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Masked Man Saves the Day: A Joel Embiid Story

Joel Embiid wasn’t wearing a cape, but he used a heroic effort in Game 3 to get the Sixers back in their series with the Heat.

Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Three Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

In the movie The Dark Knight Rises, the villain Bane breaks Batman’s back, and then leaves him in an underground prison to watch as the city of Gotham is torn to shreds.

While Joel Embiid being forced to watch as his team dropped back-to-back games in South Beach isn’t quite as catastrophic, it did put the Sixers in a precarious position.

“It was very annoying,” Joel Embiid said. “Obviously we didn’t make shots, but we also made a lot of mistakes … it was offensive rebounding, turnovers. Their big fella, Bam, was dominating, and I was really pissed off watching another big man play well against my team. It’s unfortunate. Can’t take it back, so we’ve just got to focus on next game.”

After watching his team fall down 2-0 on the road in Miami, Embiid — with a mask to protect his broken face, tape to stabilize the torn ligament in his thumb, and just a day removed from clearing concussion protocols — looked like a superhero in guiding the Sixers to a 99-79 win over the Heat Friday.

“Thumb, mask, concussion, broken face — make him look even uglier now,” Tyrese Maxey joked postgame. “But nah, he’s resilient, man. He’s the MVP for a reason. Just the attention that he demands is great for us. It’s just a testimony to his will and to his wanting to win.”

In typical Embiid fashion, there was no lack of drama. Reports circulated early this week that there was “optimism” the All-Star center could be back for Game 3 or 4. Over the course of the week, there were breadcrumbs all around to suggest that he would play ... but maybe not.

Embiid was listed as “out” Thursday ... but with a chance he could still clear concussion protocol and play. Then Embiid cleared protocol and participated in shootaround Friday ... but was still listed as out ... with the hope he could still play. His status was eventually changed to doubtful ... but if Embiid was comfortable with his custom-designed mask, he could play.

It was a roller coaster ride in the Delaware Valley, but when Embiid took the court to warm up, you felt it. There was no way this guy, who sat for two years with a navicular bone fracture, who already played with a broken face before, who played through a torn meniscus last postseason, who powered the Sixers to the second round with that wonky thumb, was going to miss this game.

The Process rises.

“He’s doing everything it [takes] for us to win,” Danny Green said, “and that’s even giving himself up — his body. But he’s a warrior, and he’s shown that time and time again regardless of the situation … and he wants to win. ... I can’t imagine playing with a mask on your face, but hopefully he gets used to it and gets back to his normal self. But even when he’s not his normal self, he helps us a ton with our offensive flow and structure, and defensive rebounding.”

Embiid finished with 18 points on 5 of 12 shooting and 11 rebounds, but don’t let the stat line belie the profound impact he had.

Through the first two games of the series, the Heat got what they wanted at the rim. In Games 1 and 2, Miami scored a combined 94 points in the paint while shooting 47 percent from the field. The Heat had just 28 points in the paint while shooting 35.1 percent in Game 3. Embiid also shifted the battle on the glass. After getting outrebounded 91-71 in Miami, the Sixers won the battle on the boards Friday, 44-35.

“Just his presence, obviously,” Doc Rivers said. “To start the game, his energy, his rebounding, his ability at the basket. I’ve said it all year — you could see his timing was off a little bit, but his presence defensively, I don’t think he gets enough credit for how good of a defensive player he is and how much he helps us. And I thought tonight, it was a lot of that.”

Embiid’s ascension to a perennial MVP candidate and the NBA’s leading scorer has seemingly overshadowed how great he is defensively. He’s been a second team All-Defense pick three times and was a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year, an award he coveted long before getting MVP consideration.

But now 28 and in his sixth season, Embiid hasn’t played through a litany of injures to take home individual awards.

He wants a ring.

“My main goal is I really want to win, and I feel like we have a big chance to win it all,” Embiid said. “Obviously we’ve got to stay healthy and we all have to play well at the same time. We’ve all got to be damn near perfect. To me, that’s what I signed up for. Whatever it’s going to take me to win, that’s what I’m going to do.”

While that phrase that Embiid has used was said by Bane, Embiid played the hero Friday night. There were plenty of great moments from Maxey, Green, James Harden, and Tobias Harris as well.

Perhaps it was the line uttered by Tom Hardy’s character right before that that resonates more with Embiid and the Sixers.

It doesn’t matter who we are, what matters is our plan.