Playoffs Game Review | Embiid, in Return, Helps Lead 4th Quarter Close Out

by Brian Seltzer
Sixers.com Reporter

Recap:

In the earlier stages of the the 2017-2018 campaign, before the 76ers transformed into one of the NBA’s winningest teams, figuring out how to close out games was a top priority on the club’s to-do list.

Thursday’s pivotal swing game in South Florida put the Sixers’ growth in this all-important area on full display.

With their All-Star big man masked and back in the fold, the Sixers forcefully slammed the door on the Miami Heat, and as a reward, earned a resilient 128-108 victory in Game 3 of the teams’ Eastern Conference Quarterfinals clash.

Making his first appearance since sustaining a concussion and fracturing an orbital bone three weeks ago, Joel Embiid tallied 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists, and three blocks in the triumph, which gave the Sixers a 2-1 series lead.

“We got a pretty good win,” Embiid said following the first post-season appearance of his career.

The 7-footer loomed large statistically in Thursday’s decisive final frame, at one juncture scoring seven consecutive points to push the Sixers’ margin from seven to a then game-high 14.

For the period, the Sixers outscored the Heat 32-14.

Coming off an impactful performance, Embiid’s confidence was clearly high.

“I’m going to be a nightmare for them,” the 24-year old said of his presence moving forward.

“For him to come back under those terms and produce, I am very proud of him,” Brett Brown said, referring to Embiid making his playoff debut on the road, in a tough atmosphere, all while sporting a mask.

Along with Embiid, Ben Simmons (19 pts, 12 reb, 7 ast, 4 stl) was a pivotal force down the stretch. He finished the fourth quarter plus-18, tallying eight points and five rebounds. His emphatic dunk with two and half minutes to go widened the gap to 15, and essentially sealed Miami’s fate.

“It was a really good win, man,” said Marco Belinelli, who was key with 21 points (7-13 fg, 4-8 3fg) off the bench, “but, [the series] is not over.”

Given how hard both teams have played each other, that sounds like a safe bet.

Consistent with the theme that had underscored their six prior meetings, both in the regular season and the Playoffs, the Sixers and Heat found themselves engaged in a spirited, hotly-contested battle for most of the night.

Heading into the third quarter, there had been 17 lead changes, and 13 ties. It would take the Sixers until they were up 10 in the fourth quarter to finally get some separation.

Dario Saric (21 pts, 4-7 3fg) did his part to ensure the Sixers maintained control, coming through with a clutch sequence midway through the fourth. He converted a three and driving lay-up on back-to-back possessions to re-establish a 10-point margin. The spurt set the Sixers’ big closing kick in motion.

“I thought he was fantastic tonight,” Brown said of the Croatian.

But the primary subplot, at least going into Thursday evening’s game at American Airlines Arena, was Embiid. He had missed the final eight tilts of the regular season, and first two games of the Playoffs.

Right away, his defensive impact was obvious. He immediately proved to be deterrent to lane drivers, and blocked a pair of shots during his first stint on the floor.

In the closing minutes of the first half, Embiid showed his first signs of getting into an offensive groove. He capped the second quarter with an encouraging flurry, first depositing a straightaway pick-and-pop three, then, moments later, an acrobatic and-1 finger roll lay-up highlighted by fantastic footwork.

The center had 11 points by intermission, with the Sixers trailing by one, 64-63.

Out of the break, Goran Dragic (23 pts, 8 ast) swiftly helped the Heat, driving and shooting his way to 11 points within the first six minutes of the third quarter.

In the latter stages of the period, the Sixers’ bench stepped up. Justin Anderson (6 pts, 4 reb) nailed a tie-breaking three, 93-90, while T.J. McConnell (5 pts, 5 min) successfully converted an and-1 to send the Sixers into the fourth in front, 96-94.

The Sixers’ top unit then sealed the deal from there.

Turning Point:

No doubt, it was Thursday’s fourth quarter.

Up to that point, the margin of the competitive contest hadn’t drifted into double-digit territory since the last two minutes of the first period.

Thanks to their defense shutting down Miami to the tune of 5 for 19 shooting in Thursday’s final frame, the Sixers gave themselves a chance to open things up on the offensive end, and they didn’t disappoint, hitting timely threes, attacking the basket, and getting to the free throw line.

“We were doing what we wanted to do, and didn’t let them rush us or speed us up,” said Ben Simmons. “They have some great shooters and some guys who can knock down shots. For us, we have to stay locked in, and stick to our coverage.”

According to basketball-reference.com, the Sixers’ 18-point fourth-quarter scoring differential (32-14) tied a regular season high (1.20.18 vs MIL), and matched the third-highest post-season fourth-quarter scoring differential in club history.

X-Factors:

• In action for the first time since getting hurt in the second quarter of a March 28th victory over the New York Knicks, Joel Embiid certainly changed a couple dynamics in the Sixers-Heat Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.

We’ll examine things first from Miami’s perspective.

Said reserve wing Justise Winslow: “It’s definitely a different look when you have an All-Star back in the line-up. It changes things for sure.”

How?

Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra weighed in: “Obviously, when the game speeds up, he can slow it down. He has a way of drawing fouls, and it’s not just in the post.”

Embiid went 10 for 15 from the free throw line, marking just the fifth time in his career he’s taken that many attempts.

The physicality of the series, Embiid said, further stoked his motivation to return.

“I love this moment,” said Embiid. “I love being physical. I love attacking. I love contact.”

Ben Simmons said it was “great” to once again have Embiid at the Sixers’ disposal.

“We got back into our old sets,” said Simmons. “He’s just getting back into the flow. He’s going to be fine.”

Embiid missed the first five shots he took Thursday, but had his moments late in the first and second halves. In general, he was pleased he could contribute to the Sixers’ playoff push.

“I’m glad they let me play,” he said.

• Both logged fewer than 10 minutes apiece Thursday, but grit guys Justin Anderson and T.J. McConnell were crucial to the Sixers’ cause. Anderson was given run at the start of the second quarter, and then later on in the third, summoned off the bench to provide defensive spunk and tenacity on the wing. McConnell, on the other hand, was used even more sparingly. With the Sixers trailing 86-85 in the third quarter, he quickly came in, and produced a steal, reverse lay-up, and and-1 before the frame ended. From the time McConnell subbed in until the final horn, the Sixers outscored Miami 43-22.

“I thought both of those guys injected a passion, enthusiasm, toughness on the game,” said Brett Brown. “Both came in and helped us find a little more of an edge, and contributed a result in the win."

• The Sixers buried a franchise playoff-record 18 3-pointers against Miami in Game 1, and won. They then managed only seven triples in Game 2, and lost. The 3-pointer count for Game 3? The Sixers again nailed 18 treys, and yes, again, they prevailed.

“They have a team of very good 3-point shooters,” said Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra. “It’s going to require more [defense]. It’s as simple as that. They made us pay virtually every time, and we were short on the closeout. It’s clear the first and third games, we played on [the Sixers’] terms.”

Other Storylines:

• Prior to last Saturday’s Game 1 of the Sixers’ first-round series versus Miami, Marco Belinelli had reached the 20-point mark in the Playoffs four times through the first nine years of his career. He’s now surpassed the total twice in three games against the Heat. After netting 25 points in the series opener, Belinelli canned 21 points Thursday in South Florida.

“He’s in a great rhythm right now,” Miami’s Erik Spoelstra said of the Italian, who’s averaging 20.3 points on 43.5 percent 3-point shooting (10-23) in the post-season.

• So much of the talk leading up to Game 3 was about whether the Sixers would respond to the physical tone that Miami exerted in Game 2. By all accounts Thursday, the Sixers held their own, refusing to be bullied. Working Justin Anderson into the line-up represented an important counter to the Heat’s high-intensity approach.

“I just play hard,” said Anderson. I do whatever I can to help my team win.”

• Dwyane Wade was the hero for Miami in Game 2, when he erupted for a season-high 28 points. Thursday, the 36-year old seemed to come back to earth a bit. He went 2 for 10 from the field with four turnovers, and tallied a modest eight points.

Quotes of Note:

Dwyane Wade, on Joel Embiid:

“He’s an All-Star. He’s an All-Star starter. Of course he is going to make a difference. He’s a part of the team. We got two games without him, so we have to figure out a way to combat that.”

Robert Covington, on Sixers’ effort in Game 3:
“So many different guys do so many different things for this team. We always say next man up...Everyone had a collective team effort. Collectively, this was probably one of our best games. We executed the way we wanted to.”

Sixers Social:

It didn’t take Joel Embiid long to make his imposing presence felt on the defensive end of the floor, where he’s established himself as one of the game’s elite. This swat on James Johnson - who was perfect from the field in Game 2 - was the first of Embiid’s two blocks in Thursday’s opening quarter.

Up Next:

The Sixers will stay in South Florida to play Game 4 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinals pairing with the Miami Heat. Tip-off for the Saturday matinee is slated for 2:30 PM EST.

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