Heat preparing for Embiid's return in Game 3; why Sixers coach has Spoelstra's respect

The Philadelphia 76ers have not announced if All-Star center Joel Embiid will be back for Game 3 of its opening-round playoff series against the Miami Heat on Thursday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.

But it’s safe to say Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and his team are preparing to see Embiid — and his new mask — back on the court soon after he cleared the NBA’s concussion protocol Sunday afternoon.

“Quite a bit,” Spoelstra answered Monday afternoon when asked if the team has continued to prepare itself to face Embiid, who has been out since he collided with teammate Markelle Fultz and sustained a fracture of his orbital bone. “We had to [prepare for Embiid] leading up to the first game because we didn’t know for absolutely certain [he wasn’t going to play] until I saw him not walk out there. So we had to prepare for him. And when he comes back officially — it looks like Game 3 — we’ll have to revisit that again.”

In three games against the Heat this season, Embiid (7-0, 250) has averaged 19 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists and one block. In each of his two games in Miami, Embiid also made three three-pointers. In the last meeting between the Heat and Sixers on March 8, though, Embiid was only 5 for 18 from the field and was outplayed by center Hassan Whiteside.

While Spoelstra said the Sixers play significantly more through rookie point guard Ben Simmons and run a multitude of catch-and-shoot plays when their All-Star center is not in there, he said Philadelphia still plays fast with Embiid. The Sixers ranked fourth in the league this season in pace.

Sixers coach Brett Brown, who won three NBA titles as an assistant coach and director of player development with the San Antonio Spurs under Gregg Popovich, is serving as a head coach in the playoffs for the first time in his career. But Spoelstra, 47, hardly considers Brown, 57, a rookie coach when it comes to playoff experience.

“This league is a beast. There aren’t any weak links, certainly not when you get in the playoffs,” Spoelstra said. “Our respect for Coach Brown goes all the way back to his days in San Antonio. We’ve been through two series where he was on the other side and that is the pinnacle of our profession, the coaching that we are facing. And it’s just exemplary.”

Spoelstra sees many similarities between the Spurs and Sixers, who ranked second in the league in assists this season (27.1).

“Everybody forgets San Antonio from ’12-13,” Spoelstra said. “I still look back at Game 1 of that series, the first time we played San Antonio, we had the highest defensive grade chart that we’ve ever had in the history of the franchise — we only forced four turnovers. And they moved the ball so well against our defense that had great habits. And we lost that game to a Tony Parker pull up. But when you get to that level, all there is is respect. Because he saw our best defense and their best offense beat our best defense.

“That’s one of the best games I’ve seen a team move the ball, including the next year. But, that’s the challenge that group faced. This is a challenge we face. You have to find a way. You have to find a way to conquer that. That’s their style. They’re not going to change. And we have to find a way to overcome that.”

Although Heat forward James Johnson had a stellar first half in Game 1, scoring 13 points including three buckets on drives to the rim, he said he doesn’t regret not being as aggressive in the second half when he took only two shots in eight minutes and did not score.

“Everybody thinks they can take their guy 1-on-1,” Johnson said. “That’s why we have a coach like Erik Spoelstra. He puts things in perspective. Just like [Marco] Belinelli hit some tough shots, if they can beat us like that, [we can live with it]. I’m pretty sure that’s what [the Sixers] want. They want me to score 30 and for the rest of our team not to get touches. Then, Tyler [Johnson] is not getting into a rhythm, J-Rich is not getting a rhythm, Dragon is not doing what he needs to do, so they won.

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“It doesn’t matter whose night it is. If it was my night and I was walking to the rim, my guys are going to get me the ball every time. But right now we’ve got to work on spacing, sharing the ball and most importantly just being the physical Miami Heat team we are.”

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