NEW YORK (AP) — All Joel Embiid could give the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday was encouragement.
The NBA’s leading scorer and MVP finalist couldn’t play because of a sprained right knee, but still provided a presence for his team.
“It starts with Joel,” guard Tyrese Maxey said. “He’s the leader of this team and for him, he takes the guys before the game and he told us good luck and we appreciate him for that. And we need him to get healthy.”
The 76ers bought him plenty of time to do that.
Tobias Harris had 25 points and 12 rebounds, and the 76ers beat the Brooklyn Nets 96-88 to complete a sweep and become the first team to reach the second round of the playoffs.
James Harden added 17 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds for the third-seeded 76ers, who will wait for the winner of the series between the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks. The defending Eastern Conference champion Celtics have a 2-1 lead.
By sweeping a seven-game series for the first time since beating Milwaukee in 1985, the 76ers ensured that Embiid will have at least a week to recover before they play again.
“Obviously, today was big for us so we can get Big Fella healthy,” Harden said. “That’s priority No. 1.”
The Sixers turned to their defense without him and ended up outscoring the Nets 21-4 during a stretch of more than eight minutes in the third quarter.
Maxey finished a strong series with 16 points and Paul Reed added 10 points and 15 rebounds after replacing Embiid in the starting lineup.
Spencer Dinwiddie scored 20 points and Nic Claxton had 19 points and 12 rebounds for the Nets, who were swept for the second straight year and have lost 10 straight postseason games. They went 0-8 this season against the 76ers.
Embiid went to the locker room early in Game 3 and was limping a couple times later in the game, but had a blocked shot to preserve a two-point lead with 8.8 seconds left and said afterward he was OK. But coach Doc Rivers said Embiid was complaining of soreness behind his knee and already had swelling shortly after the game. An MRI exam revealed the sprain.
Dorian Finney-Smith’s 3-pointer two minutes into the third quarter made it 53-42, matching the Nets’ largest lead of the game. But Harden and P.J. Tucker hit consecutive 3s to get the Sixers started on what became a 14-0 run that made it 56-53 on Reed’s basket.
Maxey’s 3-pointer extended it to 63-57 with 1:49 remaining in the period, capping the Nets’ lengthy drought that would have seemed unimaginable when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were in Brooklyn. They were both dealt at midseason, and this team went down just as quickly as the one the duo led last season, when Brooklyn was also the first team eliminated after getting swept by Boston.
“I told them they should feel extremely proud when they walk around the borough of Brooklyn,” coach Jacque Vaughn said. “The way that we competed, we didn’t make excuses this year. We figured out how to stay together. That locker room was together even until the end of the game.”
Embiid averaged only 20 points in the series, 13 below his NBA-leading average of 33.1, as the Nets heavily double-teamed him.
But those double-teams were leaving open looks for their guards that weren’t available Saturday, and the Sixers were just 2 for 11 from 3-point range in the first half as the Nets led 48-40.
But the 76ers limited them to 40 points in the second half and eventually pulled away to a 14-point lead as the cheers of the Sixers fans in the building grew louder.
76ers: Philadelphia’s eight-game winning streak against Brooklyn in the playoffs is its second-longest ever against an opponent. The 76ers beat the New York Knicks 10 straight times in the early 1980s.
Nets: The Nets fell to 0-7 all-time at home against the 76ers in the postseason. … Patty Mills played for the first time in the series, going scoreless in five minutes. … Brooklyn’s last playoff win remains Game 5 against Milwaukee in the 2021 East semifinals.
Rivers said he doesn’t worry when he sees Embiid appear to be hurting, as he was at times during Game 3. His concerns begin when he is told the medical staff wants to do an MRI exam.
“As a coach I hate that word, I hate those three letters. I mean, because it never comes out well,” Rivers said. “It just feels like that whenever they tell a coach, ‘Hey, we’re going to get an MRI,’ it doesn’t turn out well most of the time and this one did not.”
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Brian Mahoney, The Associated Press