PHILADELPHIA — It turns out that Joel Embiid is a difference maker.
With Embiid playing for the first time in the conference semifinals, the Philadelphia 76ers got their first win of the series. The league’s leading scorer had just 18 points on 5-for-12 shooting in his 36 minutes on Friday, but that end of the floor wasn’t where the Sixers won (or the Miami Heat lost) Game 3.
Here are some notes, numbers and film from the 99-79 victory that put the Sixers back in the series, now trailing 2-1.
1. This one was ugly
If you miss 1990s Eastern Conference playoff basketball, this was the game for you. The two teams combined to score 75 points on 92 possessions (82 per 100) in the first half, and the Heat finished with just 79 on 88 possessions (90 per 100). It was their third least efficient offensive performance of the season (90 total games) and their least efficient since Nov. 4 (their eighth game).
The Heat, who had eight points on 18 possessions with less than three minutes left in the first quarter, certainly missed some open shots. According to Second Spectrum tracking, they were 9-for-37 (24%) when the closest defender was at least four feet away. But they also got just 14 attempts in the restricted area after totaling 51 through the first two games.
Embiid’s presence certainly had something to do with that. After Bam Adebayo contested a James Harden 3 in the first quarter, he ran down the floor to establish early position on the other end. Embiid was trailing the play, but he got there in time to scare Adebayo off a layup. And when he looked to reset the offense, he threw the ball out of bounds …
The Heat shot 11-for-14 in the restricted area (with Jimmy Butler accounting for seven of those 11 buckets) and 16-for-63 (25%) outside it. It was their worst shooting performance from outside the restricted area this season and the first time they shot worse than 30% from outside the restricted area since Jan 15 (another loss to the Sixers).
2. Enough Embiid
It certainly wasn’t Embiid’s best game. He looked rusty offensively, shooting just 2-for-8 from outside the restricted area himself. He clearly knew he wouldn’t be his best self, but also knew that just being on the floor would help his team’s defense.
“I didn’t think I had a lot of energy, honestly,” he said afterward. “I was really trying to get through it and just use my presence out there as a decoy. What I pride myself on is really defensively, and I feel like that’s where my presence is really felt, on the defensive end. That’s really one of the main reasons why, playing, I thought I could have a huge impact.”
The Sixers scored only 13 points on 21 possessions with Embiid off the floor on Friday, but over their nine playoff games, they’ve still been much better defensively with him on the floor (104.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) than they’ve been with him off the floor (115.1).
And Embiid did get one big bucket late in the game. After Tyrese Maxey chased down a long pass from P.J. Tucker and made an incredible save — “I knew I wasn’t gonna lose in a foot race,” Maxey said — James Harden grabbed an offensive rebound off a Tobias Harris miss. Embiid then isolated against Adebayo and hit a step-back jumper while drawing contact …
The three-point play put the Sixers up 12 in a game in which a 12-point margin felt like 25.
“I thought that was big for him,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. “The one place we thought we could get him the ball was there.”
3. Blitzing Herro, on both ends of the floor
The Sixers never had much of a chance in Game 2 on Wednesday, but it wasn’t a fruitless effort. They started blitzing Tyler Herro pick and rolls in the second quarter and had some success, picking up two live-ball turnovers in the fourth.
They blitzed Herro again in Game 3, and got two more turnovers, one a backcourt violation early in the second quarter …
Herro also had issues on the other end of the floor. Harden isn’t the same player that he once was, but he looks like the old James Harden when he’s got Herro in front of him …
In the regular season, opponents scored 1.12 per isolation possession against Herro, the fourth highest mark (teammate Duncan Robinson had the highest mark) among 54 players who defended at least 75 isolation possessions, according to Synergy tracking.
4. Make-or-miss league
The Sixers were 14-for-64 (22%) from 3-point range over the first two games, just the second time this season they shot less than 30% from beyond the arc in consecutive games. On Friday, the Sixers were 16-for-33 (48%), with Danny Green (2-for-14 through the first two games) going 7-for-9.
One of the things that Green does really well is relocate when the defense’s attention is elsewhere. He’s the master of the baseline back-up, and his first 3 of the night came when Harris backed down Kyle Lowry and drew a double-team from Green’s defender (Max Strus). Green relocated from the weak-side dunker spot to the strong-side corner for a wide-open look …
The seven 3s were a season high for Green. And with the Sixers scoring 58 points on 42 possessions in the second half, this ended up being the second worst defensive performance for the Heat (97 allowed on 89 possessions) in these playoffs.
5. Big man thinking big picture
This is now a competitive series. The Heat still have home-court advantage and the knowledge that they’re probably not going to shoot worse than they did on Friday. But the Sixers have their big man back, and he should only be better going forward.
“I think he’ll be much better the next game,” Rivers said. “Moving forward, I think he’ll have better rhythm.”
Embiid certainly feels like the Sixers have enough to win this series … and more than that.
“I feel that we have a big chance to win it all,” he said. “Obviously we got to stay healthy and we all got to play well at the same time. We all got to be damn near perfect. To me, that’s what I signed up for.”
Game 4 is Sunday (8 ET, TNT).
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