MIAMI — After the 76ers evened their series, coach Doc Rivers was asked how his team can carry momentum to South Florida.
“Joel is going to be on the plane,” he responded half jokingly.
While the assembled media broke out in laughter, Rivers was right. Joel Embiid’s presence has been the difference in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Miami Heat.
Embiid missed Games 1 and 2 with a concussion and orbital fracture near his right eye. The Sixers lost both games at FTX Arena. Embiid returned for Games 3 and 4 at the Wells Fargo Center. The Sixers prevailed.
Now, they hope his presence will have the same impact in Tuesday night’s Game 5 at FTX Arena.
“We’re getting more confident as the series goes on,” James Harden said. “Those first two games were a blur. But obviously having Jo and having our full team, we kind of know what to expect. We know where to execute on both ends of the ball. It just makes the job a lot easier.”
Without Embiid, the Sixers have made 14 of 64 three-point attempts and have been outrebounded, 91-71. With him, they’ve outrebounded the Heat, 76-68, and hit 32 of 66 three-pointers.
The Sixers are also doing a better job on Tyler Herro and benefiting from Kyle Lowry’s limited availability because of strained left hamstring.
Lowry, a Cardinal Dougherty and Villanova product, returned in Game 3 after being sidelined since suffering the injury on April 22 in Game 3 of the Heat’s first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks.
The star point guard failed to score a point while missing his four shot attempts in his first game back. In Sunday’s Game 4, he had six points on 3-for-10 shooting. Lowry, who is 0-for-8 on three-pointers in two games, aggravated the injury in Game 4 but plans to play in Game 5.
Gabe Vincent, his backup, hasn’t been able to provide a spark off the bench. Like Lowry, he was scoreless in Game 3 while missing two shots. Vincent had two points on 1-for-6 shooting in Game 4.
But Herro has also been a nonfactor in the last two games.
The sixth man of the year shot 63.6% from beyond the arc and averaged 21.5 points in Games 1 and 2. Since then, Herro is shooting 25% on three-pointers and averaging 12.5 points while the Sixers are doing a better job of face-guarding him.
“Obviously bringing Jo back was the X-factor, but our confidence level remained high and we just kept that same swagger going into Game 3 and then going into Game 4 as well,” said Harden, who had 31 points in Game 4. “We’ve got to put a full game together in Game 5. … We’ve got to put a full game together on both ends of the ball to be able to go out there and get a win.”
But the Sixers still have areas to improve.
They’re committing too many turnovers, averaging 15.2 for the series and 18.0 over the last two games. The Sixers missed a bunch of wide-open shots and are having a tough time containing Jimmy Butler. The former Sixer averaged 36.5 points in the last two games.
“That was on me,” Embiid said of Butler scoring 40 points in Game 4, with 17 coming in the third quarter. “In the second half, I wasn’t as dominant defensively as I was in the first. Next game, I’m definitely going to be better. We’re making it too easy for him.”
While his presence is looming, Embiid has yet to play at the dominant offensive level he was accustomed to this season. In addition to the fracture, the five-time All-Star is dealing with a ligament tear in his right thumb.
“I’m not fully healthy,” he said. “Every single day, I’m getting better. Hopefully, by the time we get to Miami, I’m a little better and I’m able to be as dominant as I was before.
“As a team, we’re finding what works and what doesn’t so we just need to be focused about everything we do defensively and offensively.”