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Heat vs. 76ers score, takeaways: Joel Embiid’s emotional, defensive presence lifts Philly back into series

Well, we’ve got a series. With Joel Embiid back in action, the Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Miami Heat 99-79 in Game 3 of their second-round matchup on Friday, trimming Miami’s series lead to 2-1 heading into Game 4 on Sunday.

Here are three takeaways from Philly’s victory.

1. Joel Embiid saves the day

Embiid wasn’t his best, but he was a massive presence on both ends finishing with 18 points and 11 rebounds. It is not a coincidence that Miami scored just 79 points. Only 28 of those came in the paint, down from the 47 paint points Miami had averaged through the first two games.

You could see Miami’s penetrators thinking twice about engaging with Embiid on the inside. That left the onus on shooters, and it didn’t go well with Miami finishing 7-for-30 from behind the arc.

In today’s parlance, a center’s versatility, his ability to protect the rim and handle himself on the perimeter, has become our main barometer for impact. Sometimes just straight-up one-on-one defense still matters, and Bam Adebayo, the fulcrum of so many preferred Miami actions, couldn’t do anything with Embiid.

Adebayo finished with nine points, three rebounds, and, notably, just one assist. Without Adebayo triggering at his typical level, the Heat had to create more individually. Nobody was up to the challenge other than Jimmy Butler, who finished with 33 points but did not get enough help as Tyler Herro was the only other Heat player to score double figures.

Offensively, though Embiid couldn’t find his mid-range touch, the attention he commands at least somewhere freed James Harden from the waves of defenders he’s faced through the first two games. Miami still sent doubles at Harden, mostly in the second half, but with two defensive concerns, Tyrese Maxey, the third wheel, got rolling in money time, scoring 14 of his 21 points (all of which came in the second half) in the fourth quarter.

On his own, the emotional lift Embiid provided was evident. The crowd. His teammates of him. When your MVP candidate, who is already on the heels of a concussion, is out there in a Zorro face mask because he has a broken orbital bone, in addition to a torn ligament in his thumb that will require offseason surgery, you’re going to be riding an adrenaline spike. Embiid is a beast. He showed it again Friday, and now it’s a series.

2. Hello, Danny Green

Nice of you to show up! After going 2-for-14 from 3 through the first two games, Green tied his playoff career high with 21 points on 7-of-9 3-point shooting in Game 3. That’s one shy of Allen Iverson’s franchise playoff record.

He did his work from the corners, which is such a key to unlocking Philly’s pick and roll game as help defenders can’t just leave that post to sink down (as they can do when it’s Matisse Thybulle corner camping).

I’m going to go out on a limb and say if Green manages to make as many 3-pointers as the entire Heat team in Game 4 again, this series is going to be tied come Sunday night.

3. James Harden temperature check

Harden finished with 17 points on 4-of-11 shooting. He was 1-for-7 from 3. He piled up seven turnovers. I have managed to work his way to the free-throw line eight times, sinking them all. Harden still isn’t creating much downhill leverage against set defenses. He’s pretty clearly not going to just morph into the scorer he used to be. I liked that when he didn’t have avenues in early offense/semi-transition, he attacked and got himself to the rim or the line. That’s where he can still do damage, with a running stars against an unsettled defense.

As mentioned above, Harden still saw doubles and he remains a top-tier playmaker, which constitutes his main value these days. With Embiid back, simply cutting his turnovers would be a big lift moving forward. A few step-back 3s actually going in would go quite a long way.

I find myself wondering what Doc Rivers was thinking not staggering Harden’s minutes with Embiid’s. The two rested together and it made for some pretty nasty Philadelphia possessions. I suppose Rivers like those two together; my guess is because he knows that Harden can’t create like he used to on his own, and is now far more reliant on the two-man game to perform at an elite level, and also Rivers is probably giving Maxey an opportunity to cook as the top option sans both Embiid and Harden.

But it didn’t go well in some particular stretches on Friday, and I’ll be curious to see if Rivers sticks to the same deployment tactics on Sunday.

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