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December 07, 2021

Joel Embiid's 43-point effort vs. Hornets is a blueprint for how to approach the game

After rolling to an 8-2 start to the year, the Sixers have been dealt one blow after another. Injuries to rotation players and a stream of players trickling into the health and safety protocols derailed a hot start, and not even Tyrese Maxey's emergence was enough to stop their regression toward .500. 

They may be just 3-2 since getting Joel Embiid back in the lineup, squeaking out wins against teams they should probably be beating comfortably, but it does feel like the big man is starting to rediscover himself, COVID-related difficulties aside. The last two games against Atlanta and Charlotte featured some of his most dominant stretches all season. Even by his standards, the Hornets game was a masterclass, with Embiid shooting 75 percent from the field en route to 43 points, 15 rebounds, and seven assists. 

Early in the game, Embiid scored those points the old-fashioned way, punishing the Hornets for smaller lineups by sticking his butt on the low block and going to work. We often talk about the need to play purposeful, uptempo basketball when discussing Tobias Harris, whose dawdling is a hot topic for head coach Doc Rivers. But tempo is just as important for Embiid, who often finds himself in trouble when he spends too much time dribbling in the post, opening opportunities for weakside help to swoop in while he's not looking.

While we can concede it is easier for Embiid to play quickly when he has a size and strength advantage over his opponent, the level of purpose in these moves is something he can replicate regardless of who is guarding him. The catch on entry passes was being turned into an immediate move, with the big guy not allowing anyone to get set before he moved toward the basket: 

Compared against the tape from his miserable night in Boston last week, there's a night-and-day difference, even when the Hornets decided to send double teams at the big guy to bother him. And for Embiid, that game appears to have served as an in-season lesson (or at least a reminder) of what he needs to do in order to be his best self. 

Embiid added Monday that he goes over it every single game with his trainer, Drew Hanlen, noting what went wrong and what worked for him on any given night. In an effort to rediscover the form that powered his push for MVP last season, Embiid says commitment to work early in the clock will be critical for him.

"Especially the last two games, I've really imposed myself inside," Embiid said Monday night. "We try to go back to last year to see what I was doing, what worked because I was that dominant last year. One of the things that I saw was that I got to get easy ones, easy ones doesn't necessarily mean I'm getting drop-off passes from my teammates, it means I got to work harder to get deeper position on the block. And when I start seeing the ball go in the rim, it helps, especially going to the free-throw line and getting my rhythm that way."

Quietly, Embiid's numbers at the line have been down some this season, admittedly in a small sample of just 14 games. He is getting there with the same frequency we've come to expect from the big fella, unaffected by the NBA's points of emphasis for their officials this year, but he is shooting just 77.1 percent from the line, his worst mark since the last time he was under 80 percent from the stripe in 2017-18. Still, at the volume he shoots them and given his size, that's plenty good, and to Embiid's point, finding his footing at the free-throw line is a good way to build confidence early in games. 

With Embiid in a groove at the stripe on Monday, the Hornets didn't seem to know what to do with Embiid around the basket the further they got into the game, taking desperate fouls in some instances or shying away from contact out of fear of putting him at the stripe. What stood out on Embiid's end was that he maintained his focus on the basket even as he tried to sell foul calls with his body language or voice, yelping when he felt there was contact. It all came together on a play like this, where Embiid uses one dribble to beat a much smaller Gordon Hayward, uses a quick pump fake to get Miles Bridges in the air, and then deposits a bucket while making an audible gesture to the officials:

As concerned as I have been about how the Sixers' lineups are structured around Embiid at times, a huge responsibility still rests on his shoulders to figure out the best way to attack an opponent. Generating double teams is a feature of running the offense through him, something Embiid has to be hyperaware of at all times. He has to be willing to punish double teams as a passer the way he instinctually punishes one-on-one matchups on the rare possessions where he gets them.

A lot of times that can mean holding onto the ball and waiting for pieces to fall in place on a given possession. That was the case on a Danny Green cut to the corner for a three midway through the second quarter, with Embiid simply keeping his mitts on the ball long enough for Green to get to his spot.

Playmaking at his height, with smaller players constantly swatting around his midsection in an attempt to turn Philadelphia over, is all about discretion, which has not exactly been Embiid's biggest strength over the years. But his decision-making was (mostly) good and matched the pace he played with as a scorer against Charlotte, with Embiid limiting himself to one or two dribbles before firing the ball to a teammate.

Then, of course, there was the barrage of jumpers, the shots that ultimately carried Philadelphia home in this game. After spending the first half almost exclusively around the rim, Embiid's second half plus overtime was all about attacking via the jumper, the Hornets helpless to stop him as he made shots over whoever stood in front of him.

There are a lot of people who find it personally offensive to watch him shoot jumpers, a betrayal of his physical gifts, but Embiid's best performances typically show that he needs balance to be the best version of himself. Without the feathery touch, Embiid is still an impactful player but short of an MVP candidate, a fastball pitcher in need of an off-speed pitch. 

Whether they should need Embiid to be borderline perfect to beat a Hornets team missing five of their best players is a story for another time. Regardless, Embiid playing outstanding basketball and dominating deep into a game is always great to see, even moreso after a long bout with COVID. He's not going to get 40+ every night, but the ability to tilt the floor and lead Philadelphia to wins is there for the taking.

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