Published On: Fri, Apr 20th, 2018

In Embiid's return, Sixers showcase what they learned without him

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The big story coming into Game 3 of Philly-Miami on Thursday night was that 76ers center Joel Embiid was finally going to stop being babied; he was going to return – masked up – from an orbital bone fracture that had cost him 10 games, and make his much-anticipated playoff debut.

That storyline didn’t disappoint, despite a few hiccups. Embiid didn’t hit his first field goal until late in the second quarter, but when he did, it was a smooth 3-ball right in Kelly Olynyk‘s eye, which he reacted to by shushing the Heat crowd. He may have gotten off to a ragged and rusty offensive start, struggling to finish at the rim or get much going in the post, clanking an alley-oop attempt, getting blocked by Justise Winslow on a dunk in semi-transition, and losing two masks – one when Winslow stomped on it, the other when he smashed it himself – but he still protected the hell out of the rim and proved to be a massive problem for the Heat front line, drawing 10 fouls and shooting a game-high 15 free throws. All told, he finished with a game-high 23 points to go along with seven rebounds, four assists, a steal, and three blocks in 30 minutes.

But for all that, in what ultimately amounted to a 20-point shellacking of the Heat, Philadelphia actually performed better with Embiid on the bench, winning those 18 minutes by 11. That would’ve been unthinkable early in the season, when the Sixers were dangerously dependent on their injury-prone star center. Before he got his face broken in a collision with teammate Markelle Fultz, the Sixers were just 3-8 in games Embiid sat out, and had been outscored by 3.9 points per 100 possessions when he wasn’t on the floor.

But something clicked after he went down, and the team quickly figured out how to play, and dominate, without him. They discovered a new identity. The 76ers spread the floor with an army of shooters around Ben Simmons, amped up their defensive ball pressure, ran off every miss, and feasted in the open floor. They won their final eight Embiid-less games of the regular season with a league-best net rating of 15.5, as well as the league’s highest rebound rate, assist ratio, and pace (about four possessions per game faster than they’d been playing before).

They scored 21 points per game off turnovers (another league-best mark), while slashing their own turnover rate from dead last in the league to eighth. They shot more threes, and shot them more effectively, with buyout-market All-Stars Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova helping to turn a point of weakness into a strength. Simmons had been outstanding all season, but he was fully unleashed when he was able to take the reins of the offense himself, operate in space, and have the post to himself on an inverted floor with Ilyasova and Dario Saric popping out to the arc.

That Sixers team was still very much on display for parts of Thursday’s game. They played 12 possessions per 48 minutes faster with Embiid on the bench, as Simmons tossed pinpoint hit-ahead passes and Saric beat the Heat down the floor. They continued to play with their newfound offensive discipline, committing just 10 turnovers (Embiid contributed three of them), and they shot 18-of-34 from 3-point range, finally breaking Miami’s spirit with a fourth-quarter barrage.

Let’s be clear: They still killed the Heat with Embiid on the floor, and their change-of-pace lineups almost certainly wouldn’t have been as effective over the course of a full game. The Sixers were far better when Simmons played without Embiid than when Embiid played without Simmons (an inversion from their regular-season pattern) but they were at their best, by far, when the two played together, posting a 135 offensive rating and 33.7 net rating in 24 minutes.

To get where they’re trying to go (which is, increasingly, looking like a reachable destination), they absolutely need a healthy Embiid. He is still their biggest matchup advantage, their best defender, and their best player, period. But in a strange way, his injury may have been a blessing in disguise. Because Thursday night’s game, as much as it was ostensibly about Embiid’s return, wound up demonstrating just how far the Sixers have come in understanding who they are, and how good they can be, even when he’s not on the floor.

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