Former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Fratello was the first to tell Doc Rivers not to ask his players how they are feeling. The rationale, according to Rivers, is that leads to them sharing “more than you want to know. That’s a fact.”
So Rivers would not reveal much Saturday afternoon about whatever 76ers MVP finalist Joel Embiid has conveyed about his physical and mental state in the hours after totaling 18 points and 11 rebounds in his first game in eight days — while wearing a mask on his broken face and tape on his torn thumb — in their 99-79 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Embiid’s vision throughout the game was “pretty good,” Rivers said, a welcome development as the big man played wearing a mask to protect his orbital fracture. And with Embiid’s emotional return officially cleared, he and the Sixers will next aim to even their playoff series 2-2 against a Miami team expected to have a new jolt of energy for Sunday night’s Game 4 at the Wells Fargo Center.
“You have to anticipate [the Heat are] going to play better,” Rivers said. “But we know we can play better, as well. … We won a game that we [could have played] a lot better. That’s the way the coaches look at it.”
Even when reporters added an “other than Embiid’s return” qualifier while asking about the Sixers’ biggest Game 3 takeaways, various on-court topics often circled back to the dominant big man.
Embiid’s existence on both ends allowed the Sixers to play with more physicality, standout forward Tobias Harris said. That Miami star center Bam Adebayo went 2 of 9 from the floor Friday night, after making 15-of-21 shots in the series’ first two games, was primarily due to Embiid’s blend of size and athleticism, Rivers said with an, “It literally is that simple.” Embiid’s defense also fueled his teammates to have more active hands and increased awareness while staying attached to the Heat’s quick-trigger shooters on a night Miami made only 35.1% of its field-goal attempts.
“We just did a really good job of bringing the fight from the start of the game,” Harris said. “Obviously, with Joel, [the] big fella, he brings that presence to the game.”
On the offensive end, Rivers thought the Sixers were initially “mesmerized” by Embiid being back on the floor, resulting in teammates trying to force him the ball instead of organically running their offense. The coach loved the way the Sixers settled into a heavy dose of “double-drag” screens (when two consecutive picks are set for a ballhandler), but emphasized the need to use ball swings to consistently set up attacking drives into the paint. Like in Game 2, second-year guard Tyrese Maxey exploded for 21 second-half points, including 14 on 5-of-5 shooting (and 4-of-4 from three-point range) in the fourth quarter.
Defensively, Rivers continued to emphasize the importance of guarding NBA Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro, whom the Sixers coach said his team “lost” five times Friday despite a 5-of-15 shooting performance. All-Star and former Sixer Jimmy Butler also got loose for 23 second-half points on 8-of-11 shooting, including an array of “hustle points,” Harris said. The Heat also scored 15 second-chance points off 10 offensive rebounds.
As Embiid continues to reintegrate — he is officially listed as questionable for Sunday after being upgraded from out, to doubtful, to available leading up to Friday’s tip-off — Rivers hopes to see more deep post-ups. Those fizzled Friday, the coach said, when Embiid did not run as much as the game progressed. Embiid played 36 minutes in Game 3, sometimes laboring even though he insisted, “I can play all game” at the slow pace that unfolded. Ideally, Rivers said he does not want Embiid to play the entire third quarter and first two minutes of the fourth again Sunday.
But Embiid has officially returned to the floor. His vision with the mask was “pretty good” throughout his team’s runaway Game 3 victory. Now, he and the Sixers can move forward in trying to tie this series.
Isaiah Joe listed as questionable with ankle sprain
Sixers reserve guard Isaiah Joe is listed as questionable for Sunday’s Game 4 with a right ankle sprain.
Joe is not part of the Sixers’ rotation. He has played in 55 games in his second NBA season, averaging 3.6 points on 35% shooting from the floor and 33.3% from three-point range.