April 20, 2019
BROOKLYN — All most of us are doing during the pre-game period is guessing about Joel Embiid. He is not an easy man to get a read on. There have been nights he has looked incredible during warm-ups only to sit out. There are nights where he saunters out there, shoes untied and his body slumped, only for him to suit up and drop 35 on whatever poor soul is guarding him.
The only thing that matters is that when Embiid steps between the lines, he is one of the best basketball players alive. And he proved that once again with a gargantuan performance at Barclays Center on Saturday afternoon. 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, and six blocks later, the Sixers emerged from Game 4 with an iron grip on the series.
They may not have needed him in Game 3, but they needed every bit of him to get their second road victory of the playoffs. Philadelphia's options off of the bench were a complete disaster in Game 4. Brooklyn finally figured out how to exploit Boban Marjanovic in space, with Caris LeVert's addition to the starting lineup proving particularly problematic. Jonah Bolden was arguably even worse, and his three-minute cameo may be the last we see of him at center for a while.
As it turned out, it didn't matter. Brooklyn scored at a rate of 87.3 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the floor, shutting down play after play after play when the Nets attacked the rim.
"Just look at the magnitude of what the numbers say, the influence that the numbers say he must have had on the game," Brett Brown said after the game. "There were times when you can see that it's still raw and there are some decisions he probably would like to have over again, but given the volume of playing time lately that he hasn't had, it's just a dominant performance. What more can you say?"
"Nothing Joel does ever surprises me," JJ Redick added. "Elite rim protector and he's a top-five player in the NBA."
As Brown says, the numbers do speak for themselves. But watching him close space on defense remains one of the great thrills of covering this team no matter how many times you see him do it. You're convinced a player has created enough separation to get to the rim, he hangs back enough to entice them into attempting the shot, and yet there he is to end the danger, pinning the shot to send the Sixers on the break.
This game, from this writer's perspective, is an example of how out of whack public discourse is when it comes to assessing who the game's best players are. Defense simply isn't valued by the public the way it should be, nor is Embiid spoken of the way he should be given his talent.
Embiid can break a team on defense in a way few other players in the league can. If Steph Curry is famous for expanding the floor and forcing defenders out of their comfort zones, Embiid is the exact opposite, a floor-shrinking behemoth who forces teams to shoot only in the areas he allows them to.
When you can do that on top of throwing Jarrett Allen into Dimension X on the other end of the floor, how many players can truthfully be called better than you? There may be a few, but apex Embiid is up there with anybody. The league will continue to shift and transform over time, but there is a constant — when the goal of a sport is 10 feet in the air, the ability to dominate above it will always reign supreme.
To be clear, this was far from a one-man show on Saturday. Ben Simmons dialed back his scoring a bit, but his work in tandem with Embiid was special on both ends of the floor. Simmons has taken D'Angelo Russell, a player who thrives from the mid-range area the Sixers want him to shoot from, and absolutely strangled him for three straight games.
If Russell doesn't commit to the drive, Simmons has the strength and speed to get into position for a shot contest. If Russell decides to challenge Embiid, we know who will end up the victor in most of those battles. Coming into the game, the Nets were scoring less than a point per possession as a team with Simmons defending Russell, and a 6/19 performance later, that scoring slump is even more significant.
But it is the other end of the floor where the Sixers have really seen their franchise cornerstones grow together. Brett Brown made the decision to pair Simmons and Embiid together despite the expectation from many that Butler/Embiid and Simmons/Harris would be the go-to combinations in the playoffs.
The two have owned that challenge, putting in a little extra work in the practice facility to help prepare them for all the extra minutes together on the floor.
"I saw a partnership," Brown said of the duo after Saturday's win. "You especially saw it when we posted Jo, Ben finding space as his men left behind Joel's post-up, and then defensively, you could see them talking about what we were doing in pick-and-rolls...I think that there was a deeper connection after Jimmy was ejected and offensively and defensively you can see what might make you say that."
"He's a player, he's ready to come in and do his job," Ben Simmons said of his co-star after the game. "It's just his mindset I think, just knowing his size and his ability with the ball at the rim to make plays. I think he's always just ready, and he works a lot."
That they were able to accomplish all this without Jimmy Butler in the second half makes it all the more impressive. Butler's ejection was a point of some controversy, with Brooklyn's Jared Dudley getting exactly what he was after when he pushed an unsuspecting Embiid.
Embiid and Butler put on a unified front after the game, sitting together at the podium to answer questions and crack jokes after the win. Their relationship has been icy at times — a natural product of two alpha dogs trying to seize control — but there have been moments of real camaraderie down the stretch. After learning he was ejected, Butler made sure to grab his guys on the way out to give them some parting words before hitting the showers.
And there is nothing that can win a teammate over quite like going to battle for them after someone attempts a cheap shot.
"Somebody run up on him, I'm going to push him again," Butler told reporters after the game.
"And I'm going to pay the fine," Embiid chirped.
The Sixers, it seems, appear to be coming into their own as a group. It may not be enough for them to overcome their inexperience together this season, but for the first time in a while, it feels like they are actually building toward something real as a group. They are incorporating different offensive styles, winning without their best stuff, and putting together quarters that would make any team in basketball blush.
That all starts with Joel Embiid. There are many hurdles for the Sixers left to clear. But as long as they have that dude, they have a puncher's chance.
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