After Joel Embiid returns, Sixers even aim for Eastern Conference semifinal against Miami Heat


Former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Fratello was the first to tell Doc Rivers not to ask his players how they were feeling. The reason, according to Rivers, is that it causes them to share “more than you want to know. It is a fact.”

So Rivers wouldn’t reveal much on Saturday afternoon about everything 76ers MVP runner-up Joel Embiid passed on about his physical and mental state in the hours after scoring 18 points and 11 rebounds in his opener. in eight days – while wearing a mask over his broken face and tape over his torn thumb – in their 99-79 win over the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Embiid’s vision throughout the game was “pretty good,” Rivers said, a welcome development as the big man played with a mask to protect his orbital fracture. And with Embiid’s emotional return officially cleared, he and the Sixers will then aim to tie their playoff series 2-2 against a Miami side that should have a fresh burst of energy for Sunday night’s Game 4 at the Wells Fargo Center. .

“We have to anticipate [the Heat are] going to play better,” Rivers said. “But we know we can also play better. … We won a game that we [could have played] much better. That’s how the coaches see it. »

Even when reporters added a qualifier “other than Embiid’s return” while asking about the Sixers’ biggest takeaways from Game 3, various on-field topics often came back to the dominant big man.

Embiid’s existence at both ends allowed the Sixers to play with more physicality, noted forward Tobias Harris said. That Miami’s star center Bam Adebayo went 2 of 9 from the floor Friday night, after shooting 15 of 21 in the first two games of the series, was mostly down to Embiid’s mix of size and athleticism. , Rivers said with a, “He’s literally that simple. Embiid’s defense also spurred his teammates to have more active hands and heightened awareness while still sticking to the Heat’s quick-trigger shooters during a night when Miami only made 35.1% of its field goal attempts.

“We just did a really good job of getting the fight on early in the game,” Harris said. “Obviously, with Joel, [the] big guy, he brings that presence to the game.”

On the offensive end, Rivers thought the Sixers were initially “hypnotized” by Embiid’s return to the ground, which led to his teammates trying to force the ball into him instead of organically directing their offense. The coach loved how the Sixers settled into a heavy dose of “double-drag” screens (when two consecutive picks are set for a ballhandler), but stressed the need to use swings from ball to consistently set up offensive attacks in the paint. Similar to Game 2, sophomore guard Tyrese Maxey exploded for 21 points in the second half, including 14-on-5 shooting (and 4-of-4 3-pointers) in the fourth quarter.

Defensively, Rivers continued to stress the importance of keeping NBA Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro, whom the Sixers coach said his team “lost” five times on Friday despite a shooting performance of 5 of 15. All-Star and former Sixer Jimmy Butler also escaped for 23 second-half points on 8-of-11 shooting, including a series of “hustle points,” Harris said. The Heat also scored 15 second-chance points on 10 offensive rebounds.

As Embiid continues to reintegrate — he’s officially listed as questionable for Sunday after being upgraded from out, to questionable, to available ahead of Friday’s whistleblower — Rivers hopes to see deeper post-ups. Those fell apart on Friday, the coach said, as Embiid didn’t run as much as the game progressed. Embiid played 36 minutes in Game 3, working at times even though he insisted “I can play the whole game” at the slow pace that unfolded. Ideally, Rivers said he doesn’t want Embiid to replay the entire third quarter and first two minutes of Sunday’s fourth.

But Embiid has officially returned to the court. His vision with the mask was “pretty good” throughout his team’s blistering victory in Game 3. Now he and the Sixers can move forward trying to tie this streak together.

Sixers reserve guard Isaiah Joe is listed as questionable for Sunday’s Game 4 with a sprained right ankle.

Joe is not part of the Sixers rotation. He played in 55 games in his second NBA season, averaging 3.6 points on 35% shooting from the ground and 33.3% from three-pointers.

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