Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said the Eastern Conference Finals will be an old-school defensive slugfest, and that he feels the best two teams made it.

The Heat needed six games to triumph over the Philadelphia 76ers, while the Boston Celtics came back from 3-2 down against the Milwaukee Bucks to get the job done in Game 7.

As a reward for getting their series out of the way early, the Heat will have five days of rest before Tuesday's Game 1, while the Celtics have just one proper rest day between series.

Speaking to the media after Monday's practice, Spoelstra said it is shaping up as a series that will warm the heart of Heat president Pat Riley.

"Pat's [Riley] probably is going to enjoy this," he said. "This is like a throwback series. 

"If both teams are really on top of their games, this should be a series where neither team is scoring 130 points. Both teams hang their hats on rock-solid team defense, and making multiple efforts and being disciplined to schemes. 

"So it will be a lot of plays and things in the margins… really, we were the two best teams in the East most of the season and it's fitting that we're moving into the conference finals.

"Boston has played as well as anyone in the entire league once they got to 2022. It's not by accident. They're playing very strong basketball. They do it on both ends."

Heat star Jimmy Butler was asked about his potential matchup against Jayson Tatum, and he had nothing but praise for the Celtics' best player.

"He's one of the best in the game right now," he said. "As much attention as he draws on the offensive end – and then I think what's really impressive is the way that he's picked up his defensive intensity. 

"You got to tip your hat to that and respect him, I think those are the guys that you want to go up against."

Two years after meeting in the 2020 Eastern Conference finals, the Boston Celtics are on a mission to flip the script on the Miami Heat.

In that 2020 series, which the Heat won 4-2 in 'the bubble' to advance to the NBA Finals, the Celtics were the higher seed, and were playing in their third Eastern Conference Finals in the space of four seasons.

But in hindsight, it was Miami who were built to win that series, despite it being their first time past the second round since LeBron James carried them to the finals in 2014.

Jimmy Butler was invigorated in his first year in Miami, in his physical prime at 30 years old and was determined to show he was not at fault for pushing his way out of the Minnesota Timberwolves and being traded from the Philadelphia 76ers in the space of a year.

He was also supported by Goran Dragic, just two years removed from his lone All-Star appearance, who in the series averaged 20.5 points and 4.7 assists per game in 34 minutes.

As well as having two strong initiators, the Heat also had a complete mismatch in the form of Bam Adebayo against a Celtics team starting Daniel Theis at center, with no competent back-up. Adebayo averaged 21.8 points while shooting over 60 per cent from the field, with 11 rebounds and five assists per game, and was clearly the most dominant player in the series.

When taking into account an outlier 37-point showing from Tyler Herro on 14-of-of-21 shooting that single-handedly won Game 4 112-109 for the Heat – making it a 3-1 series lead instead of 2-2 heading back to Boston – it begins to become clear that there was not much the Celtics could do, given their personnel.

Fast-forward a couple of years, 22-year-old Jayson Tatum is now 24 and in the midst of a rapid ascension into the game's best players, 23-year-old Jaylen Brown is now 25 and has developed into a true number-two option, Marcus Smart is now 28 years old and the NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and, more importantly, the supporting cast is built for the long-haul.

Replacing Theis with Al Horford may be the most consequential addition or subtraction on either side, with the potential to nullify the series-altering presence of Adebayo on the inside. Horford will also have help in the form of Robert Williams III – who became one of the best defensive players in the league this season – while Theis remains as a 'break glass in case of emergency' option.

Adding to the rise of the Celtics has been the emergence of Grant Williams as a reliable two-way player, capable of slowing down Giannis Antetokounmpo while hitting over 40 per cent of his threes, as well as the trade to add Derrick White as a second defensively sound 'small' guard next to Smart.

For a team with a real defensive identity – willing to 'switch' every screen and allow their small guards to take on bigger assignments – being able to replace Kemba Walker with a trustworthy, stout defender completely takes away an avenue of attack for a sharp offensive team like Miami.

What it also means is that the Celtics will not have to waste any minutes on players who have no business in big playoff series – such as Brad Wanamaker and Semi Ojeleye, who combined for 21.8 minutes per game in the 2020 series.

A run to the NBA Finals would be fulfilling the promises of Boston's advanced numbers, which after the All-Star break had the Celtics as not just a legitimate title contender, but as the favourite, and a historic team.

During that stretch, the Celtics were the number one offense – with a gap to the Charlotte Hornets at number two – and the number three defense, with a net-rating of 12.7. The Memphis Grizzlies (7.6) were the only other team with a net-rating above 6.0.

For the Heat, Dragic has been replaced by Kyle Lowry, who is now 36 years old and recovering from his second hamstring injury of the playoffs, and the veteran presences of Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder have been replaced by a combination of Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and the shell of Victor Oladipo.

Erik Spoelstra boasts arguably the deepest bench in the entire NBA, but this is playoff basketball, which generally comes down to each side's best seven players, nullifying their advantage on the back-end of their roster.

The identity of this Miami offense through the playoffs has largely relied on the brilliance of Jimmy Butler, who at 32 years old is putting together the best playoff run of his career, averaging 28.7 points per game on 52.7 per cent shooting, with 7.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.1 steals.

Miami's second-best scorer this postseason has been Adebayo, way down at 14.6 points per game compared to his 19.1 for the regular season.

Butler was perfectly matched up against the Philadelphia 76ers, who have no wing defenders capable of matching the Heat star physically – but the Celtics do not have the same problem.

The Celtics have at least four players – Tatum, Brown, G. Williams and R. Williams – who match up well with Butler, and they showed against the Milwaukee Bucks that they were more than happy to play straight-up defense and force one player to try and beat them with isolations all day.

If Miami cannot figure out a way to unleash a second scorer in a real way – be it Herro, Adebayo, or even Strus, who averaged 20.5 points in his two matchups against Boston this season – they may be playing straight into the Celtics hands. 

The one advantage Miami will have is the rest-factor. It will be five days since the Heat's Game 6 win against the 76ers, while the Celtics will only have one true rest day after handling their business in Game 7 on Monday night.

For the regular season, the Heat won all three of their games with at least three days rest, although the Celtics were the fourth-best team in the NBA coming off one day of rest (28-13, .683 winning percentage).

If the Heat can take advantage of their fresh legs and win Game 1, anything could happen, but ultimately, just like the Celtics were almost helpless in 2020, the Heat just may not have the horses this time around.

Miami Heat guard Kyle Lowry has been ruled out of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics with a hamstring injury.

Lowry, 36, averaged 13.4 points, 7.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game in 63 regular season starts, but has been plagued by injuries in the postseason.

Miami's point guard initially suffered a hamstring injury in Game 3 of the Heat's first round series against the Atlanta Hawks, missing the remainder of the first round and the first two games of their round two clash against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Lowry scored zero points in his return for Game 3, and then re-injured his hamstring in Game 4 as the Heat lost both games before rallying back to win the series in six.

Game 1 against the Celtics will be around 10 days removed from the aggravation of the injury, and given the timetable of hamstring injuries, particularly in older players, it can safely be assumed Lowry remains at least a week away from a possible return.

Marcus Smart is questionable for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals with a mid-foot sprain.

Head coach Ime Udoka revealed the Boston Celtics star suffered the injury in their blowout win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7 of their semi-finals series.

Smart is, therefore, a doubt to face the Miami Heat in the series opener in south Florida as the Celtics aim to steal the initiative against the East's one seed.

The 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year, Smart has arguably not had the impact he would have desired so far in the postseason.

However, he played an instrumental role in forcing Game 7 against the Bucks, scoring 21 points and recording seven assists and five rebounds to help the Celtics set up a decider.

Smart had 10 assists and seven rebounds in Game 7, finishing with a plus-minus of plus-18 that was second only to Grant Williams (+25) as the Celtics routed the Bucks 109-81.

Perhaps his biggest influence in this postseason has been on the glass.

During the playoffs, opponents are averaging 43.6 rebounds per 100 possessions when Smart is on the court and 46.7 when he is off the court.

Similarly, opponents have averaged 13.5 second-chance points per 100 possessions with Smart out there compared to 15.3 against Celtics line-ups not including him in the playoffs.

The Celtics also do a better job of stealing the ball with Smart on court (7.3 per game) compared to when he is on the bench (6.2).

Boston will hope to have him out there to prevent Jimmy Butler and Miami from getting hot, and the Celtics will have center Rob Williams, who has not featured in any of the last four games due to a bone bruise, available with no minutes restriction.

It almost feels as though using the Ron Burgundy 'boy, that escalated quickly' GIF would be a little too on the nose.

The NBA Conference semi-finals proved to be just as dramatic as we all hoped, with two of them going all the way to all or nothing Game 7s.

In the East, despite a bit of a comeback once Joel Embiid returned from injury, the Philadelphia 76ers were unable to halt the number one seed Miami Heat, while defending champions the Milwaukee Bucks are also out after going down in Game 7 to the Boston Celtics.

Over in the West, the Golden State Warriors overcame the Memphis Grizzlies in a tempestuous series defined by Ja Morant's knee injury, while a sensational performance from Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks saw them destroy the Phoenix Suns in their own backyard in Game 7 on Sunday.

They may not be the Conference Finals many predicted, but they will be absolutely covered in compelling narratives, so Stats Perform is here to take a look at what should be two fascinating contests to determine this year's NBA finalists.

Eastern Conference Final

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics

Perhaps this pairing was to be expected given they are the one and two seeds respectively in the East, but with Giannis Antetokounmpo in their corner and an NBA championship to defend, many will have expected the Bucks to get the better of Boston.

The Celtics showed their mettle, though, in particular Jayson Tatum, who is averaging 28.3 points per game (PPG) in the postseason.

Tatum's 6.1 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game are supported by an impressive average of four turnovers as the 24-year-old has set about trying to drag his team all the way.

He has not been alone though, with Jaylen Brown averaging 22.2 PPG, while an unlikely hero emerged in the 109-81 win against the Bucks on Sunday as Grant Williams top-scored with 27, the first time he has done so for the Celtics. Williams hit seven of the Celtics' 22 made three-pointers in an incredible shooting barrage.

 

The Heat took full advantage of an Embiid-less Sixers in the opening games of their series with Philadelphia before losing their 2-0 lead, only to see it out 4-2.

Jimmy Butler shone throughout and is averaging 28.7 PPG in the playoffs so far, as well as 5.4 assists and 7.5 rebounds.

His 32 in Game 6 helped ease any nerves about going to a decider, while even the 40 he managed in defeat in Game 4 made the Sixers work harder than they should have had to.

The Celtics won two of their three meetings with the Heat in the regular season, but Miami were triumphant last time out in late March, winning 106-98 at TD Garden thanks to 24 from Butler and 23 from Kyle Lowry, who may not feature in Game 1.

Lowry injured his hamstring in Game 3 of the Heat’s first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, and is a doubt for the start of this series.

Western Conference Final

Dallas Mavericks v Golden State Warriors

Can you stop Luka Doncic, or do you just watch in awe and hope the ball pops before he can score?

That probably won't be the question Steve Kerr and the Warriors will be asking, but they will certainly have to come up with some way of dealing with the dangerous Slovenian.

Doncic is averaging 31.5 PPG from his 10 playoff games so far and was unsurprisingly trending on social media on Sunday as his own personal scoring was such that he was single-handedly matching the Phoenix Suns in the first half at Footprint Center.

His 6.6 assists and 10.1 rebounds per game in the postseason also show how dominant he has been, but that should not take away from the fine work going on elsewhere in Jason Kidd's team.

Having had to carry the Mavericks through most of the first round against the Utah Jazz in Doncic's absence, Jalen Brunson demonstrated his worth with 24 against the Suns in Game 7, while Spencer Dinwiddie posted 30 points of his own too.

 

The Warriors are unsurprisingly just as good at spreading the wealth, even if Stephen Curry – like Doncic – is leading the way with his 26.9 PPG in the playoffs.

The three-point assassin is tied with team-mate Klay Thompson for shots from beyond the arc, with both sinking 42 efforts in the postseason so far, which emphasises the importance of Thompson as well, who has averaged 20.4 PPG.

Jordan Poole is playing his part too with 19.3 PPG, including a 50 per cent success rate on field goal attempts, making 74 from 148.

Dallas may have the upper hand going into this one, not just because of their complete undressing of the Suns in Game 7, but also because they won three of the four games against Golden State in the regular season, with Doncic scoring 41 in their last meeting in early March.

James Harden cannot be expected to consistently dominate NBA games but could have shown more aggression as the Philadelphia 76ers were knocked out of the playoffs, team-mate Joel Embiid said.

According to Embiid, a team-wide lack of aggression cost the 76ers as a 99-90 loss to the Miami Heat spelled the end for their season.

After being bounced out of the Eastern Conference semi-finals, much of the attention turned to Harden's quiet game.

He had just nine shots and scored only 11 points in almost 43 minutes on court, taking a mere two shots in the second half.

Embiid, who had a double-double with 20 points and 12 rebounds, said the 32-year-old Harden cannot be compared to the player who averaged above 30 points for three consecutive seasons with the Houston Rockets from 2017-18 to 2019-20.

Harden was the NBA MVP in 2018, but his points on the board have begun to tail off in the past two seasons.

Since joining Philadelphia in February 2022, after a stint with the Brooklyn Nets, Harden has averaged 21.0 points over 21 regular season games, and just 18.6 points per game in the postseason.

Harden's field-goal shooting record of 40.5 per cent over the Sixers' 12 playoff games was his lowest in the postseason since the 2013-14 season.

"Since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden," said Embiid. "But that's not who he is anymore. He's more of a playmaker. I thought, at times, he could have been, as all of us could have been, more aggressive. All of us, whether it was Tyrese [Maxey] or Tobias [Harris] or guys coming off the bench.

"And I'm not just talking about offensively. I'm talking about as a whole, offensively and defensively. I didn't think we were good defensively as a team.

"They took advantage of a lot of stuff that we tried to do defensively. And then offensively just really everybody being on the same page, obviously, only having probably three or four months to all work together and try to figure it out. Maybe it wasn't a lot of time. I don't think we played our best basketball."

Lakers legend Magic Johnson was among those to question Harden's display, saying such a player "can't have a performance like that".

The 76ers won the last of their three NBA titles in 1983 and have not landed a conference title since 2001.

Asked how he and Harden could forge a stronger understanding, Embiid told a news conference: "Everybody's got to get better. It's not just about me and him."

Questions will be asked of Doc Rivers and the 76ers coaching staff, but Embiid said the players must look at themselves.

"I believe that we have the right people, but at some point you have to stop looking at coaching and you have to look at the players. Maybe you are just not good enough," Embiid said.

"I'm not trying to blame anybody, but the players have also got to do their jobs. It doesn't matter how much a coach or a GM talks to you or tries to motivate you, if you still go out there and don't do your job and the other team is more physical than you, that's on the players."

James Harden insisted he intends to stay with the Philadelphia 76ers next season after delivering a flat performance in the defeat that killed off the team's playoffs dream.

After posting just 11 points on four-of-nine shooting, NBA veteran Harden said he hoped the 76ers could realise their ambition to win a championship, and stressed he wanted to be a part of that.

Harden did not put any points on the board in the second half on a 99-90 defeat at home to the Miami Heat, who advanced 4-2 to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The 32-year-old guard spoke about his lack of impact, saying: "I feel like the ball moved, it just didn't get back to me."

The Heat dominated the third quarter 25-15 to open up an 11-point lead, including a 16-2 run, and Harden said: "We didn't score. They got some easy buckets in transition, and hit some big shots, and kind of broke the game open."

Acquired from the Brooklyn Nets in a February trade, Harden was asked whether he saw his future in Philadelphia.

"I'll be here," he said. "Whatever allows this team to continue to grow and get better, and do the things necessary to win and compete at the highest level."

He explained: "For me, it's been a long year, but since I've been here it's been great. We tried to build something so fast – tried to build a championship-contending team so fast – which I still think we are, but we're just missing a few pieces. Other than that, we tried to go for it right away, and we just came up a little short. It doesn't stop, we've still got to put work in and keep going.

"We're trying to win a championship, man. That's the goal. We'll continue to build, us individually, and continue to get better, us as a unit, and continue to get to know each other. We'll find out what works, what doesn't work, and things like that."

Harden has battled hamstring trouble in recent times, and he believes there is a pathway back to full fitness, where he would not feel impeded at all next season.

"I'm finally starting to feel okay again, so it will be a great summer for me to get my body right and get ready to go for next year. This last two years have been a whirlwind though," he said.

"I've been trying to get right throughout the course of a basketball season for two years straight, and that's not it. All last summer I was rehabbing, and it was a little frustrating because I'm not used to going through something like that. It is what it is, and I'm just happy to be healthy now, and I have a full summer to be straight and do the things necessary to come back even better next year."

The Miami Heat progressed to the Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday, comfortably defeating the Philadelphia 76ers 99-90.

After the Golden State Warriors' anaemic performance in a closeout game on the road, the Heat showed no such trepidation and led by 20 at one stage, taking control in the third quarter with a 16-2 scoring run.

Jimmy Butler scored 14 points on six-of-nine shooting in that period as Miami put the proverbial foot on Philadelphia's throat, finishing with 32 points, eight rebounds and four assists against his former team.

James Harden went missing in the second half with Philadelphia's season on the line, meanwhile, taking only two shot attempts for the half while committing three turnovers to go with his four assists.

Now in their second ECF in three seasons, the Heat will face the winner of the series between the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks.

Mavs take Suns to deciding game

The Dallas Mavericks are taking the Western Conference's first seed to seven games, after they blew the Phoenix Suns out 113-86.

Luka Doncic was very close to a triple-double with his side's season on the line, but his fingerprints were nevertheless all over Game 6, finishing with 33 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists.

Doncic's ability to find his teammates for open looks has been consistent in the series but their ability to knock them down has fluctuated. On Thursday, the Mavs shot 41 per cent from the perimeter for the win.

Devin Booker went two-of-10 with the game in the balance in the second and third quarters, as the Suns hoped to close the series out, finishing with 19 points on six-of-17 shooting.

Phoenix simply did not take care of the basketball, coughing it up 22 times with the Mavs scoring 29 points in transition off those turnovers.

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra lavished praise on Jimmy Butler following his side's 120-85 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, labelling him the "ultimate competitor."

Without the injured Kyle Lowry, Butler led the Heat with 23 points, nine rebounds and six assists, while keeping turnovers to a relatively low two despite higher usage.

After scoring 33 and 40 points respectively in losses on the road, Butler had more of a supporting crew in Game 5, as six other Heat players scored in double digits.

Spoelstra singled Butler out not only for his versatility, and how that drives the Heat, but his character.

"Jimmy is just such a stable, high IQ…he's got a great feel for what the team needs, and he does it on both ends and that's what's really kind of lost on young players coming into this league," Spoelstra said post-game.

"He has orchestrated so many things for us offensively, particularly with Kyle [Lowry] out, and he's been able to toggle between those roles seamlessly, and make it look a lot easier than it is."

Shots fell for the Heat as they took a 3-2 series lead, converting on 39.4 per cent of attempts from the perimeter and finishing with 26 assists as a team.

Butler finished Game 5 with an impressive defensive rating of 87.7, and Spoelstra believes his competitive spirit is transformative in both individual and collective senses.

"In terms of being just a scoring option tonight, he was that scoring option but also facilitating for us, he was kind of initiating offense for us quite a bit," he said. "You just feel our whole team has a great sense of confidence when the ball's in Jimmy's hands and we leave the decision up to him.

"He's a great competitor in his heart and his soul. He's an ultimate competitor and when you get into competition, he understands the whole deal. You have to be able to do it on both ends.

"That's what he's been doing for us for three years, really competing for us on both ends, but he's able to compete with a ferocity and do it with an incredibly stable mind."

Joel Embiid insists he is "not mad" after missing out on the NBA's MVP award again to Nikola Jokic but continues to show contempt at the award's voting process.

The Philadelphia 76ers center was runner-up to Jokic last year and according to ESPN the Denver Nuggets' big man will edge him again for this season's gong.

Embiid enjoyed arguably a career-best season, with a league-high 30.6 points per game with 11.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists.

"I'm not mad," Embiid told reporters, when speaking after the 76ers' 120-85 loss to the Miami Heat on Tuesday.

"That's two years in a row I put myself in that position. It didn't happen. It is almost like, at this point, it is whatever. Whatever happens, happens.

"Last year, I campaigned about it. This year, I answered questions when I was asked, and in the next few years until I retire, it's almost like ... like I said, I wonder what else I have to do to win it, and to me, at this point, it's whatever.

"It's all about focusing, not that I wasn't focused on the bigger picture. It's really time to really put all my energy into the bigger picture, which is to win the whole thing."

Embiid's comments come with the 76ers on the brink of elimination after Tuesday's loss which leaves them 3-2 down in the Conference semi-finals to the Heat.

The 28-year-old Cameroonian added that there was no "right or wrong" answer for the MVP but continued to show derision towards the voting process, insisting he knew weeks ago he would not win.

"This is something that I knew weeks ago, even probably two weeks before the season ended, after those games against whether it was Denver and Milwaukee, and when [ESPN did its] straw poll or whatever. I just knew it wasn't gonna happen," Embiid said.

"Obviously, congrats to Nikola. He deserved it. He had an amazing season. There's no right or wrong. There was a lot of candidates.

"It could have gone either way. Giannis [Antetokounmpo], Devin Booker, being on the best team in the league, by far. I guess, every year is all about whatever you guys decide, whatever fits the narrative as far as who's gonna win."

The Miami Heat moved a step closer to progressing to the Eastern Conference Finals, rolling past the Philadelphia 76ers in a 120-85 win on Tuesday.

The Heat comfortably took a 3-2 series lead as the Sixers collapsed in the third quarter, going three-of-12 from the floor for the period aside from Joel Embiid.

While the Heat started strong, Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey were taken out with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

Jimmy Butler was able to get to his spots on the floor, going nine-of-15 shooting on the way to 23 points, nine rebounds and six assists for the night.

As a team, Miami had a 20-point advantage (56-36) for points in the paint while seven players scored in double figures in the 35-point win, the joint largest margin of victory in the playoffs this season.

Suns surge in second-half to Game 5 win

The Phoenix Suns also claimed an important Game 5 victory on Tuesday, defeating the Dallas Mavericks 110-80.

Similar to the Philadelphia 76ers in the earlier game, the Mavericks started out ice cold and turned the ball over following the main break, giving up a double-digit lead to start the third quarter.

What was a one-point margin lead for the Suns at half-time quickly blew out to 17 by the middle of the third, when Deandre Ayton scored to make it 67-50.

The Western Conference's first seed did not look back from there, as Devin Booker finished the game with 28 points, seven rebounds and two steals.

Dribble penetration and offensive rebounding created good looks for the Suns, who shot 37.5 per cent from beyond the arc, while the Mavs conversely shot at 25 per cent.

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers criticised his side for their toughness and playing too slow in Tuesday's blowout 120-85 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 5.

The defeat leaves the 76ers down 3-2 in the Conference semi-finals series with games in both Philadelphia and, if required, Miami to come.

The 76ers were never a threat in Game 5, trailing by 12 points at quarter time, with Miami eventually winning by 35 points; the equal biggest margin in the 2021-22 playoffs so far.

"They were just more physical. We didn't run our stuff very well," Rivers told reporters after the game.

"We played at a snail's pace. We had 85 shots, turned the ball over, everything they did tonight was harder and better.

"Their stuff was better than what we ran, their energy was better, their toughness was better, I haven't said that very often about us, and that's on all of us.

"That's on me to make sure they're ready and that's on them to be ready. Tonight, we were not."

The 76ers had squared up the series after being down 2-0 but Rivers was left bemused by their lack of effort in Game 5.

"Obviously, they just were so much more engaged, more physical, took us out of stuff, there was a lot of disappointment from all of us tonight," Rivers said.

Embiid had played in both Games 3 and 4 after a concussion and a fractured orbital bone, but struggled for impact in Game 5, managing only 17 points, five rebounds and two assists.

"We didn’t play defense," Embiid said. "We weren’t physical enough, we weren't locked in from the beginning, and they took advantage of it."

James Harden was kept to 14 points, six rebounds and four assists for Philadelphia.

"They got off to a good start," Harden said. "Being down 12 in the first quarter on the road against a really good team is difficult.

"We cannot allow that to happen. Especially, Game 5 and the two games where we just came off our home court playing well. It is difficult to come back and fight your way back and we just never got our pop."

The Dallas Mavericks tied up their playoff series in spite of a poor shooting night from Luka Doncic on Sunday, winning Game 4 against the Phoenix Suns 111-101.

The Slovenian went one-of-10 from beyond the arc and converted on a total of nine-of-25 from the floor, but the Mavs were otherwise automatic from long-range and Doncic was the facilitator in that regard.

He ended up with 11 assists while the rest of the Dallas team went 19-of-34 from deep, with Dorian Finney-Smith scoring a career playoff-high with 24 points on eight-of-12 from the perimeter.

While Devin Booker scored 35 points, Phoenix lacked a reference point late in the game with Chris Paul fouled out early.

The first-seeded Suns went three-of-nine from the perimeter in the fourth quarter, while Booker critically turned the ball over three times.

Sixers tie it up on home court

In the Eastern Conference, the first-seeded Miami Heat find themselves in a series, with the Philadelphia 76ers claiming a 116-108 win in Game 4.

Joel Embiid's second game back from injury gave the Sixers a boost to tie up the series, finishing with 24 points on seven-of-13 shooting and 11 rebounds.

James Harden was the star of the show, however, coming up with 31 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, including some big buckets down the stretch.

The Heat were able to generate open looks, and at timely moments in the game, but were simply not able to capitalise, going seven-of-35 from the perimeter.

Victor Oladipo and Tyler Herro were particularly unable to provide Miami with a scoring boost off the bench, combining for 26 points but off two-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc.

Philadelphia 76ers superstar Joel Embiid highlighted the fact that he does not need to be able to see perfectly to be a game-changer defensively, and declared he believes his team can win it all after pulling their series against the Miami Heat back to a 2-1 deficit.

Embiid struggled with his vision in his protective mask, but it was more than enough to help the 76ers to a 99-79 win in Game 3.

In his first game back after suffering a fractured orbital and a concussion as a result of a Pascal Siakam elbow in the last game of Philadelphia's series against the Toronto Raptors, he had 18 points and 11 rebounds, but transformed his side defensively.

It was the lowest total the 76ers have held an opponent to since beating the San Antonio Spurs 97-78 in January 2018.

Speaking to the post-game media, Embiid said it was a struggle to get ready for Game 3, but highlighted that he felt he did not need to be at 100 per cent to change the game defensively.

"It was a struggle," he said. "Really just because of the concussion, and dealing with a bunch of symptoms – but I'm glad it went away, and I'm glad I'm back.

"I didn't think I had a lot of energy, honestly. I was really trying to get through it, and just use my presence out there as a decoy. 

"I feel like what I pride myself on is defensively, and that's where my presence is really felt – on the defensive end. That's one of the main reasons I felt like I could have a huge impact.

"Just being to the ball even more, not allowing easy catches, and obviously being aggressive on their main scorers. 

"Tyler [Herro] – I thought we did a better job on him – obviously Jimmy [Butler] got going, and that's my fault, there were a couple times where I wasn't protecting the rim, so we definitely need to do a better job on him. 

"But their main scorers, we were just more aggressive, whether it was trapping the ball, or getting it out of their hands and trying to make everyone else beat us."

Touching on the first two games of the series where he did not make the trip to Miami, Embiid said it was tough to watch, but that he believes this Philly team can win the championship.

"It was very annoying – just watching," he said. "Obviously we didn't make shots, but we made a lot of mistakes, whether it was offensive rebounding, or turnovers. 

"Their big fella, Bam [Adebayo], he was dominating. I was really p****d off watching another big man play well against my team. 

"I think my main goal is that I really want to win, and I feel we have a big chance to win it all. 

"Obviously we have to stay healthy, and we all gotta play well at the same time – we all gotta be damn near perfect.

"So, to me, that's what I signed up for, and whatever it's going to take me to win, that's what I'm going to do."

The mask itself was a hindrance, according to the seven-foot-two Cameroonian, but he said it was not going to make a difference if he sat out one or two more games.

"I air-balled a wide open shot, so that's the answer [to the difficulty of playing in a mask]," he said.

"But it's whatever, it's just the circumstances. Four years ago I really complained about it, but it's a little different this year because I don't have to wear goggles – those were really annoying.

"It's still a big adjustment, but like I said, it really starts on defense, and on defense I don't need to see everything. On offense you need to see to knock down shots, but it's fine.

"These fractures are not going to heal for a couple weeks, so it's not going to change too much if I play now or Game 4, I just need to protect it as much as possible."

It was a defensive showcase by the Philadelphia 76ers in their 99-79 home win in Game 3 of their series against the Miami Heat.

With their season essentially on the line – as no NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit – the 76ers were energised on the defensive end with the return of star Joel Embiid, who was wearing a protective mask to protect his fractured orbital bone.

It was the first time since January 2018 that the 76ers have held an opposing team under 80 points, when they beat the San Antonio Spurs 97-78.

In an incredibly low-scoring first half, the 76ers reached half-time with a 41-34 lead as James Harden carried the early offensive load, before cooling off in the second half to finish on 17 points (four-of-11 shooting) with eight rebounds and six assists.

Embiid was solid in his return, commanding plenty of defensive attention to open up lanes for his teammates and putting in 18 points (five-of-12 shooting, eight-of-10 free throws) with 11 rebounds.

The real star of the show for the home side was Danny Green, who hit seven of his first eight three-point attempts for his equal team-high 21 points, sharing that figure with Tyrese Maxey, who had all of his 21 points in the second half.

Jimmy Butler was the only Miami starter to get into double figures, scoring a game-high 33 points on 12-of-22 shooting, while Tyler Herro was a disappointing five-of-15 from the field for his 14 points.

Game 4 will remain in Philadelphia before heading back to Miami for Game 5.

 

Mavericks make it a series

The Dallas Mavericks injected some life into their series against the Phoenix Suns, taking Game 3 103-94 at home to trail 2-1.

In an inspired defensive showing, Dallas held the Suns to quarter totals of 20, 24, 23 and 27, slowing the game down to a crawling pace at times as both sides hunted for the exact looks they were after.

Both teams shot a respectable 44 per cent from the field, while the Suns were more efficient from long range, shooting it at 46 per cent compared to the Mavericks' 33 per cent, but the hosts forced 17 turnovers while committing just eight.

While the Mavs were not at their best from deep, despite shooters Reggie Bullock and Dorian Finney-Smith combining for eight makes behind the arc, they compensated by dominating the interior, out-scoring the Suns 50-32 in the paint.

Luka Doncic was at his best with 26 points (11-of-25 shooting), adding 13 rebounds and nine assists, but it was Jalen Brunson who lifted the Mavericks to the victory.

After scoring a combined 22 points from 32 per cent shooting in Game 1 and Game 2, Brunson erupted for a game-high 28 points on 10-of-21 shooting, with five assists and four rebounds.

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