Philadelphia 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid has been a spectator for the past ten games after a collision with teammate Markelle Fultz on March 28 resulted in a concussion and a fractured orbital bone that required surgery. Embiid, who averages 22.9 points and 11.0 rebounds, has cleared the league’s concussion protocol and is progressing to being physically cleared to play.
Whether that happens ahead of Thursday’s pivotal Game 3 is uncertain, but 76ers coach Brett Brown addressed reporters before Tuesday’s practice and said, “there is a very unified effort with his representation and the people around him. With the people that did the operation, the doctors, with our medical staff, with the team, with me, the coaching staff. We’re all doing this. There’s a unified sort of spirit and line of communication.”
While Philadelphia won all eight games he missed to close the regular season as part of a 16-game winning streak and stormed to a 130-103 rout in Game 1 on Saturday, Embiid has been chomping at the bit to play. This is understandable considering the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft has yet to play in the postseason in his career and more than tripled his games played after appearing in 63 in 2017/18.
Perhaps it was the frustration of seeing his team lose 113-103 on Monday night that allowed Miami to steal away home-court advantage and knot this series at one game apiece, but Embiid vented his spleen at being on the sidelines in a one-sentence post on Instagram that included the F-word as he said he was “sick and tired of being babied.”
Monday’s loss marked the first time in nearly a month the 76ers lost a game, which had as much to do with a horrid second quarter in which they totaled 13 points and their poor shooting throughout from 3-point range (7 for 36) as it did Heat guard Dwyane Wade rolling back the years with a vintage 28-point performance off the bench in just 26 minutes. The 36-year-old hit his first seven shots, finished 11 for 16 and had a key steal and bucket with 4:03 left that blunted a 76ers rally after they had closed within two.
Miami also got a strong effort from James Johnson, who hit all seven of his shots and finished with 18 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals. Goran Dragic added 20 points and Kelly Olynyk had 11 and six assists as the Heat snapped a four-game postseason road losing streak that started with a Game 2 loss to the Toronto Raptors in the 2016 conference semifinals.
Three keys to the game
Whiteside's limited minutes - Unless Heat center Hassan Whiteside gets aggressive, he will not play much. The seven-footer logged just 27 minutes in the two games in Philadelphia, finishing with six points and 11 rebounds while also committing five turnovers, and that was facing Amir Johnson and Ersan Ilyasova.
Olynyk's all-around game has better suited Erik Spoelstra's needs on the offensive end, and unless Embiid comes back, the Heat coach has little incentive to give Whiteside more minutes until he warrants them.
Brown limiting the Embiid distraction - It is easy to include 76ers coach Brett Brown among those worthy of NBA Coach of the Year based on the 24-win improvement from last season. but watching him defuse the controversy surrounding Embiid's Instagram post show just how much he "gets it" when you consider how he has grown up with this team's core.
The timing of Embiid's post could not have been worse and easily could have been a distraction with the extra day off ahead of Game 3, but Brown got out in front of it Tuesday and defended his center unequivocally, saying, "He just wants to play basketball," Brown said. "He wants to be with his team. He wants to play in front of the fans. He wants to see this through. When he's not able to do that, he gets frustrated."
Is Fultz a liability for the 76ers? - It was not surprising that the 76ers included No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz on their postseason roster despite him playing only 14 regular-season games, including the final ten. But the learning curve for any rookie is steep, especially when trying to crack a late-season rotation. It was a calculated risk, and it backfired in Game 2 when Wade got going with Fultz guarding him, hitting two quick baskets that resulted in Fultz getting yanked for the night.
While the rookie is a good ball-handler and can create his own shot, Brown will have to leverage his use of Fultz and hide him defensively in terms of matchups.
Matchup to watch
J. J. Redick and Robert Covington vs Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson - The $64,000 question facing Redick and Covington is, was Monday's loss a fluke or did the Heat figure out something defensively? It seems unlikely Redick and Covington will go a combined two for 16 from 3-point range again, especially Redick considering he's hit 47.4 percent of his long-range attempts in his last 11 games even counting Monday's defeat.
Richardson is a versatile defensive menace who guarded Redick, Covington, Dario Saric and Marco Belinelli on Monday night and finished with three blocks and nine deflections. Miami will need more efforts like that the rest of the series if they are going to pull an upset.
Philadelphia 76ers projected starting lineup
PG - Ben Simmons | SG - J. J. Redick | C - Ersan Ilyasova | SF - Robert Covington | PF - Dario Saric
Miami Heat projected starting lineup
PG - Goran Dragic | SG - Tyler Johnson | C - Hassan Whiteside | SF - Josh Richardson | PF - James Johnson
Ben Simmons had arguably the quietest 24 points, nine rebounds and eight assists one could have in a playoff game, but the rookie continues to be a must play for DFS purposes. He has totaled 41 points, 22 assists and 18 rebounds in his first two career playoff games and has now averaged 16.7 points, 8.5 assists and 8.3 rebounds in six matchups with Miami.
While Saric was on the wrong end of a key play late that thwarted Philadelphia's rally, he did finish with 23 points, nine rebounds and four steals as he recorded his third straight 20-point game overall. He is ten for 23 from 3-point range in that stretch and has averaged 20.0 points and 8.3 rebounds in the overall season series against the Heat.
Olynyk continues to be a viable low-cost option for DFS after totaling 37 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in the two games at Philadelphia while making five of eight from beyond the arc and 12 of 21 overall. He has scored in double figures in all but one of his five games versus the 76ers and has averaged 15.0 points while shooting 55.8 percent.
Johnson matched his point total in the four regular-season meetings between the teams with his two-game total of 31 points in Philadelphia. The challenge is getting him to play that way at home where he has scored just four points on two-of-nine shooting in the two games in Miami.
The 76ers are two-point favorites, with the line moving three points in their favor since its open despite going 0-3-1 against the spread in their last four meetings in Miami and 1-3-1 in the last five matchups overall.
Philadelphia, though, are 12-4 versus the number in their last 16 games overall and 9-3 in their last 12 when facing conference rivals. The 76ers are also 4-1 against the spread in their last five road games and 5-1-1 in the game following a straight up loss.
Miami are 15-7 against the spread in their last 22 first-round playoff games but also have covered just once in their last five home games. They are 18-5-3 versus the number in their last 26 outings against above-.500 teams.
The over/under has remained at 216 points since its open, with both teams having conflicting trends. The over is 5-1 in Philadelphia's last six games versus conference rivals and 5-2 overall, but the under has a 5-1 mark in their last six first-round playoff games. The over is 4-1-1 in Miami's last six outings versus Atlantic Division teams and 5-1 in their last six against teams with a winning percentage above .600, but the under has delivered five times in their last six first-round playoff games.
Outlier or trend? That is the question about Miami's Game 2 performance as the scene moves to South Beach for the next two games. It is easy to say the 76ers will not hit less than 20 percent of their 3-point shots again or that Wade will not light them up for 28 points again, but the 76ers are still the great unknown of this postseason.
No one knows how they will respond to a hostile postseason atmosphere, with the white-out at AmericanAirlines Arena one of the more intimidating venues in the NBA. And no one knows if Embiid will see playing time in this game, though it would not be surprising to see him come off the bench in short bursts to spell Ersan Ilysaova since fellow center Amir Johnson is more of a defensive-first player.
The Heat now have a blueprint to follow to take a series lead, but having the 36-year-old Wade carry the offense can only last for so long, especially since Brown now knows he cannot use Fultz to guard him. That is why Miami need Olynyk, Johnson and to a lesser extent Richardson to continue playing well offensively.
The quicker the 76ers settle into this game, the better their chances are of regaining home-court advantage. Little, if anything, has fazed Simmons throughout the season, and Redick has enough veteran poise to shake off one bad outing. It is how Covington and Saric respond that will provide the clues to Philadelphia's maturity. Saric has played well of late, Covington needs to play well for the 76ers to thrive.
This should be a tight game, but Miami will hold serve and take a 2-1 lead with a 101-98 victory.
The game will be televised nationally on TNT and nationally in Canada on TSNN. It will also be televised locally on NBC Sports Philadelphia and Fox Sports Sun. Tip-off time is 7 pm EDT.
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