixers lost Game 2 at the Wells Fargo Center on Monday. Before that, they had won 17 consecutive games dating back to the regular season.
"After that second game, I was told I wasn't going to play [in Game 3]. That was frustrating," said Embiid, who was elevated from doubtful to probable to playing. "I hate sitting out. … I felt it was time to come back, especially after watching how physical the game was in Game 2.
"I love this moment. I love being physical. I love contact. I felt like they needed me in that way."
After having a conversation with the Sixers, they decided to let him play in the physical game.
Ben Simmons finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists, and four steals. Dario Saric had 21 points and seven rebounds, while Marco Belinelli had 21 points off the bench.
But the focus was on Embiid in his first game since fracturing the orbital bone near his left eye and suffering a concussion against the New York Knicks on March 28. The all-star had missed 10 straight games over that time.
Embiid's eyewear was stronger than a normal mask. It is made out of carbon and polycarbonate. Embiid said he will have to wear the mask for around eight weeks, until his orbital bone fully heals.
Fortunately for him, the Sixers traveled with several of them. The center had to wear three different ones during the game.
The first mask was damaged by Kelly Olynyk's arm with 7 minutes, 56 seconds left in the second quarter. The lens part popped out. Justin Winslow purposely stepped on it and tried to break it with his hands.
"But little did they know that I have about 50 of them," Embiid said. "It's going to take much more than that to get me out of this series. I'm going to be a nightmare for them."
Embiid damaged the second one when he was knocked to the ground while being fouled with 8:27 left in the third quarter.
Things got testy in this physical game. The Heat kept trying to rough up the Sixers, who wouldn't back down.
The biggest altercation came 1:34 into the second quarter, when Dwyane Wade and Justin Anderson got tangled up. Wade, one of the NBA's all-time greats, yanked Anderson's arm, slinging the Sixers reserve swingman to the ground on the baseline. Wade then stood in front of Anderson, yapping at the Sixer. Anderson quickly got up and the two had to be separated.
Following the officials' review, the two received physical-taunting technical fouls. Then Simmons and Heat power forward James Johnson were called for double technicals with 4:22 left in the quarter. And at the 8:15 mark of the third quarter, Belinelli and Heat point guard Goran Dragic received double technicals.
Embiid elbowed Winslow to the ground after the Heat reserve blocked his shot with 10:58 left. Winslow looked up at him and proceeded to talk trash. On the ensuing play, Embiid blocked Winslow's shot and fired back with his own trash talk. Winslow later gave Embiid a fist bump during a break in the action.
"I'm glad I got him back and shut him up a little bit, because he was talking big time when he did block me," Embiid said. "You don't really want to talk trash to me. So I'm glad I got him back."
The all-NBA candidate went on make huge plays down the stretch for the Sixers. He responded with a personal 7-0 run after the Heat closed the gap to 112-105 with 5:40 remaining.
Embiid 's turnaround jumper made it a nine-point game 21 seconds later. Then his three-pointer put the Sixers up 117-105 with 4:39 to play. His foul shots at the 3:24 mark gave them a 14-point cushion. Embiid said his motivation during the stretch came from Anderson. While on the bench, the reserve told him that he's one of the league best players. Anderson also told Embiid he had to take over for the Sixers to win.
"I felt like it was time to go to work," he said. "I was lucky that the shots were falling."
Dragic paced the Heat with 23 points. Winslow had 19 points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks. All of his points came in the first half.
With the Sixers leading, 127-108, Saric showed poor sportsmanship by attempting a layup with 4 seconds left. The shot was blocked by Olynyk. The play was in retaliation for Dragic's scoring in the closing seconds of Monday's game.
Embiid told Saric to attempt the last shot Thursday.
"I think we were up 18 or 20," Embiid said. "If you can get that lead up to 22, I think it's good. So I love blowing teams out. I like the fact that we did that.
"We're not here to make friends. We're here to win a series."