Doc Rivers said Thursday afternoon that he wished he could spend that night tailoring a 76ers game plan specifically for Joel Embiid’s triumphant return.

But that was not reality for the Sixers coach, nor for the NBA’s leading scorer and MVP finalist.

Reported optimism existed last weekend that Embiid could return from an orbital fracture and concussion as soon as Game 3 of the Sixers’ Eastern Conference semifinal against the top-seeded Miami Heat. But Rivers did not have an update on Embiid’s status Thursday, saying the big man still had “hurdles” to clear in concussion protocol and in general facial healing before Friday’s game.

» READ MORE: Only Joel Embiid can save the Sixers’ season, and even that’s a question | David Murphy

The coach added Embiid was scheduled for more evaluation later Thursday and Friday morning, and the Sixers listed him as out for Game 3 on their official injury report released Thursday evening. But that can still be altered in the hours leading up to tipoff.

With that lingering uncertainty as this series shifts to Philly, the Sixers must now do more than survive until a possible Embiid return. Their task is to apply what they have learned without the star big man in consecutive losses that put them in an 0-2 hole.

“I don’t know [if the players are] thinking about if Joel comes back or not,” Rivers said. “I think they look at it [as], ‘If we win Game 3, then the series is as close as you could possibly have it after three games.’ I think that’s what they’re focused on. …

“They were down that we lost [Wednesday’s] game, but not one person in that locker room doesn’t feel like we can’t win this series.”

The Sixers would have been in better position to steal a win in Miami had they made more shots. They connected on just 14 of their 64 three-point attempts (21.9%) in Games 1 and 2, and on 44.2% of their field goals against the Heat’s versatile defense. Though typically dangerous shooters Danny Green, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and Georges Niang went a combined 4 of 21 from deep during Wednesday’s 119-103 defeat, Rivers said his staff evaluated that game as their 12th best of the season in terms of shot quality.

“I believe in the guys we play on the floor, that they can make them over the long haul,” Rivers said. “… The game, when you look at it, came down to the three-point line in a lot of ways. They made theirs [14 of 29]. We missed ours.”

Still, the Sixers’ play so far on the offensive end is more nuanced than the “make-or-miss-league” adage. Without Embiid, Rivers on Thursday re-emphasized the importance of spacing the floor and added it was “vital” to create early offense. After noting the Sixers’ passes were slightly mistimed in Game 1, Rivers said that had improved Wednesday night. They also committed only eight turnovers, after losing the ball 15 times in Game 1.

But Rivers also lamented the stretches when the Sixers’ offense turned “stagnant.” The Heat have not been shy to double-team Harden, who scored four second-half points Wednesday. Additionally, Rivers said his ballhandlers have become too focused on hunting defensive matchups for isolation plays, instead of continuing to foster cutting and ball movement.

“It paralyzes your offense,” Rivers said of the iso approach. “… I thought we spent a whole game trying to pick who we wanted to play against, instead of running our stuff.”

» READ MORE: Doc Rivers must let Tyrese Maxey replace James Harden as the Sixers’ alpha | Marcus Hayes

A positive, Rivers said, was how Maxey went from “pressing” during Wednesday’s opening minutes to unleashing 23 second-half points. An example of that in-game progress: During an early possession, Rivers yelled at Maxey from the sideline because he was on the wrong side of the floor during a Harden isolation. In the second half, Maxey had ripped off 11 consecutive points to get the Sixers back within single digits.

“You could see, as the game went on, him getting more and more comfortable with how they’re playing him and how to attack,” Rivers said. “So there’s some light in this.”

Until Embiid’s health status becomes clear, Rivers said “we’ll be ready for either” scenario. Yet even if Embiid is eventually cleared to play Friday, he will return following virtually no on-court time with teammates in more than a week.

That’s life in the playoffs, Rivers said, citing how Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker came back from a hamstring injury for Game 6 of their first-round series win over the New Orleans Pelicans without re-acclimation in a team setting before tip-off. Booker had also initially been listed as out on that game’s official injury report.

“That makes it very difficult for them when they come back,” Rivers said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to play great. Or sometimes, they do. You just don’t know.”

Kyle Lowry upgraded to questionable with hamstring injury

After missing Games 1 and 2 with a hamstring injury, Heat star point guard Kyle Lowry has been upgraded to questionable for Friday’s Game 3.

Lowry, a Villanova and Cardinal Dougherty product, averaged 13.4 points, 7.5 assists, and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 44% from the floor and 37.7% from three-point range during the regular season. He also missed the final two games of Miami’s first-round series win over the Atlanta Hawks with the injury.

NBA Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro (ankle sprain), along with P.J. Tucker (calf strain), Gabe Vincent (knee irritation), Max Strus (hamstring strain), and Caleb Martin (sprained ankle) are also listed as questionable for Friday but traveled with the Heat to Philly. They all played in Game 2.

Inquirer Live

The Sixers continue to play in the second-round series against Miami Heat. Join Inquirer sports columnist Mike Sielski and Sixers beat reporters Gina Mizell and Keith Pompey as they discuss the impact of Joel Embiid’s injury and how the series’ move to Philadelphia for Games 3 and 4 might help Doc Rivers and Co.