Joel Embiid returned to action and scored 23 points, as the 76ers defeated the Miami Heat 128-108 Thursday night to take a 2-1 series lead.
Clad in a mask that was more reminiscent of ski goggles than a Phantom of the Opera duplicate, Joel Embiid made his return to the court after missing ten games due to a broken orbital bone and concussion. His return came after hours of speculation on whether the big man would play, leading to Embiid being a true “game-time decision”. Embiid was immediately pressed into the 76ers’ starting lineup, playing four minutes in his first shift back from injury. Embiid picked up four of his game-high 23 points throughout this series, adding two crucial blocks early.
Despite Embiid’s presence, it was the Heat who jumped out to an early lead behind the sharpshooting of Tyler Johnson, who knocked down his first two triples of the contest. They would be the only threes Johnson would connect on, but he would finish the game with ten points. After one of those two makes, Johnson appeared to injure his hand, having to exit the game for a time. He returned, with tape on his hand, later in the quarter, but was never the same after the apparent injury.
The 76ers grabbed momentum after the Johnson injury, rattling off eight straight to take an early 10-6 lead. Then, the 76ers went cold from the field, connecting on just three of their next 11 shots, allowing the Heat to momentarily capture the lead. But Philadelphia would respond right back, taking a 15-2 run, due in large part to a barrage of threes from Marco Bellinelli, and extending their lead to the largest of the half at 11, 32-21. Bellinelli was on fire from deep in the opening quarter, connecting for 11 first quarter points, pacing a 76ers’ outside attack that went 5-8 from three in the first.
The referees played a large part in this contest, as the two teams would combine for 56 fouls throughout the game, and they aided the Heat late in the first. Miami was fouled on three consecutive trips down the floor, sparking a 6-0 run for the Heat, all of which came from the free throw line. Justice Winslow picked up four of those free throws as part of his tremendous first half from the field. Winslow, a vastly improved three point shooter, connected on 4-6 from deep on his way to a 19 point game. He scored all of those 19 in the first half.
That 6-0 was part of a larger 12-3 Heat run to close the quarter and draw closer to the 76ers. Despite the quick attack, Philadelphia survived the first quarter with a lead, albeit a shrunken one, 37-33.
The action intensified early in the second quarter, as just a minute and a half in, Justin Anderson and Dwyane Wade got tied up along the baseline and got into a near fight after Anderson grabbed Wade, who reciprocated by throwing Anderson into the row of photographers along the floor. The were given physical taunting technical fouls, which offset, and play resumed, but not before a lengthy pause by the officials.
After the dust settled, the 76ers found themselves in the midst of a scoring drought. Philadelphia connected on just one field goal over the first three minutes of play, sparking a Miami run that allowed the Heat to take a three point lead, 46-43. The 76ers responded with an immediate 5-0 run of their own to recapture the lead, 48-46.
Both team shot at a torrid pace from beyond the arc in the first half, as the 76ers finished 9-18 from deep, and the Heat were even better, connecting on 10-16 from three. A part of that three point display was Dario Saric, who scored seven consecutive 76ers’ points, including a 25-foot three, to give the 76ers the lead once more, 57-55. Saric finished the night with 21 points on 7-17 shooting. Four of those seven makes came from three point range.
The two teams would battle down the stretch, as Miami outscored the 76ers 9-6 in the final three minutes of the half to claim a one point lead heading into the locker room, 64-63.
The Heat came out of the break looking to extend their lead, and it was Goran Dragic who shouldered the load early in the third quarter. Sandwiching three J.J. Redick points, Dragic poured in five straight Heat tallies to take a three point lead, 69-66. Dragic finished the third quarter with 11 points, adding to his first half 12, for 23 at the end of three. He would become a non-factor in the fourth quarter, failing to get on the scoreboard for the final 12 minutes.
Dragic would become part of the technical spree later in the quarter, as he and Marco Bellinelli were each assessed technical fouls, as the game continued to be played physically.
The two teams matched triples deep into the third quarter, extending their prolific shooting nights through the second half. As the quarter came to a close, the Heat had one-upped the 76ers, 13-12, in terms of made threes made. But it would be the 76ers who captured the lead going into the fourth quarter thanks to a 5-0 Philadelphia run that put them up two, 90-88.
The 76ers held onto a 96-94 lead heading into the final quarter of play.
Over the first two minutes of the fourth quarter, the 76ers took control, jumping out to a quick 9-1 run that saw their lead balloon back to double digits, 105-95. This was the largest lead of the game for the 76ers since they led by 12, 32-21. Miami capitalized off an inbound pass turnover from Robert Covington, scoring four points in a row to close the gap to six, 105-99. Those consecutive buckets were part of a larger 7-2 Miami burst, shrinking the lead even more, 107-102.
Dario Saric would continue his hot night from the field, scoring five straight game points and helping the 76ers regain momentum and a ten point lead, 112-102. James Johnson knocked down a crucial three to cut the deficit to seven, but the Heat would crawl no closer, as the 76ers turned heel and produced seven straight of their own, capturing a 14 point lead, 119-105.
Miami managed just three more over the final 4:39 as the 76ers held the Heat to 14 fourth quarter points. Philadelphia outscored Miami 32-14 in the final frame, winning 128-108.
The win gives the 76ers a 2-1 series lead heading into Game Four. Teams that have held a 2-1 series lead in a best of seven series have gone on to win said series almost 80 percent of the time in the NBA. Should the 76ers take Game Four, that number jumps to 95 percent. Game Four will be played in Miami Saturday afternoon, and is scheduled for a 2:30 p.m. tipoff. You can catch all the action on 97.5 The Fanatic!
-By Tyler Zulli, producer and www.975thefanatic.com contributor