Donning a protective mask, Joel Embiid looked on and acted as a superhero on Friday night.
Recovering from a fractured orbit and a torn thumb ligament, the 28-year-old cleared concussion protocols just hours before the Philadelphia 76ers’ crucial Game 3 clash with the Miami Heat in the semis. -Eastern Conference Finals.
All that was missing was a hero cape, as Embiid scored 18 points to help keep the 76ers’ playoff dreams alive with a 99-79 victory at the Wells Fargo Center.
Adding a record 11 rebounds and one assist, Embiid’s efforts helped the 76ers pull away in the fourth quarter to cut the Heat’s advantage to 2-1 in the best of seven series.
Tyrese Maxey led the scoring for the 76ers alongside Danny Green with 21 points, an appropriate total considering the return of his team’s MVP candidate — Embiid wears No. 21.
“I was so happy to see 21 [jersey] hang up in the locker room,” Maxey told reporters.
“He’s a soldier. Thumb, mask, concussion, broken face – make him even uglier now – he’s a resilient man, he’s the MVP for a reason.
“Just the attention he demands is big for us, and just a testament to his will and his drive to win.”
The Cameroonian’s return marked the culmination of a quick recovery, having only been upgraded from ‘out’ to ‘doubtful’ by the 76ers on Friday morning.
After Wednesday’s Game 2 loss, 76ers coach Doc Rivers said Embiid had “so many steps to go” before playing a part in Game 3.
“It was a struggle,” Embiid admitted. “Really because of the concussion and dealing with a bunch of symptoms, but I’m glad it’s gone and I’m glad to be back.”
Embiid’s return underscored a bittersweet night for the Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler, who earlier in the week said he wanted to see the 76ers star return so he could face his personal MVP nomination.
Butler’s wish was granted and he rose to the challenge against his old team with a game-high 33 points, adding nine rebounds and two assists, but was the leader of an utterly blunt Heat offense. Tyler Herro was the team’s second-leading scorer with 14 points, with no one else hitting double digits.
The Heat will have until Sunday to address their issues before returning to the Wells Fargo Center for Game 4.
“You add Joel to any team; the game, the scout report, it changes drastically,” Butler said. “It’s been like that for his whole career.
“That’s not the reason we lost the game – we didn’t recover, turned the ball over, we weren’t stopped, we fould, there was a lot of stuff there- in it – but there is a large part of it.”
Meanwhile, in the Western semifinals, the Dallas Mavericks snapped an 11-game losing streak against the Phoenix Suns to return to the series with a 103-94 victory.
The Maverick’s dynamic duo of Jalen Brunson and Luka Doncic dazzled with 28 and 26 points respectively, Doncic just missed a triple-double with 13 rebounds and nine assists as he chased a scintillating playoff streak.
The Slovenian is just the seventh player in NBA history to average 35 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in the first three games of a series, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
“Energy man, I think the energy was crazy,” said Doncic. “That crowd keeps us going, the crowd was amazing the whole game.
“The energy and the execution was better, we trusted each other, and that’s what we have to do in every game.
“We think they need to win four, so it’s not over yet,” Doncic added.
After struggling to overpower the Suns’ Chris Paul in Game 2, an aggressive defensive performance by the Mavericks ruined the 37-year-old’s birthday, forcing Paul to seven halfway turnovers.
“It felt like all seven were back to back,” Paul said. “If I don’t return the ball like that, I feel like it’s a different game.”
Jae Crowder’s 19 points led the Suns, who will have the opportunity to close the series in Phoenix if they bounce back with the win to make it 3-1 on Sunday for Game 4.
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