Joel Embiid saves 76ers’ season for now

PHILADELPHIA — Still fuming from the Phillies blowing a six-run, ninth-inning lead to the rival New York Mets the night before, the crowd was all set on transferring that rage from manager Joe Girardi to the Sixers who were down 0-2 to the Miami Heat in the second round of the playoffs.

Upon starting lineup introductions Friday night, head coach Doc Rivers and shooting guard Danny Green received boos from the home crowd.

The atmosphere was set: It was going to be an ugly night if the Heat were to steal Game 3.

Philadelphia 76ers star center Joel Embiid, who sat out the first two games of the series with an orbital fracture and concussion symptoms, did what no Phillies pitcher could do on Thursday: come up with a crucial save.

In 36 minutes, the MVP-favorite produced 18 points on 5-of-12 from the field, 11 rebounds and a block while wearing a protective mask over his face to help his squad to a 99-79 victory to make it a 2- 1 series lead for the Heat.

With his team in a burdensome predicament as the series shifted to Philly, Embiid fought vigorously behind the scenes to clear all the hurdles in front of him in order in time for Game 3.

Philadelphia 76ers star center Joel Embiid looks on with his protective face guard against the Miami Heat during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on May 6, 2022. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

“Down 0-2, I had to do everything possible to be out there no matter how I was feeling,” Embiid said. “I was just glad that we got the win.”

On gameday, the process to get Embiid in the lineup took a swift turn. After a shootaround, the Sixers morning ruled the big man out for Game 3, but cautioned that his status could change throughout the day.

Then a few hours later, he was upgraded to doubtful. And 30 minutes before tip, he was still listed as doubtful before it was announced that he would make his return.

“He’s a solder man,” teammate Tyrese Maxey said after the game. “I mean, thumb [injury], mask, concussion, a broken face that makes him look even uglier now. He’s resilient. He’s the MVP for a reason. Just the attention that he demands is great for us. It’s a testimony to his will and his wanting to win.”

Whenever there was a stoppage in play, Embiid would request a towel to wipe his face and the inside of his face mask. He called it a “big adjustment” to play with the mask.

“I airballed a wide-open shot. So, that’s the answer to that question,” he said when asked about wearing the mask. “It’s whatever. It’s just the circumstances.”

Miami outrebounded Philadelphia in the first two games, but the Heat lost that battle Friday night 44-35. Also, the Heat scored only 28 points in the paint opposed to the 47 points they averaged when the series was in Miami.

“His presence obviously [is huge],” Rivers said after holding the Heat to 35.1% shooting. “To start the game, his rebounding, his energy, his ability at the basket. You could see his timing was off a little bit, but his presence defensively, I don’t think he gets enough credit with how good defensively he is and how much he helps us. And I thought tonight, it was a lot of that.”

The spacing was much improved with Embiid on the floor. Green, who struggled with his shot in the first two games, exploded for 21 points by way of 7 of 9 from 3-point range.

“Last game I said was on me,” Green said of his 1-for-9 3-point shooting in Game 2. “I didn’t help them at all on that end of the floor and I had to do a better job . And luckily it turned for us tonight and we got some good shots to drop.”

On this night during the game, the boos were only directed at the opposing team. Girardi remains the city’s current most noticeable vitriol target.

Embiid saved the game and shielded his team from criticism, something the Phillies’ bullpen could not do.

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