Philadelphia’s star center Joel Embiid returned from injury to help the re-energized 76ers beat the Miami Heat 99-79 on Friday, clawing back a game in their NBA playoff series.
Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks also avoided falling into a 3-0 hole with a 103-94 victory over the Phoenix Suns.
Embiid missed the Sixers’ double-digit losses in the first two games against Miami after he suffered a concussion and orbital fracture in the first-round, series-clinching win over Toronto.
With his return confirmed just shortly before tip-off in Philadelphia, Embiid scored 18 points and pulled down 11 rebounds as the 76ers trimmed the deficit in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference series to 2-1.
“I tried to push as much as I can, I’m glad that we got the win,” said MVP candidate Embiid, who played in a protective mask but was still clearly hurting when he took a hand to the face late in the game.
Danny Green drained seven of his nine three-point attempts on the way to 21 points for Philadelphia. Tyrese Maxey scored all 21 of his points in a scintillating second-half performance.
Maxey picked up the slack after former MVP James Harden keyed the Sixers before the break, when he scored 15 of his 17 points.
Jimmy Butler led the Heat with 33 points. Tyler Herro added 14 off the bench but point guard Kyle Lowry, back after missing four games with a hamstring strain, didn’t score.
While Embiid took time throughout the game to wipe his face and the inside of the mask, he ran the court and didn’t shy away from contact, his presence making a difference in a Sixers defense that held Miami to their second-lowest points total of the season.
Embiid, who is also playing with torn ligaments in his right thumb, certainly showed signs of rust and, late in the game, fatigue.
The Cameroonian, who was unable to do conditioning work while suffering concussion symptoms during the week, said he expects to improve.
“I didn’t think I had a lot of energy, honestly,” said Embiid, who said he dealt with “a bunch” of concussion symptoms during the week. “I was really trying to really get through it and kind of just use my presence out there as a decoy.
“I feel like what I pride myself on is really defensively and I feel that’s where my presence is really felt on the defensive end so that’s one of the main reasons why playing I thought I could have a huge impact.”
Up by four after the first quarter, the Sixers led 41-32 at halftime and never trailed in the second half.
After the Heat tied it at 57-57 in the third quarter, Maxey made his first basket of the night — a three-pointer — then came up with a steal and a layup that pushed the lead to 62-57.
Embiid drove through traffic to score at the rim and Philadelphia took a 68-65 lead into the final period that they pushed to 75-65 in the opening minutes of the fourth.
Both Philadelphia and Dallas avoided falling into a 3-0 hole. No NBA team has rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series.
Both teams will try to level their series when they host game fours on Sunday.
Mavs get job done
In Dallas, Luka Doncic came up just shy of a triple-double with 26 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists. And the Mavs’ Slovenian star finally got some support as Jalen Brunson scored 28 points to lead five Dallas players to score in double figures.
Most importantly, the Mavericks clamped down defensively on the top-seeded Suns, who were harried into 17 turnovers.
Jae Crowder led the Suns with 19 points while star point guard Chris Paul — celebrating his 37th birthday — was held to 12 and Devin Booker scored 18.
The Mavericks out-scored the Suns 50-32 in the paint and led them 16-10 in fastbreak points.
“We played with pace and we played defense,” Doncic said. “When we get stops, we’re a different team. If we play like this every game, we have a chance.
“Phoenix is an amazing team, they’re the number one team. It’s going to be tough to beat them any time, but we did our job today.”