James Harden collected Tyrese Maxey’s quick pass off a rebound and dribbled once through his left leg at the wing before firing over the Miami Heat’s Gabe Vincent.
The shot went splash, Harden turned his back to holler and Joel Embiid balled his hands into celebratory fists while watching the 76ers’ decisive outburst during his customary rest at the top of the fourth quarter.
That surge proved to be the difference in the Sixers’ 116-108 victory over the Miami Heat Sunday night at the Wells Fargo Center to even their Eastern Conference semifinal series, 2-2. And it was propelled by Harden, who scored 16 of his 31 points in the final frame and looked the most like his dominant-scoring self since joining the Sixers at the February trade deadline.
“I’m just on the court just admiring it and just having fun,” Embiid said of Harden’s charge. “He’s really the reason why we won this game. His takeover in the fourth was huge for us, making the right plays, attacking when he had the opportunity.”
The Sixers led, 89-85, at the end of the third, but began the final period on a 12-2 run that Harden proclaimed “was the game right there.” The Heat later got back within five points, at 104-99, on a Bam Adebayo reverse layup through contact and free throw with less than five minutes to play, but Harden answered with a scooping layup. Harden later hit another three-pointer with three minutes remaining to give the Sixers a 109-101 advantage, and another trey to put his team up, 114-103, with about one minute to play.
“Tie the series up and put them on their heels,” Harden said of what he was thinking during that stretch. “It’s pretty simple. I think it’s just being aggressive, seeing who was out there defensively and just trying to get to the basket and take the best shot available.”
Harden, whose scoring outburst was one off his Sixer high, added nine assists and seven rebounds on a night when all five Sixers starters finished in double figures. Embiid totaled 24 points and 11 rebounds in his second game back from an orbital fracture and concussion. Maxey added 18 points and four assists, Tobias Harris scored 13 (including an alley-oop finish with less than two minutes to play that virtually clinched the game) and Danny Green had 11 points on 3-of-4 shooting from beyond the arc.
The Sixers also overcame a 40-point onslaught from Jimmy Butler on 13-of-20 shooting from the floor and 12-of-13 from the free-throw line.
Game 5 is Tuesday night in Miami, before Game 6 on Thursday in Philly.
Though Harden’s exceptional finish stole the night, Embiid was the anchor of the Sixers’ start.
The MVP finalist scored 15 of his 24 points in the opening frame, including a couple of finishes inside, a banked-in three-pointer, and a tough leaning jumper that rattled in. He began the second half with an and-one jumper to draw the fourth foul on Adebayo, but then could not fully take advantage of that stretch of the game. Embiid got to the free-throw line nine times in the third quarter, but only made five of those attempts.
Harden’s dominant fourth meant Embiid did not need to score in the fourth quarter. Rivers said Embiid looked a bit gassed after his hot start, but the coach added the Sixers could have done a better job of getting Embiid the ball in his preferred spots on the floor.
“That will be something we’ll watch film on and work on,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. “Because he’s so important to us. He creates matchup problems, and getting him the ball is a good thing every time. … We haven’t seen the best of Joel in this series yet. He’s still trying to find out how to play with that mask that’s sliding all over his face, and his hand.”
Harden, meanwhile, scored 13 second-quarter points after going scoreless in the first and needing to sit with two fouls. He hit two step-back three-pointers in the frame. He also delivered a slick bounce pass for a Harris finish and then muscled in a layup — something he has struggled to do since joining the Sixers — as part of a 12-2 run to give the Sixers a 10-point advantage with less than four minutes to play before the break.
Before his fourth-quarter flurry, Harden scored only two points in the third quarter on 0-for-2 from the floor.
The Sixers shot a blistering 54.4% from the floor, including 16-of-33 from three-point range, while the Heat made just 7 of 35 of their long balls. But partially negating that disparity to keep the Heat within striking distance was that the Sixers committed 17 turnovers that Miami parlayed into 24 points.
Ten of those giveaways for 13 points occurred in a first half during which the Sixers made 63.9% of their field goals but only led by eight points. The Sixers also allowed seven second-chance points before the break, two aspects Rivers said “literally kept [the Heat] in the game.”
Rivers said poor spacing was the primary culprit in those turnovers.
“Once we get to the right space,” Rivers said, “then when they reach, you can see them, you can make passes. When we’re not spaced right, when you drive, you have a lot of hands and you can dig them out.”
After a Game 2 absence, it appears combo guard Shake Milton has regained his spot in the Sixers’ rotation and finished with two points and two rebounds in 14 minutes.
In nine first-half minutes, he hit a pull-up jumper, battled Adebayo for a rebound and poked the ball away from Tyler Herro but also missed two free throws. Late in the third, he bounced a transition pass to Maxey for a layup that put the Sixers up, 87-80.
Milton was part of a nine-man rotation with Matisse Thybulle (five points), Georges Niang (10 points, three assists), and Paul Reed (two points). The Heat, meanwhile, went 10 deep despite missing backup center Dewayne Dedmon (illness). Miami’s bench outscored the Sixers’, 28-19.
Kyle Lowry, who missed the first two games of this series with a hamstring injury, appeared to be laboring physically and with his production. He finished with six points on 3-of-10 shooting (0-for-6 from three-point range) and seven assists.
Lowry, a Villanova and Cardinal Dougherty High School product, briefly left the game in the second quarter to head to the locker room, apparently bothered by the hamstring.
The Sixers’ Harris also got banged up, when he got knocked in the throat by Adebayo and briefly lost his voice. It was still hoarse during his postgame news conference, drawing a bewildered look from Maxey when Harris began talking.
“At least you still look fly,” Maxey told Harris.