Sixers’ Joel Embiid returns for pivotal Game 3 vs. Heat

Philadelphia's star center made a game-time decision to return as the Sixers face a 2-0 series deficit against the Heat.

Joel Embiid was initially listed as out but will play with a mask in Friday’s Game 3.

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid is in the starting lineup for Game 3 of the playoff series Friday against Miami after sitting out the first two games with a right orbital fracture and a mild concussion.

Embiid warmed up in a protective mask as he makes his comeback with the Sixers trying to win their first game of the Eastern conference semifinals. The Heat lead the series 2-0.

“He really hasn’t been able to do a lot,” coach Doc Rivers said before the game. “We just have conditioning and how he looks on the floor.”

Embiid led the 76ers with averages of 30.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game during the regular season. And even though he’s bothered by a right thumb ligament injury that will require offseason surgery, he also averaged 26.2 points and 11.3 rebounds in the six games against Toronto in the first round.

Embiid is one of three finalists for MVP, along with Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Kyle Lowry also returned to the starting lineup for the Heat after he missed the last four playoff games with a strained left hamstring. The Heat went 4-0 without the point guard.

The absence of Embiid has been felt by the 76ers in the playoffs on offense and defense, particularly in the interior. Philadelphia is allowing 45.5 points in the paint in the playoffs, which ranks 10th, and 14.5 second-chance points (11th in playoffs). Conversely, Philadelphia is 10th in points in the paint (44.3) and in second-chance points (12.4).

During the season, Embiid ranked seventh in the NBA in total points scored in the paint (816) and 12th in total second-chance points (203).

James Harden and Tyrese Maxey obviously are missing Embiid, who is also dealing with a thumb injury. The Philly guards couldn’t find a way to get a split at Miami, the top seed in the East, without the five-time All-Star.

The Sixers weren’t closer than eight points in the fourth quarter of the first two games, and Maxey sees the first quarter as the key to changing that.

“When we go home with the crowd on our side, we’ve got to hit first,” Maxey said Game 2. “Coach Doc said something in the locker room before the game about, ‘Let’s not be a counterpunching team tonight.’ I think that really hit home. We’ve got to go after them first and put them on their heels.”

Philadelphia is battling history, too.

Miami has taken a 2-0 lead in 18 previous series, including the first round this season against Atlanta, and won the matchup every time. The 76ers have dropped the first two games 19 previous times, never recovering to win the series.

It isn’t just the absence of Embiid, though, that has hurt Philadelphia in the series. The 76ers were awful again in Game 2 from 3-point range, shooting 8-for-30 in the loss. They’re now 14 for 64 from deep in the series.

“When it comes down to it, you’ve got to make shots, especially when you’re on the road against a really good team,” Harden said. “It’s pretty simple.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.