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May 06, 2022

Instant observations: Joel Embiid's return helps Sixers win Game 3 vs. Heat

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Joel Embiid's return gave the Sixers enough to win a slugfest with the Heat in Game 3, the Sixers earning a 99-79 win after pulling away in the fourth quarter. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• If Embiid had come back and been in MVP form, the Miami Heat would have been in big, big trouble. But getting Embiid back at all obviously made a massive difference for the Sixers in this one, if for no other reason than they got him back on the defensive side of the ball.

The Heat, who had a lot of success getting into the paint with Philly's other bigs manning the position, suddenly looked a lot more cautious about trying to challenge the Sixers at the rim. Even with a mask protecting his face and his injured thumb impacting his dominant hand, Embiid's ability to use his size spooked the Heat enough to force a lot of tough shots from midrange, or kick-outs to the perimeter that were ultimately harmless.

We don't spend a lot of time discussing one-on-one center defense in this space, mostly because it doesn't often matter in today's NBA, but having Embiid in the game to go to war with Adebayo is an absolute game changer. Adebayo is a key piece of Miami's staple actions as both a play finisher and a play creator, and with Embiid able to stonewall him in the paint and help out when he was a passer, the Heat ended up stuck in the mud.

On the other side of the floor, it was often ugly, but he was still a difference-maker. Embiid's touch was off, which wasn't surprising given that he's wearing a damn mask on his face, but the Heat had to commit resources in his direction in an attempt to stop him from getting good looks. Rather than allowing them to get set up and swarm him, Embiid did a nice job in the first half of pushing the pace in early offense, beating Dewayne Dedmon to spots for buckets before either team had gotten to their positions on Miami's side of the floor.

The emotional lift alone was something that everybody in the arena had to feel, even with Embiid struggling to find the range. Every time he made a big play, the whole arena erupted, giving the Sixers a lift during some periods of the game that got tight. He was not the 30-points-per-game, ass-kicking MVP, but he was enough to make a difference.

• Nobody was happier to see Embiid return to the floor than James Harden, because it was not on him to try to beat the Heat with a wall of three defenders meeting him every time he tried to turn the corner. With a more normal defense to try to attack, Harden looked considerably better, which shouldn't be a shock if you've seen these two in action after action together down the stretch this year. And when Miami put two on the ball against Harden, as they did throughout the second half, it opened up opportunities for other guys on the floor, namely Tyrese Maxey.

It wasn't shotmaking or a series of entry passes to Embiid that brought Harden back toward respectability, it was his old friend the free-throw line. With chances to get downhill against the Miami defense, Harden sought out contact on what felt like every other possession, going a perfect 8-for-8 from the free-throw line in the first half before having to exit as a result of his own foul trouble.

Harden brought a level of calmness to the floor for Philadelphia, which was the case during a couple of big wins in the Raptors series, too. When control of the game looked to be slipping out of their control with Harden and Embiid on the bench to close the first quarter, Rivers decided it was time to bring No. 1 back in. Philadelphia rang up a 9-0 run in the early stages of the period, and everyone was back to feeling comfortable. Harden did a lot of the damage there, otherwise orchestrating the offense to move the chess pieces around as needed.

Foul trouble minimized his impact and took him out of rhythm, but they were far better with him on the floor than without him. 

• Tobias Harris spent the early part of this game sticking his ass into Kyle Lowry in the post, and that strategy didn't pay dividends even with Lowry coming off of a layoff. Lowry might be giving up height to Harris in that spot, but he's a tough guy to move with a low center of gravity, and Harris found that out the hard way.

The good news is that Harris did not allow that to stop him from having a productive evening overall, chipping in wherever he could and whenever he could. Nowhere was more important than the glass — Harris came up with some gritty, in-your-face rebounds in the paint that could have turned into more second-chance points for Miami, helping to prevent things from getting even uglier in that regard.

Throughout this season, Harris has also become a more adventurous passer, something that would have seemed as unlikely as his development as a defender has been late in the year. Harris had some excellent reads to find corner shooters and ended up filling the stat sheet.

• Welcome to the series, Danny Green. After looking like he had forgotten how to shoot a basketball in the first two games of this series, he came to life in a game where almost everybody else on the floor actually forgot how to play basketball. The guy who has been through more playoff wars than anybody delivered in a big way, killing from the corners as he has for the last decade-plus.

I thought the Sixers did a nice job of exploiting how Miami wanted to defend Matisse Thybulle when he and Green were on the floor together, using actions that left Thybulle in the corner until it was time for Green to slide into that spot. With Miami's defense still acting as if the non-shooter was there, Green had some golden opportunities from the corners, and Green made the Heat pay.

We had this discussion after Game 2, though. Sometimes, you simply have to make more shots. 

• Thybulle checked into the game to a smattering of boos from the home crowd, not undeserved based on his play and his inability to suit up for the team in their previous series against Toronto. Before the first half had ended, Thybulle had done enough to earn some pretty enthusiastic cheers, finally making a difference in passing lanes and staying on the floor long enough to have a chance to do so.

Playing a bit of zone defense certainly helped, leaning on the expertise Thybulle honed during his college days at Washington. But Thybulle's man defense, which was a touch better in Game 2, was noticeably more impactful in Game 3, with Tyler Herro having a much tougher time getting going on his home turf. Thybulle was at the center of that, with one emphatic rearview block of Herro on his way to the basket.

One wrinkle the Sixers went to in the second half probably changed Thybulle's future in this series, if not the series itself. The Sixers lived out of double drag screens late in this game, sending Embiid and then Thybulle (or sometimes in the reverse order) to create space for Harden at the top of the key. Instead of allowing Herro to hide out on Thybulle, the Sixers made sure Herro was involved in a huge chunk of possessions down the stretch, with Harden able to punish Miami for leaving him on the floor.

It was a good change-up from the coaching staff, and it helped their best perimeter defender stay on the floor in a bruising Game 3. 

• Tyrese Maxey spent most of this game looking not just ineffective but borderline uninterested in impacting the game on offense. It was hard to figure out what the issue was, other than assuming he was waiting for their called plays to develop when they never did. Maxey spent a lot of time standing around and burning clock, which is a tremendous waste of his talents.

Well, at least he saved a hell of a closing kick for the fourth quarter. This kid has had some electric fourth-quarter performances this season, and this was up there with any of them, with Maxey finding the range and making a gigantic defensive play on top of that. On a team with transition defense issues galore, Maxey's speed came through in a critical moment, allowing Maxey to intercept a pass intended for Victor Oladipo, saving it before falling out of bounds with an overhead pass to Harden.

The love Philadelphia has for this kid is not hard to figure out in these moments. When he has tough starts to games, he nearly always finds a way to pull himself out of a hole and impact the game. That might not happen that often on defense, but that play shows you the cloth he is cut from. Win by any means necessary.

That defensive play, mind you, was just one spliced in between a series of made jumpers and runners for Maxey, who got on a roll just in time to finish Miami off. 

• With Embiid back in the mix, Paul Reed can settle into a role that suits him a lot better — backup center with starters around him to help. The Sixers outright won the Reed minutes in the first half, and even if they had played Miami to a standstill during that stretch, that in itself is a huge deal for Philly as long as they can keep Embiid healthy.

The Bad

• The Sixers have Embiid available again. They have both of their stars available. Under no circumstances should the Sixers have a lineup of Maxey-Thybulle-Niang-Harris-Reed on the floor. The same holds true for Maxey-Korkmaz-Niang-Harris-Reed. I'm not sure what Rivers was thinking, or if he was, but that combination let Miami get a couple of buckets and was responsible for three of the worst possessions of the season right in a row.

On the other hand, as easy as it is to blame the coach, you can't talk about Maxey as a star in the making and then absolve him of responsibility when the offense melts down with him in charge. His decision making late in the first quarter was baffling — why are you forcing a pass to Tobias Harris posting Jimmy Butler 20 feet from the basket? 

Pace isn't thought of as a Maxey problem, given how much speed the kid has to burn, but he goes through too many oddly passive stretches where he waits too long for the first read and option to develop. He'll likely figure this out with time and experience, but he should be able to recognize when something has broken down. There's no reason for him to be playing as passively as he did in Game 3, regardless of the opponent or setting. It was as if he had been instructed to burn time, and I can tell you with complete certainty that's not something that has ever happened.

• I'm not sure what the Sixers were running for long stretches of this game, and it seems pretty clear that they didn't know the answer to that either. Unless staring down the opponent, burning clock, and eventually throwing lazy passes into traffic is an offensive gameplan, in which case they executed beautifully.

The Ugly

• He might make you pay for doing it at some point, but I would not contest Butler as a three-point shooter in this series unless he gets on an absolute roll from deep. Butler looks like he's fighting himself every time he puts up a shot from beyond 15 feet or so, and the Sixers are still jumping at him too much for my liking. Make him make those shots and challenge him inside the arc. 

• Eagles first-round pick Jordan Davis is absolutely humungous. I spend most of my professional time around basically the biggest people on planet Earth, and that dude is a mammoth of a person. I thought he was going to break the bell when he rang it pregame.

• Kyle Lowry got away with a cheapshot that didn't so much as draw a whistle or a reaction from the target of the cheapshot in the early stages of the second quarter. Paul Reed got hit with an elbow in the midsection after a play was dead, and Reed just stood there and took it as Ed Malloy looked off in another direction. As Reed gets older, he might learn that he needs to sell those. 

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