Joel Embiid led the 76ers to playoff victory, donning a new accessory that sent fans wild, and drove rivals to desperate measures.
After a marquee win over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers a few weeks back, reporters asked several members of the Philadelphia 76ers what they thought their streaking team might become whenever they got Joel Embiid back on the court after he recovered from surgery to repair a broken orbital bone around his left eye. To a man, they offered the same word: “scary.”
They were right.
Embiid shook off rust, evident discomfort with the fit of his new mask and multiple Miami Heat defenders to get it going late.
He scored seven of his team-high 23 points in a fourth quarter that the 76ers dominated to earn an impressive 128-108 win in South Florida that gave Philadelphia a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven set, took back home-court advantage in the first-round series right after Miami had seized it, and sent a message to the rest of the playoff field: a healthy and once-again-whole Sixers team is one hell of a force to be reckoned with.
“[The mask] was annoying,” Embiid told reporters after the game. “But that was the only way I could play in this game, if I wore the mask and protected my face with goggles. I had to work through it and I did.”
Ben Simmons also made his presence felt late, scoring eight of his 19 points and grabbing five of his 12 rebounds in the fourth quarter that decided the game. The Rookie of the Year contender also added seven assists and four steals with only three turnovers in 40 minutes on the ball, teaming with Embiid, who added seven boards, four assists, three blocks and a steal of his own, to give Brett Brown’s club a one-two punch that the hard-charging Heat simply couldn’t handle with the game in the balance.
Despite Embiid’s public agitation for a return to the lineup following Miami’s win in Game 2 to strip home-court advantage away from the East’s No. 3 seed, the Sixers initially listed their All-Star center as doubtful for Thursday’s Game 3.
Philly seemed intent on erring on the side of caution when it came to the long-term health and well-being of a rising star in whom they invested a multi-year maximum-salaried contract before the start of the season.
The picture started to get a bit rosier in the hours before tipoff, though, as rumblings started that Embiid had been upgraded to probable and had been had been outfitted for a new mask that would offer as much protection as possible for his just-healed mug.
The mask Embiid is wearing tonight has protective eyewear built into it! It’s carbon AND poly carbonate. Hence, it’s stronger than a normal mask. Let’s just say this has been a super involved hi-tech project between the Sixers, Embiid’s camp and the independent league doctors.— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) April 19, 2018
The reasons this was such a “process.” It’s the second time Embiid has broken this area of his face. First time was at Kansas. All the doctors involved felt there was significant risk of reinjury. So there’s been a lot of work done in developing this new stronger mask.— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) April 19, 2018
After going through warmups, all parties involved felt comfortable enough to proceed, and Embiid was slotted into the starting lineup for his first NBA action since March 28.
Both teams came out of the gates hot, working inside-out to find open shooters and firing away with confidence to the tune of 11 combined 3-point makes in 20 tries.
And when things bogged down, there was Embiid, who missed his first five shots, but was still able to give Philly what it had been missing: a steady stream of free throws, going to the line six times in the opening frame for five points.
That's when punters at home started taking notice of the man's scary new look.
Is there anywhere you can order a mask like Embiid's? Asking for a friend— Liberty Ballers (@Liberty_Ballers) April 20, 2018
As the game wore on, so too did the physicality. During one mid-second-quarter play, Heat big man Kelly Olynyk knocked Embiid’s mask off while reaching for a loose ball.
The protective lens popped loose, meaning Embiid would need to check out to get it repaired … and, while it was on the deck, Miami’s Justise Winslow decided to take a crack at cracking JoJo’s Rec Specs.
Watch the incident in the video at the top of the page.
Fortunately, the Sixers planned ahead.
Embiid on his mask: "As far as the mask, Justise stepped on it and tried to break with his hands. But little did he know we have about 50 of them. It's going to take much more than that to get me out of these series. I'm going to be a nightmare for them too."— Manny Navarro (@Manny_Navarro) April 20, 2018
That was a good thing, because Embiid’s mask would get jarred loose again on a fourth-quarter drive:
Joel Embiid still getting adjusted to the mask 😅 pic.twitter.com/sq8cNHfE4m— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) April 20, 2018
Embiid wasn’t the only one banging bodies on Thursday.
For three quarters, the game had been played inside a phone booth, with two tough and physical teams scrapping and clawing for every inch of breathing room and separation.
That resulted in some bad blood and chippy play — 56 personal fouls, 72 free throws and six technical fouls.
All that jostling and all that trash talk made for an incredibly intense, competitive and well-played game, with Dragic and Winslow lighting it up for Miami, while Belinelli and Dario Saric responded with long-range bombs for the Sixers.
And then, in the fourth, Philly just absolutely hit the gas, and left Miami in the dust.
The Sixers clamped down on the Heat in the fourth quarter, limiting Erik Spoelstra’s club to 14 points on 5-for-19 shooting while unleashing offensive hell in the form of 32 points on 19 shots, including big 3-pointers from shooters Saric, Robert Covington, Ersan Ilyasova … and the 7-foot-2 Embiid, who stroked a left-wing triple off a Saric feed just after banking in a midrange jumper to turn a seven-point edge into a double-digit lead that the Sixers wouldn’t relinquish over the final 4 1/2 minutes, allowing the visitors to cruise to an impressive road win in Embiid’s postseason debut.
While the young core of Embiid, Simmons and Saric (21 points on 7-for-17 shooting, seven rebounds, four assists in 30 minutes) carried a Sixers offense that scorched the nets against a very good Miami defense for the second time in three games, the Heat just ran out of point-producing answers late.
Dragic was brilliant, roasting 6-foot-9 All-Defensive candidate Covington off the dribble and slicing to the rim for 23 points through three quarters, but went scoreless in the final frame. Ditto for Winslow, who responded to Philadelphia’s tactical decision to all but ignore him as a perimeter threat by drilling four 3-pointers and scoring 19 points in the first half, but who couldn’t get free in the third or fourth, thanks in part to the looming presence of the Sixers’ just-returned All-Defensive Team-caliber big man.
“It’s clear that the first game and the third game were played on their terms,” Spoelstra told reporters after the game.
There was just too much length, too much activity, too much disruption in every Sixers lineup that saw the floor, all starting with the bookend duo of Embiid and Simmons, the Process-produced twosome that has already raised Philadelphia to greater heights than the franchise has seen in 15 years, and whose stratospheric ceilings as players and cornerstones give Sixers fans reason to believe — or trust, if you prefer — that we ain’t seen nothing yet. And given what we have already seen, and what they put on display in Miami on Thursday night … well, if your favorite team hails from anywhere but Philly, “scary” seems like as good a word as any.