The Philadelphia 76ers welcomed back its masked man in Game 3.
The real comeback story, though, turned out be the return of the Sixers' three-point shooting touch.
After knocking down a franchise-record 18 three-pointers in its Game 1 win and then going ice cold in a Game 2 loss, Philadelphia regained homecourt advantage in its first round playoff series with a 128-108 victory over the Miami Heat Thursday night at AmericanAirlines Arena by rekindling its stroke beyond the arc.
"A lot of it was similar to the first game," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of his team's defensive breakdowns as the Sixers finished 18 of 34 from three-point range to take a 2-1 series lead. "Some of it was off the dribble and with clock. Some of it we just didn't get them off the line. They have a team of very good three-point shooters. It's going to require more. It's as simple as that to get our defense all the way extended past the three-point line and get them uncomfortable doing it.
"It's clear the first game and the third game were played on their terms. We do not want this to be a crawl. Not that's how we play either. But we certainly don't want these crawling into 130s. That's definitely in their wheelhouse. And we paid the price for that."
Embiid, playing his first game in the series and for the first time since he fractured an orbital bone near his left eye on March 28, led the way for Philadelphia with 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists in 30 minutes. He also knocked down three 3-pointers despite wearing a mask and goggles that clearly were uncomfortable.
"I am proud of what he did on the court and the professionalism he showed," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "Not only was he injured, but he had to play in a playoff game on the road in a mask. It's not like there is a clear vision line out of the mask. It has protective lens in there as well. For him to come back under those terms and produce the results he produced and lead us to a playoff win, I'm proud of him."
Embiid was hardly alone. Marco Belinelli and Dario Saric continued to kill the Heat in this series. Each knocked down four three-point attempts and finished with 21 points.
"Every time we had them at the end of the clock, the last five or six seconds, in some of the big possessions Belinelli had the ball in his hands and took advantage of that," Spoelstra said. "Two or three of them were three or four steps behind the line with a couple seconds left or the buzzer on the clock. He's in a great rhythm right now."
The Heat, which led at halftime and trailed by only two points entering the fourth quarter, finished 16 of 33 from three-point range itself. But the Sixers, which also got 19 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists from rookie Ben Simmons, proved to be too much in the fourth quarter.
“Obviously, they hit shots," Heat forward Justise Winslow said. "Our offense got kind of stagnant. But I think the biggest thing is mentally we lost that focus and that intensity for two, three minutes. Once the shots started going in, we started to become disconnected. I think that was a big part of that fourth quarter.”
Winslow had a phenomenal first half for the Heat offensively. He scored 19 points and made four three-pointers. But he didn't score in the second half. He did finish with 10 rebounds, a pair of blocks and several more inspiring moments on defense. He even stepped on Embiid's goggles, too, for good measure.
"He kept throwing it on the ground," Winslow said. "So I don’t know if he didn’t like it or what."
Said Embiid: "Justise stepped on it and tried to break it with his hands. Little do they know, I have about 50 of them. It’s going to take much more of that to get me out of the series. I’m going to be a nightmare for them, too.”
Goran Dragic led the Heat with 23 points and eight assists. Josh Richardson added 14 points and James Johnson finished with 12.
Dwyane Wade, the hero for the Heat in Game 2 with 28 points, finished with eight points on 2 of 10 shooting.
Hassan Whiteside, who scored six points, grabbed 10 rebounds and played a total of 28 minutes in the two games played in Philadelphia, once again played very little for Miami and reiterated his desire for more playing time. Plagued by foul trouble, Whiteside finished with five points, two rebounds and a block in a little over 13 minutes.
Whiteside picked up his fourth foul guarding Embiid with 8:27 to play in the third quarter and didn't return until early in the fourth quarter. He played only two minutes in the fourth quarter and was yanked after making his only field goal attempt, a dunk on a lob from Wade with 8:41 remaining.
"He might not necessarily put up the numbers, but its part of my job to figure it out and figure out how he can get to his strengths and be an impact player for us," Spoelstra said. "It starts with the defense, the rebounding. It's a lot of responsibilities for us offensively. I'll spend sometime working that out in the next day and a half."
Before Embiid and the Sixers outscored the Heat 32-14 in the fourth quarter, Miami and Philadelphia played a wild back and fourth game through three quarters that featured 17 lead changes. In all, there were 56 personal fouls between the teams and six technical fouls including a pair of physical taunting fouls on Wade and Sixers reserve guard Justin Anderson after they got involved in a small skirmish near the basket with 10:26 left in the second quarter.
"He came into the game to be a tough guy," Wade said. "The refs didn’t do nothing about it. So I did."
Now the question is if the Heat can do anything new to slow the Sixers again.
Game 4 is Saturday at 2:30 p.m.