January 21, 2019
Without Jimmy Butler, a matchup with James Harden and the Rockets should have been a shootout. And while Harden certainly got his on the night, it was the MVP candidate on the home team that made sure he was the only player on the Rockets that could get going on Monday night.
Embiid sat for almost the entire fourth quarter, and still managed to put up an insane line — 32 points, 14 rebounds, two assists, two steals, and three blocks on 9-for-16 shooting (14-for-17 from the line), adding some dominant defense at the rim on top of his offensive production. He was a massive plus-21 on the evening, nearly a perfect inverse of Harden's minus-23. The 121-93 victory was a direct reflection of Embiid's talent.
Following Monday's otherworldly Joel Embiid performance, I asked Brett Brown whether he thought Embiid was getting his proper due in the conversation surrounding the MVP race. The head coach offered an emphatic no and then gave a detailed explanation to the assembled press.
"Nope. All you really have to do is look what happens when we don't have him," said Brown. "Look at some of the first halves that he has produced that have forced opposition coaches to make incredible adjustments in the second half. In my eyes, it's not even close, he should be in these types of conversations."
"More importantly, his leadership and his sort of growth recognizing the responsibility he has with this city, with this program, and professional disposition, professional approach to practice and shootaround and film session, has been the best it has ever been for me in 2019. You take all of that, and then you say and he's doing this on the court? So the MVP thing expands in my eyes to many different areas that he's getting better."
If you ask his teammates, that approach is the same, day after day, practice after practice, film session after film session. Standing across from another MVP frontrunner, perhaps the frontrunner, would be enough to get the juices flowing for anybody.
For Embiid, they say it's business as usual.
"I gotta say, I feel like Jo tries to dominate every night," JJ Redick told reporters in the locker room after the game. "There is like another gear, yeah, I think there are certain nights where he tries to reach that. And props to him, he's been a little banged up, [but he came] out today and just basically annihilated them."
Embiid seems to be of two minds about the situation. When he was first asked about whether there's extra juice, he told reporters that a matchup with a guy like Harden isn't what gets him going. Team success matters, all that jazz. Basically, he gave the stock answer he thinks people want to hear:
Nah, I do whatever my team needs me to do, and that's score the ball, be the best defensive player in the league, and be a playmaker. All I care about is winning, and if MVP comes with it, great, but right now we're looking to win a lot of games, and we're doing that.
Later on Monday night, he seemed to indicate the exact opposite, using the big, bad media as motivation for his dominance:
"It's fun, I love playing against guys that you guys might say they are better than me," said Embiid with a smile, "just to prove you guys that they're not."
Barring a massive push from the Sixers down the stretch this season, one similar to the late winning streak that powered them to the No. 3 seed and 52 wins last season, it feels as if there's too much working against Embiid. Harden is the dominant scorer at the top of the race, Giannis Antetokounmpo has been ridiculous and his Milwaukee Bucks are ahead of Philly in the standings, and a lot of Embiid's value comes on defense, an area MVP races tend to discount in favor of offensive production.
But with the Sixers 2-1 to start their brutal January-February stretch, and Embiid dominating teams while dealing with a sore back, perhaps this is the run where Embiid can truly state his case and butt into the conversation. He has the numbers to keep up with anybody, he has visibility, and all he needs to do is make sure his team keeps winning games.
If the voters don't follow, it seems clear he'll still have one vocal supporter in his corner.
"I've been with him now for five years. That growth he has shown through two naviculars, gaining weight, unsure if he's going to play, we sent him to the Middle East to find ways to recover," said Brown. "And to have him come back and be rewarded with a contract, be in an MVP conversation, his progression from back then until now is incredible...it's the overall growth and the leadership especially that interests me the most."
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