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Joel Embiid’s Heroics Power 76ers Past Heat in Play-In Thriller



The Philadelphia 76ers know that as long as Joel Embiid is on the floor, they always have a puncher’s chance in the postseason. Their MVP candidate center proved that yet again on Wednesday night, rising to the occasion with a series of clutch plays down the stretch to lift the 76ers past the Miami Heat 105-104 in an intense Eastern Conference play-in tournament game.

With the victory, Philadelphia secured the No. 7 seed and a first-round playoff matchup against the No. 2 seeded New York Knicks starting this Saturday at Madison Square Garden. For the Heat, their path becomes much tougher – they’ll have to win another play-in game on Friday to earn the 8th seed and a daunting series against the NBA’s best team, the Boston Celtics.

This hard-fought play-in battle had all the intensity of a Game 7, and fittingly, it was Embiid who made all the game’s biggest plays in crunch time. Though he got off to a quiet start with just 9 points through three quarters, the 7-foot center simply took over when it mattered most.

Trailing 85-71 early in the fourth quarter, the 76ers were in danger of a disappointing play-in exit before Embiid flipped the switch. He scored 10 points in the final period, none bigger than a go-ahead three-pointer from the top of the arc with 2:33 remaining that gave Philadelphia a 93-91 lead and sent the home crowd into hysterics.

“Once that shot went down, you could just feel the energy in the building completely change,” said 76ers teammate Tobias Harris. “Jo has that ability to make plays that can completely swing a game’s momentum. He’s a guy you always want with the ball in his hands at the biggest moments.”

As has so often been the case, the Philly faithful had spent much of the night raining boos on their own team as Miami built its double-digit lead. But Embiid’s huge triple seemed to awaken the slumbering 76ers, and that partisan crowd quickly went from frustrated to frenzied as the hosts caught fire.

Embiid wasn’t done making clutch plays, however. After Philadelphia blew that 93-91 lead moments later, he drew a foul on a strong take to the rim and calmly drained a go-ahead three-point play for a 96-94 advantage with just over a minute remaining.

On the very next possession, Embiid’s heads-up play sealed the victory. With the score knotted at 96, Miami’s Tyler Herro was whistled for a backcourt violation. The big man alertly fed Kelly Oubre Jr. underneath for an easy deuce, and the veteran swingman calmly sank the free throw for a 99-96 76ers edge they would not relinquish.

“What can you say about Jo, he just stepped up and made all the winning plays down the stretch like he’s done so many times before,” said 76ers head coach Doc Rivers. “He struggled a bit early on, but stayed with it and carried us across the finish line. That’s what great players do.”

While Embiid stole the spotlight in crunch time, it took gritty contributions from up and down Philadelphia’s roster to even put them in position for their star to close it out. Veteran sharpshooters like Nicolas Batum and Buddy Hield knocked down huge threes to fuel the 76ers’ furious fourth-quarter rally.

Batum poured in 20 points off the bench on 6-of-10 shooting from deep. His barrage of triples steadied Philadelphia after they fell into that daunting second-half hole. Hield chipped in 14 points, burying several big shots of his own.

“We tried to stick with it and fight all night, and those guys really helped us weather the storm until Jo could take over late,” said Batum. “It took a total team effort from all of us to pull this one out.”

On the losing side, Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro had strong offensive performances that nearly led Miami to the playoff-promised land. Butler finished with 19 points, while Herro poured in a team-high 25 points while knocking down several tough, contested jumpers.

Ultimately though, it was Herro’s late turnover that played a critical role in the Heat’s undoing. His backcourt violation trying to split Philadelphia’s trap set up Embiid’s clinching assist to Oubre in the closing moments.  

While the loss was surely a disappointment for Miami, they still have an opportunity to make the playoffs through Friday’s play-in game against the winner of the Chicago/Atlanta contest. However, if they advance, a brutally tough opening-round matchup against the juggernaut Celtics awaits.

That’s a far cry from the path Philadelphia has carved out for itself by securing the 7th seed. Taking on New York and the emerging star duo of Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett presents its own set of challenges. But the 76ers have to feel far better about their chances against the Knicks rather than having to immediately deal with Boston’s overwhelming defensive intensity and firepower.

No matter the opponent, the 76ers know they have the ultimate weapon in Joel Embiid. Once again, the dominant big man showed he has no problem embracing and delivering in the biggest moments on the biggest stages. With Embiid imposing his will, Philadelphia will feel they have a fighter’s chance against anyone.

“As long as I’m on the floor, I always think we have an opportunity to win,” said Embiid. “My teammates and coaches believe in me, and I believe in myself to make big plays when we need them most. That’s what greats are supposed to do.”

Greats also have a flair for the dramatic, something Embiid provided in abundance Wednesday. His heroics spared the 76ers from the ignominy of a home play-in loss, while also earning them a far more favorable first-round playoff draw. More importantly, they showed once again that when the moment is biggest, Embiid can be counted on to deliver his best.

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