The Phantom of the Process is back — and, for the Philadelphia 76ers, not a moment too soon.
Joel Embiid returned after missing more than a week with a facial fracture and concussion to play 36 minutes, score 18 points and grab 11 rebounds to lead his 76ers to a 99-79 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 3 of this Eastern Conference semifinal, pulling Philadelphia back into the series after dropping the opening two games.
“No,” Embiid said, when asked if there was ever a moment when he thought he wouldn’t return to the series. “When it happened, after we figured out what really happened, I didn’t think about [the possibility of not playing].
“I just thought about what I was going to do to make sure that I was back at any point in that series, whether it was Game One or Game Two or Game Three or Game Four. I was just doing really whatever possible, whatever that’s possible to try to come back.”
Embiid spent the past several days dealing with the after-effects of the concussion he suffered when he was hit in the face with an elbow by Raptors forward Pascal Siakam in Philadelphia’s victory over Toronto in Game 6 of their first round series last week.
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He was finally cleared from the league’s concussion protocols Thursday, but said he needed to see how he responded to working out Thursday before it could officially be determined whether he would be able to play.
Ultimately, he was announced as part of the starting lineup after taking the court for his customary workout about 45 minutes before tip — one he went through while wearing the mask he would need to wear in the game.
“I can only imagine how difficult it is,” said James Harden, who had 17 points and six assists in 38 minutes. “I mean, I’ve had a concussion before, so just to come off a concussion, and obviously his face is swollen, still got a hand problem.
“But it was game time. It was winning time. It’s the playoffs. Joel knew how much we needed him, and he delivered. His dominance on both ends of the ball is very important to this team, it’s very valuable to this team.
“That’s why he’s the MVP and we fed off that and we got to just continue to keep pushing.”
Before the game, 76ers coach Doc Rivers said he wasn’t sure if Embiid would be limited in his minutes because of the lack of conditioning time he’d been able to have over the past week as he dealt with the concussion.
In the end, though, Embiid was able to play 36 minutes — including the first 15 minutes of the second half, after some lobbying of Rivers to keep him in to start the fourth quarter after Miami had cut Philadelphia’s lead down to 3.
Afterward, Embiid admitted that he was struggling with his conditioning all game long, and said he thought he’d be much better when things resume here Sunday night in Game 4.
“I didn’t think I had a lot of energy, honestly,” Embiid said. “I was really trying to, you know, really get through it, and kinda just use my presence out there as a decoy.
“What I pride myself on is really defensively and I feel that’s where, you know, my presence is really felt on the defensive and so that’s really one of the main reasons why playing I thought I could have a huge impact.”
Embiid said he was “pissed off” watching Bam Adebayo demolish the 76ers in Games 1 and 2 while he watched from home, unable to help. In Game 3, Adebayo — who had averaged 23.5 points and 10.5 rebounds while shooting 15-for-21 across the first two games of the series — was all but erased from the proceedings, finishing with nine points, three rebounds and one assist, while picking up five fouls, in 33 minutes.
“He [made] a big impact,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This is what you have to expect. He’s an MVP-caliber player. He’s also usually in the running for defensive player of the year. You have to be very intentional on both ends.
“We’re not expecting it to be easy. They were a very good team all year; so were we. We were expecting him to be available all series. We’ll just have to figure it out.”
Because Embiid didn’t speak to the media after Game 6 and had been out ever since with the concussion, he also addressed, for the first time, the play where he suffered the injury. Embiid said that he didn’t believe that Siakam, who is a fellow native of Cameroon, didn’t intentionally hit him with the elbow.
He also gave a very long, thoughtful answer on the interactions between fans and players in general in today’s NBA, including hearing “F— Embiid” chants throughout the series and how the fans there reacted after he was struck in the face.
“I don’t think it was intentional,” Embiid said. “That’s my guy, obviously. It’s unfortunate. I don’t think he meant to do it. But, you know, I was more irritated by the perception of when that happened by really the fans and I’ve always thought they have great fans, but I kind of changed my mind about, you know, the fans up there. Whether it throughout the series, the ‘F—‘ chants and all that stuff. That’s cool.
“It never gets to me, anyways. I think they got mad because I did the airplane celebration, but it’s been going on in a few arenas these days where, the fans, they just feel like, it’s okay to just say ‘F— somebody.’ There’s a bunch of kids in the arena. I don’t think that should be OK, even if there wasn’t kids, but it’s almost like, if you respond to it is almost like, in the Draymond situation, the league fines you.
“It doesn’t bother me. I’m just speaking for, really, everybody in the NBA. Like I said, if you give it you also got to be able to take it. And I’ve said it about our fans too, when they boo. If the players are gonna go back, you got to be able to take it, too.”
Embiid’s presence — a word used many times by Rivers and Embiid’s teammates during postgame availabilities to describe his impact — was too much for the Heat to take in Game 3, even with the return of Kyle Lowry. After missing the past four games with his own hamstring injury, Lowry played 25 minutes in his hometown Friday, missing all four shots he took and going scoreless while dishing out three assists.
“I had one good day of working out,” Lowry said afterward. “I just got to find the rhythm. I didn’t expect to be amazing tonight. I didn’t expect to have zero points, but just try to get a feel for the game, just be out there, especially in this hostile situation I wanted to be out there with my group.
“We got to bounce back and continue to get ready for next game.”
For his part, Embiid had a similar message for his team.
“We’re down 2-1, so we got a long way to go,” he said.
“We can’t go down 3-1. So we really need this game on Sunday.”
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