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April 19, 2018

Masked Joel Embiid sets tone in Sixers' pivotal Game 3 win vs. Miami Heat

By the time the Sixers upgraded Joel Embiid to probable prior to Thursday's game, the question was not whether he would play in Game 3, but what he would look like doing it. Embiid is one of a select few players in the league who could generate as much discussion about the design of his facemask as what the Sixers could expect from him on the court in a pivotal road game.

The big man delivered on both fronts, donning a mask that was one-half ski goggles, one-half MF Doom as he helped propel the Sixers to a 128-108 victory to take back home court. The game was much closer than that final scoreline for most of the evening, but when it mattered most, though, the Sixers just simply had more talent than the Heat, with Embiid's 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists on 5/11 shooting representing an excellent first game back for the trash-talking Cameroonian.

This was a team victory through and through, but where else could we start except with our eyes turned toward the man in the mask?

Embiid's return restored balance to the Sixers

Those pesky questions about whether Embiid would unsettle a team firing on all cylinders? Done away with. Concerns about how effective he would be playing in a mask? Cast aside, mostly. Embiid's playoff debut was, above all else, a silencing of all the noise surrounding his return, a reminder that when he is simply on the floor, he is one of the best and most impactful basketball players on the planet.

"I'm just so proud of what he did on the court, the professionalism he showed as this was all playing out," said Brett Brown. "Take the real situation of, not only was he injured and not playing basketball, now you got to come back in on the road, and play a playoff game in a mask. It's not like there's a clear vision line out of the mask, it has a protective lens in there as well. And for him to come back under those terms in that situation and produce the results he produced, and help lead us to a road playoff win, I'm very, very proud of him."

All week, Brown has harped on Embiid's ability to impact a game on defense above all else, regardless of what happened once things moved to the other side of the court. True to form, Embiid was the all-world deterrent we expect him to be on the big stage, blocking and altering shots at the rim all night.

Of course, there are also the shots and drives that never happened because he was lurking on the backline. The Miami Heat, not exactly a team known for their marksmanship from three, went on a bit of a shooting barrage in the first half almost by necessity. They did not want any parts of Embiid at the summit, both because he is a challenge to get past and because they didn't want to get an earful of trash talk afterward.

Embiid's contributions on the offensive end were just as impactful for the Sixers. He did not put on an especially dazzling show and even came up short on a few bunnies — the missed dunk on a lob from Ben Simmons was especially noteworthy — but he imposed his will on Miami from the opening quarter on. He earned a whopping 15 free throws against the Heat in his first game back, forcing the Heat to take fouls rather than give up uncontested looks at the hoop.

When he had it working, though, boy did it look pretty special, including when he put Bam Adebayo in a blender at the end of the first half.

You could tell just by looking at Embiid's face as he spoke postgame how much this stage meant to him, after all the years of ridicule he and his franchise have taken on their less-traveled path to NBA relevance. But even during this moment in the spotlight, Embiid turned toward the man who has been alongside him all this time, spreading the love to his coach as he described his joy over the occasion.

It meant a lot. I’ve been here on the team. I’m the oldest on the team. I feel like I’ve been here and have gone through everything. The year we only won 10 games it was really disappointing. I feel like we went through a lot and to be able to be in this position, I’m really happy for coach. He finally has a team. He’s coaching us well. He deserves a lot of credit. I feel like he should be the coach of the year, too. 

I was excited. I worked really hard for it. I promised the city that. I made it happen and I was sad that I couldn’t play that first game at home, because we have a special connection. I’m glad I came back today and we got a win.

For Sixers fans who have enjoyed this run over the last month, Embiid's return felt like a long time coming. Now imagine being in his shoes, multiple foot surgeries and medical woes later, finally on the stage he promised to deliver the Sixers.

He was right to crow after the game, and he deserves all the shine that will come after turning in a typically excellent performance.

Dario Saric, an absolute gamer

The final score doesn't really reveal this, but Game 3 was a close contest for the vast majority of the game, with both teams trading punches up until the fourth quarter. And one of the biggest reasons the Sixers didn't get knocked down in an earlier round of the fight was Saric, who stood up to be counted every time it felt like Philadelphia was on the verge of letting the game slip away.

Just as he did in the regular season, Saric has torched the Heat through the first three games of this series, averaging 21 points, seven rebounds, and over three assists per game on 44/48/88 shooting splits. He has been Philadelphia's glue on the offensive end of the floor, delivering the sort of performance you always believed might be possible once the team reached the postseason.

Unlike some of his other young peers on the team, Saric has a degree of experience in pressure situations at a fairly high level. A young veteran of FIBA play and European competition, Saric exudes confidence and assertiveness in the moment despite this all being so new to him. When I questioned Brown on whether he feels that experience has given the young Croatian a leg up, the head coach agreed.

I know, I coached in FIBA basketball for 17 years. I know the environment he has played in [with] FIBA basketball. The Euroleague is high-level basketball, playing in the Olympic games is high-level basketball, playing in the European championships, high-level basketball, world championships — high-level basketball. He's been groomed since he was 14 to play basketball, he's from a basketball family.

All those experiences have added up to him pretty much handling this moment, he's not fazed by the moment. I thought tonight there was a toughness, there was a skill package, you could see the passion that he had with his facial expressions and his body language coming off the floor. I thought he was fantastic tonight.

Simmons is often credited (and rightfully so) for the development of Philadephia's identity as a team-first, pass-first team, but Saric probably deserves more attention than he receives for his role in shaping the squad. Not only is he a willing passer, he's the player who shapeshifts in and out of roles as the Sixers need it, transforming from high-level passer to spot-up shooter to banger on the boards at the drop of a hat.

So it's never surprising when Saric is part of the most beautiful sequences for Philadelphia on any given night, even if he's not the guy who ultimately gets "credit" in the box score.

Saric has won at every level he has played. If we're handing out credit for the Sixers climbing the ladder and building a culture, he's high up the list of reasons why.

An infusion of physicality and toughness from the bench

If there was ever going to be a Sixers player to jump into the action, immediately get into a physical altercation, and then knock down several shots to the chagrin of the away crowd, it was Justin Anderson. His demeanor and motor are always revved up to the max, and he gave the Sixers a necessary shot in the arm on Thursday night.

I use that last term purposefully because Dwyane Wade nearly pulled his arm out of his socket during a heated exchange in the first half:

The officials ruled this — according to Miami's bellowing PA announcer, anyway — a double technical for "physical taunting," which is an extremely charitable interpretation of one guy playing tug-of-war and the other taking a swing at his opponent. I will always err on the side of not throwing players out in a playoff game, but this exchange is basically what the flagrant foul rules were invented for. There was no attempt by either guy to make anything resembling a basketball play.

Allowed to continue on, Anderson gave the Sixers a little extra juice in Game 3, knocking down a couple triples while giving everything he had on defense. What he had was not always good — Wade buckled his knees with a crossover before bricking the jumper that followed — but it was different than what the rest of the Sixers' bench had to offer in the series to this point. Irrational or not, he fears nobody when he's out there on the court.

Anderson got in Wade's airspace a ton during his nine minutes of action, and he made sure all his fouls counted when he was forced to take them at or near the rim. There is something to be said for that infusion of physicality even if there's not a material payoff in the form of big point totals, and he bothered Wade on the way to a 2/10 shooting night for the Heat legend.

Speaking of toughness, a cameo from T.J. McConnell in the second half was absolutely critical to setting the Sixers on the path toward victory. Markelle Fultz looked completely lost on both ends during his first-half minutes — not unexpected for someone with no time to work through the ups and downs of a rookie season — and Brown turned to McConnell to keep the ship on course at the end of the third.

It turned out to be one of the most important moves of the night. McConnell powered a late surge for the Sixers heading into the fourth, and they would end up riding that wave until it ended in a victory.

“I think both of those guys injected a passion, enthusiasm, toughness, a pace," said Brown after the game. "They really had, I think, an impact on the game. Those two guys came in and really helped us find a little more of an edge and I think had a result in the win.”

Ben Simmons, steady as he goes

As recently as a week ago, a major storyline heading into the playoffs was how Simmons would react to changes in defensive scheming throughout the playoffs. How about we add a new question to the mix — what are teams going to do that actually curtails Simmons' influence on a game?

The box-score dominance is obvious and insane for a player of his age and experience level. Simmons is averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists per game on 48 percent shooting from the field so far in the playoffs. Though the field-goal percentage is down from the regular season, it is his willingness to attack that has been the difference for Simmons in a playoff setting.

Quietly, one of the biggest developments of Simmons' career to date is underway — Simmons is shooting 75 percent from the free-throw line on eight attempts per game through the first three contests, turning into a borderline cheat code in the process. Fouling Simmons was one of the only ways teams had to slow him down at the rim. If you don't have that, what exactly can you do?

Not a whole lot, as it turns out. Justise Winslow had an out-of-body experience shooting the ball in the first half, scoring 19 after making 4/5 attempts from three before halftime. He still ended up a whopping -27 for the game, because Simmons absolutely abused him as a passer and scorer throughout the night.

The scoring is not always a given, and despite the fact that Miami is equipped as well as any team in the league to throw waves of plus-sized athletes at the rookie, Simmons just kept coming.

Do not undersell the job he did on the defensive end against the Heat, either. With Embiid back, the three cornerstones of Philadelphia's elite defense — the big man, Robert Covington, and Simmons — are back in place, and they flexed their muscles when it mattered on Thursday.

Simmons can credibly accept just about any defensive assignment on the floor, and did so against the Heat. He went toe-to-toe with wings, picked up Goran Dragic when Covington dealt with foul trouble in the third, and even found himself switched onto Hassan Whiteside in the fourth quarter. He executed on every front, disrupting passing lanes coming up with steals on post-ups with his quick hands.

This is one of the best opening stretches to a playoff career we've seen in some time for a rookie, and Simmons looks completely unbothered by the moment. 

Not that you'd expect anything less from the picture of stoicism. This is just another night at the office for him.

Odds and ends

• Think coaching doesn't matter, or that the little things don't add up to victories? Brett Brown brought in four of his starters (plus Ersan Ilyasova) to begin the fourth quarter after closing the third with a bench-heavy unit. The Sixers turned a two-point lead to start the period into an eight-point lead within two minutes, and they never really looked back from there. Erik Spoelstra was slow to react, and it was ultimately the stretch that kickstarted the victory.

• Speaking of the little things — toward the tail end of that opening stretch in the fourth, there was a sneaky huge play from Philadelphia's big man. After a Covington miss in transition, Winslow was lurking underneath Philadelphia's basket uncovered after falling on the previous play. Before Miami could fire off an outlet, Embiid wrapped up Kelly Olynyk and took a foul, ending the opportunity before it ever developed. In a game that was very much still in the balance at that point, it was a heady, instinctive play, and one that belies his inexperience.

• He was good all over the place, but one of Embiid's greatest contributions on the night was as a screen-setter for his teammates. When he wants to, he can be the most devastating player in the league there just based on pure size, and he came flying at Miami with bad intentions throughout the night.

This speaks to a point Justin Anderson touched on after the game. While Embiid obviously loves to be at the center of everything when he has it going on, privately he relayed to his team that he did not want to mess up the good thing they've had going in recent weeks.

"It speaks to his character," Anderson said of Embiid's attentiveness while out with injury. "One of the things that he said to me during the game was to tell coach that I don’t want any plays ran for me. I just want to play within the schemes. I want to play within what we do. That was big of him because he was sacrificing himself to do what was best for the team.”

• If Marco Belinelli shoots like this for the rest of the playoffs, the Sixers are going to be damn near impossible to beat. This guy is absolutely locked in right now, and his bench shooting has been critical to their success.

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