Playoffs

Joel Embiid and the 76ers dig deep to top Miami, but now the real challenge begins

Joel Embiid and the 76ers dig deep to top Miami, but now the real challenge begins

PHILADELPHIA — Across the court, underneath the enormous jumbotron and the raucous cheers of Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night, Joel Embiid doubled over. Whether it was Tyrese Maxey or Kelly Oubre or cult hero Nicolas Batum stepping to the opposite foul line, Embiid would wade back to the defensive end, laboring with his 280-pound frame, to save himself for another frenetic sprint down the hardwood.

The suboptimal conditioning for the reigning MVP — still making his way back from a lengthy knee injury — was evident with each of his heavy breaths. He left bunnies bouncing off the iron and held the ball too long, working too slowly, as Miami’s swarming 2-3 zone gave him and his teammates fits all evening. And yet it was Embiid’s gutty fourth-quarter performance, with the help of Batum’s sizzling shooting, that shined through the muck of Philadelphia’s comeback from a 13-point second-half deficit, vanquishing rival Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat 105-104 to clinch the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and a first-round date with the New York Knicks.

“I didn’t play my best,” Embiid said. “I didn’t get to my spots the whole game, until the fourth quarter.”

Joel Embiid works against Miami’s Bam Adebayo as Jimmy Butler looks on during the third quarter Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

That was when Embiid nailed a trailing 3-pointer. He slung a rocket to Batum on the opposite wing. He knocked in another long ball. He finished a crucial and-one following an offensive rebound. For Embiid’s final tally of 23 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, he had to earn every single notch in the scorer’s book.

Miami crowded each of his touches, to the degree Philadelphia struggled to feed him the ball behind a maze of limbs and the Heat’s on-a-string rotations. The first two frames, with the Sixers totaling just 39 points at intermission, brought back familiar shades of Embiid and Philadelphia’s immense challenges against the Celtics during the final two bouts of last spring’s second round — all while his foil, Denver's Nikola Jokić, waltzed through the Western side of the playoff bracket. Those shortcomings against Boston, among other factors, are part of why Doc Rivers no longer mans the Sixers’ sideline and why Nick Nurse, who formerly coached Daryl Morey’s G League mad-science experiment in Rio Grande Valley, has been entrusted to help pilot Embiid and Co. beyond the second-round matchups they’ve never surpassed.

This whole organization understands that specific benchmark is what ultimately defines this year. Staving off Miami and avoiding the 8th seed and opening-round clash with those even-mightier Celtics offer one enormous step toward accomplishing the goal that’s eluded Embiid during his first seven seasons. And then, there will still lie those loftier aspirations of claiming the Sixers’ first title since 1983, despite the franchise proudly claiming the third-most playoff wins in NBA history. This type of grimy performance, particularly when things stall, when 11 first-half turnovers punctured Philly’s scoring attack against Miami, is one Sixers fans have been yearning to see from the man in the middle of their title hopes.

“I thought he competed. I thought he competed late, especially,” Nurse said, mentioning Embiid was repeatedly dragged by Bam Adebayo into pick-and-roll action on the other side of the floor as well. “Last few minutes, it’s not that easy, [Tyler] Herro’s coming off there 100 miles an hour, and Joel’s gotta be up on those screens.”

Maxey overcame his own admittedly passive approach that played its part in bogging the Sixers’ early offense. He played hot potato with other members of his backcourt around the perimeter. Nurse kept barking for Maxey to zip past whomever was standing in his way atop Miami’s 1-2-2 press that reverted into that stingy half-court 2-3. “I was telling him the entire time to make one pass, get it back and put his head down and go and collapse the defense,” Nurse said. With further counsel from Batum and veteran guard Cam Payne, who recently helped Phoenix reach the 2021 NBA Finals and sank a massive third-quarter triple off the bench Wednesday, Maxey managed to jet to the cup and create like he’s done all throughout his first All-Star campaign.

The 76ers broke free once they broke out of a 3-of-20 start from beyond the arc, connecting on five of their next seven attempts later in the third quarter. Batum rained fire from the corners and above the break, scoring a season-high 20 points on six 3-pointers. “He knew we needed to crack that zone with perimeter shooting,” Nurse said. “He found some areas to get to and he just kept pulling the trigger.”

And yet, it may have been Batum’s wilier contributions that solidified the Sixers’ win. He came from out of view to flip home Maxey’s miss on a whirring fast break. With just under a minute remaining, he crowded Herro to force a backcourt violation. Then he swatted Herro’s jumper with 24.5 to play. “He’s guarded from the small guys in the NBA, like Trae Young, to the tallest guy in the NBA in Wemby,” Maxey said. “Think about that.”

Philadelphia's Kyle Lowry chased a long, late rebound and guarded his close friend Butler, who suffered a knee injury that put his status for Friday's game in doubt, with a backyard physicality. Tobias Harris, for each of his off-the-mark jumpers, battled on both sides of the glass. Buddy Hield not only helped break the Sixers’ shooting slump, but found Paul Reed for a soaring alley-oop. The Sixers are sporting a veteran depth behind the top-level talent that shows why they were on pace to push 60 wins before Embiid went down with a knee injury.

They will travel north Friday, in all likelihood, before facing New York on Saturday at 6 p.m ET. Jalen Brunson and a platoon of centers await inside Madison Square Garden. The Knicks, though, played virtually zero zone defense this season under Tom Thibodeau. Embiid has time to recover. And the Sixers now have their next chance to prove they’ve built something sustainable around the 7-foot talent, in front of the world and right in front of the rival franchise widely known to covet his services in the event of Philadelphia’s demise.

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