The Philadelphia 76ers drafted Joel Embiid nearly four years ago with the third overall pick in the 2014 draft. Since then, Sixers fans have experienced the highs of his outstanding play across 94 regular season games, and the lows associated with numerous injuries and countless hours of practice and pregame workout video poured over awaiting a return. Following the latest setback in the form of an orbital bone fracture, the city of Philadelphia went through the full range of emotions Thursday, as Embiid’s status changed from doubtful to probable to officially in the starting lineup for his postseason debut in Game 3 against the Miami Heat.
Having gone over three weeks since last playing an NBA game, and donning a series of specially constructed carbon and polycarbonate masks with built-in visors, it would have been completely understandable for Embiid to struggle due to some combination of rust and discomfort. Yet, while he took some time to find his bearings offensively, the big man was undeniably a defensive force throughout the evening.
Thanks to ridiculously hot outside shooting from the Johnsons, Justise Winslow, and Josh Richardson, the Heat had their best offensive performance of the series in Game 3, but it was due to no fault of Embiid. Philadelphia’s defensive rating went from 106.9 with Embiid on the court to 114.4 with him on the bench.
You need look no further to view Embiid’s impact that by examining how Miami shot the ball around the basket. The Heat shot 53.6% from less than 5 feet in the first 2 games of the series. Thursday night, they were 6-18 (33.3%) on those same shots.
Embiid collected his first of 3 blocks on the game just a few minutes into the contest, blocking James Johnson in the lane and quickly establishing that Miami would not be getting any more easy shots at the rim this series.
Even on plays when he didn’t record a block, Embiid acted as a huge deterrent at the rim. One possession after Embiid’s block of Johnson, Josh Richardson is flustered by the 7-foot goliath under the basket (in addition to an onrushing Ben Simmons) and is whistled for a travel.
Of course, as we’ve seen this series with Hassan Whiteside, big men have to be able to do much more defensively than simply protect the paint. Part of Embiid’s incredible ceiling defensively involves his mobility to defend out to the three-point line.
In the third quarter, Embiid does an excellent job hedging a screen on Tyler Johnson. With the shot clock running down, Johnson forces an ill-advised pass for a turnover. Even if Johnson had been better composed with more time on the clock, you can see Embiid hustling to recover to his man as part of textbook pick-and-roll defense.
With the Game 3 victory, the Sixers have recaptured home court advantage in the series. They have survived the inevitable Dwyane Wade explosion game and a night where nearly every Miami wing couldn’t miss from behind the arc. With Embiid back patrolling the paint and looking like he hasn’t missed a beat defensively, it’s difficult to envision Miami scraping together enough offense to win three more games this series. Embiid may need to continue wearing a mask, but there’s no hiding the fact that the Sixers are the better team and should advance to Round 2.