Brett Brown is thoroughly enjoying the moment.
The 76ers coach and Toronto Raptors boss Nick Nurse are partaking in guessing games and game-plan switches in their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
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“This is my favorite time of the year to coach,” said Brown, who won four NBA titles as a San Antonio Spurs assistant.
He talked about sharing his Spurs playoff experiences with the Sixers in game preparation.
“This time of year is as exciting as it gets with the job that I have,” Brown said.
So far, he’s doing a solid job of keeping Nurse guessing.
The Sixers improved to 2-1 in the best-of-seven series after their 116-95 victory Thursday night in Game 3 at the Wells Fargo Center. Game 4 will be at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the arena.
The Raptors got the best of the Sixers in Game 1. Brown made adjustments that led to a Game 2 victory. Then he did it again Thursday.
Seventy-four percent of Game 3 winners in series split after the first two games have gone on to win best-of-seven series.
Joel Embiid’s big game, Brown’s coaching adjustments, and a full complement of rotation players aided the Sixers.
Embiid had his best performance of the series with 33 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 blocks before exiting the game with 5 minutes, 1 second remaining, He graded out with a game-best plus-31.
Displaying a lot of emotion after several made baskets, Embiid was obviously having more fun than in the previous two games.
“I think for everybody that knows me, knows that I need it,” he said of getting loose after plays. "When I have fun, my game just changes. You know I’m always told if I don’t smile during the game, I’m either having a bad game or I’m not into it.
“So I know to get my game going, I have to have fun on the court.”
He also gets his game going by getting to the foul line. The 25-year-old got there, making 12 of 13 free throws. He also hit 3 of 4 three-pointers.
For Brown, the thing that stands out about Embiid’s performance is his five blocks.
“You know we can talk about a windmill dunk,” the coach said. "You can talk about some finesse post moves and that, but I go to defense. That’s what interest me the most to date with the series.
“When we talk about whatever we are going to talk about, my mind goes straight there. He is are crown jewel defensively as well as offensively, too.”
Brown was asked if Embiid is the best player in the series when healthy.
The coach took a drink from his bottle of water, leaned into the microphone and said, “Yes.”
Jimmy Butler again showed why he complements Embiid.
The swingman added 22 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals, and a block. The Sixers’ other starters, JJ Redick (15 points), Tobias Harris (13 points, eight rebounds), and Ben Simmons (10, seven rebounds, sevens assists), also scored in double digits, as did and reserve James Ennis (10 points).
This was a huge bounce-back game for Embiid.
In the first two games of the series, he averaged 14 points while shooting just 28 percent (7-for-25). He attempted only seven shots -- making two -- in the 94-89 Game 2 victory Monday in Toronto. The center was battling gastroenteritis during that game.
But he was healthy and motivated Thursday.
The two-time All-Star went to the team’s practice facility Thursday morning to work on his game. By nighttime, it didn’t take long for him to work on the Raptors.
He scored seven of the Sixers’ first 11 points en route to nine points in the first quarter. By haftime, Embiid was up to 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks, and his only blemishes were his three turnovers. He didn’t turn the ball over after intermission.
“He played with great energy and great decision-making,” Nurse said. “He was rolling really hard to the basket. When he looked us in the eye for most of his face-up [shots], he made most of those, as well. And when they kicked it out to him from three, he made those too.”
The Sixers also made some solid adjustments.
In the first game, Kawhi Leonard (45 points) and Pascal Siakam (29) torched the Sixers for a combined 74 points. So in the second game, Simmons was the primary defender on Leonard while Embiid drew Siakam. Greg Monroe replaced Boban Marjanovic as the backup center, and the Sixers reduced their rotation.
On Thursday, the Sixers started Butler on Leonard as in Game 1 before Simmons drew the assignment. Embiid was the primary defender on Marc Gasol, as in the first game.
In the second half, Embiid drew Siakam and Simmons was on Leonard, who managed to finish with 33 points. Siakam added 20.
The Sixers also welcomed Mike Scott (five points) back into their rotation.
The reserve power forward returned after missing the first two games of the series with a heel contusion/plantar fasciitis in his right foot. He injured his heel in the series-clinching Game 5 against the Brooklyn Nets on April 23.
“I hated not playing,” Scott said of missing the first two games of this series.
As expected, Monroe (four points) also played Thursday. The reserve center suffered a game-ending sprained left ankle in the third quarter of Game 2.
The Sixers were clinging to a six-point lead until they brought their entire starting lineup back in with 2 minutes, 50 seconds left in the half.
That unit went on a 10-2 run to put the Sixers up 14 points with 1:28 before intermission.
The Raptors pulled within seven points at the start of the fourth quarter. But they didn’t get any closer than that.
Things got a little testy when Siakam lifted his leg while on the court under the Raptors basket to trip Embiid with 10:05 remaining. The center fell to the court and players got in between the Cameroonians. Siakam was called for a Flagrant 1 foul.
“Embiid, that is my guy,” Siakam said. “I wouldn’t want to hurt him. Something I thought was a no-call. I was frustrated. I didn’t like doing that. I didn’t mean to hurt him. Passion of the game and things happen.”