76ers

'MVP' McConnell unwraps Christmas win for Sixers

'MVP' McConnell unwraps Christmas win for Sixers

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NEW YORK — The NBA paired the Sixers and Knicks for a Christmas Day showcase and the teams delivered at Madison Square Garden.

The evenly matched opponents competed in a matchup of some of the league’s top young talent, headlined by Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Kristaps Porzingis. The Sixers (15-18) prevailed with a 105-98 win over the Knicks (17-16) (see observations).

With Monday's win on Broadway, the Sixers pulled within two games of the Knicks, who currently possess the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

“I was so excited to play tonight because we’ve been through so much losing,” Embiid said. “To be able to be one of the few teams in the league to play on this day, it just shows you how much we’ve improved.”

The Sixers had not played on Christmas Day since 2001 against the Lakers. For a team that won 10 games just two seasons ago, the matinee selection was significant. More importantly, they broke a five-game losing streak, a skid that extended back to nine of their previous 10 contests.

“It’s huge,” Simmons said. “That’s what we definitely needed and it’s on a special day, so it was great.”

Embiid, who was a game-time decision because of back tightness, led the Sixers with a 25-point, 16-rebound double-double. He mixed in three blocks, adding him to the list of Anthony Davis, Shaquille O'Neal, Moses Malone, Rick Mahorn and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the last seven players to record at least 25 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks on Christmas.

JJ Redick followed up with 24 points (4 for 8 from three) in his first game back from right hamstring tightness. The Sixers would need more than that to fend off a massive 31-point, 22-rebound effort by Enes Kanter and 22 points, seven rebounds and five blocks by Porzingis, though.

That’s where T.J. McConnell stepped in off the bench with a season high-tying 15 points. McConnell’s high-energy performance earned high praise from Sixers head coach Brett Brown.

“He was the MVP of the game,” Brown said.

Brown also credited the Sixers’ defense for the victory. They held the Knicks to 33.3 percent shooting from the field and 28.6 percent from three in the fourth quarter. When turnovers, which had been under control all game, crept in during the final quarter (seven of their total 13 came in the final frame), the Sixers fended off a Knicks’ late-game push and kept the lead to five or more during the final three minutes.

“We got stops when we needed to,” Embiid said. 

The Sixers head back to Philadelphia with a win to their Christmas evening celebrations. They knew they couldn't take the afternoon off if they wanted to enjoy the rest of the holiday before heading out West for three games starting Thursday in Portland prior to stopping in Denver and Phoenix.

“We were on a losing streak,” Redick said. “We realized we are at a breaking point in the season. We had to play with more urgency. Today our energy was at a different level.”

Joel Embiid has trouble with mask, not Heat in Sixers' Game 3 win

Joel Embiid has trouble with mask, not Heat in Sixers' Game 3 win

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MIAMI — "We're not here to make friends. We're here to win the series." 

With those two sentences, Joel Embiid made it known what he is all about in the playoffs.

The big man fought to return from an orbital fracture to help the Sixers win, and that’s exactly what he did in his first game since March 28. Embiid led the team with 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three blocks and a steal over 30 minutes in his NBA postseason debut … while wearing a mask with goggles (see story)

“I was excited,” Embiid said following the Sixers’ 128-108 victory Thursday in Game 3 (see observations). “Worked really hard for it. Promised the city that and made it happen. I was kind of sad that I couldn’t play in that first at home because we have a special connection. But I’m glad, came back today and we got a win.” 

Embiid sent a message — he is back, and not backing down. Sitting at the podium with a calm confidence, he talked about everything from his desire to return to in-game chippiness to defending his teammates. 

“I hate sitting out,” Embiid said. “I felt like it was time to come back, especially after watching how physical the game was, Game 2. I love this moment, I love being physical, I love attacking, I love contact.” 

Returning meant wearing a protective mask on his face. Though irksome in some ways, Embiid noted his game is too strong to be held back. 

“It was difficult,” Embiid said of the mask. “But to me it wasn’t really about getting used to it because at the end of the day, no matter how much it bothers me, I’ve still got to be a basketball player. If the shots aren’t falling and it gets foggy or I can’t see, there’s a lot of different stuff I can do, especially defensively because I feel like I’m the best defensive player in the league.”

There was plenty of contact in Game 3, and his mask wasn’t safe from it either. At one point, Embiid’s goggles landed on the court. Justise Winslow stepped on them, downplaying it after the game. 

“He kept throwing it on the ground, so I don’t know if he didn’t like it or what,” Winslow said. “But I was talking to JoJo, we were smack talking, trash talking, going back and forth. No love lost.”

Embiid didn’t quite see the situation as “throwing it on the ground.” He added an extra punch to the end of his recount. 

“Justise stepped on it and tried to break it with his hands,” Embiid said. “But little do they know is that I have about 50 of them. So it’s going to take much more than that to get me out of the series. 

“I’m going to be a nightmare for them, too.” 

When the game was in hand, Embiid was eager to see the Sixers finish with as large a margin of victory as possible. He thought back to Game 2 when Goran Dragic scored a layup with 1.2 seconds to play, and how Jordan Clarkson had thrown a ball at Dario Saric for scoring similarly during the regular season in Cleveland. So on Thursday, Embiid wanted them to run up the scoreboard. 

“I wish I was there in that Game 2 because I was kind of pissed about it,” Embiid said. “It’s basketball. It’s always good to blow a team out. I think we were up 18 or 20. If you could get that lead up to 22, I think it’s good. I love blowing teams out. I like the fact that we did that.” 

There's less than 48 hours until the Heat will look to bounce back in Game 4 and even up the series. Embiid knows the Sixers are in for a battle. 

And he likes that. 

“Game 4, they’re going to try to do what they did at Game 2, come out and be really, really extra aggressive and try to punch us in the mouth,” Embiid said. “We’ve got to be ready for that and I’ll for sure be ready.” 

Joel Embiid's return sparks Sixers' physical Game 3 win in Miami

Joel Embiid's return sparks Sixers' physical Game 3 win in Miami

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MIAMI — Joel Embiid is 1-0 in the playoffs.

The Sixers beat the Heat, 128-108, Thursday with their mask-wearing center back in the starting lineup to take a 2-1 lead on the series. 

• Embiid made his long-awaited return, playing in his postseason debut and first game since March 28. Donning a face mask with goggles (see story), Embiid rejoined the starting lineup. He had 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists in 30 minutes. 

He looked eager as well as affected at times by the long layoff from the left orbital fracture and concussion. He was aggressive at getting to the line (and drawing fouls on Hassan Whiteside), but shot 10 for 15 once there. Embiid knocked down threes (3 of 4), at the same time committing a 24-second violation trying to back down to the basket. Considering how long it’s been since he played, Embiid’s conditioning looked better than expected. 

• This game was not decided until the final quarter. The Sixers led, 96-94, after three. Brett Brown started Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Ersan Ilyasova and Embiid to open the fourth. That group outscored the Heat 9-1 to push the lead to 10 and change the tone of the remainder of the game. 

• First it was Kelly Olynyk. Then it was Dwyane Wade. In Game 3, Justise Winslow was the offensive spark plug off the Miami bench. Winslow scored 19 points in the first half, seven more than the Heat’s next leading scorer. He also was an agitator throughout the game, continuing to try to get under the Sixers’ skin as he had done in the previous games. Check out what happened with the goggles from Embiid’s mask.

• Justin Anderson looked like he had been waiting for this defensive assignment all season. Brown tasked him with defending Wade in the first half, and that matchup turned chippy. Anderson and Wade both were called for physical taunting technical fouls after Anderson pushed off on Wade and Wade grabbed his arm and flung him around. Anderson had played less than two minutes in the series prior to Game 3. 

• The game was physical with whistles and double techs throughout the night. Just how physical was it?

• Late in the third quarter, the Sixers rolled out the lineup of T.J. McConnell, Marco Belinelli, Anderson, Ilyasova and Embiid. None of these players are hesitant to mix things up. At one point a play culminated with Embiid and Anderson jumping up to block an Olynyk shot with the Heat forward landing on the ground. 

• Brown had planned to play Markelle Fultz more than the five minutes he clocked in Game 2. That didn’t happen. Fultz was on the court for 4:21 in the first half without a shot attempt (one rebound, one assist, two fouls). McConnell got the backup point guard minutes in the second half. 

• Game 4 will be played at 2:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon on NBCSP in Miami.