November 03, 2018
Some nights, you can tell from the opening quarter that someone on the hardwood is about to have a monster game. A little fire in the eyes, a couple made shots, and it's off to the races from there.
It took less than a minute to figure that out for Joel Embiid on Saturday afternoon. 50 seconds into the game, he had Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond on his back, trying desperately to avoid becoming the subject of Embiid's scorn once again.
He failed miserably, and the game-opening dunk was the springboard to one of the best halves of basketball any single player has had at the Wells Fargo Center.
Embiid was visibly jacked up for the occasion, picking up a technical foul just moments later as he continued to let the trash talk fly all throughout the first half. And after skirting the line between master troll and out of control early on, Embiid absolutely dismantled Detroit. He was not shy about discussing the performance after the game, especially after a reporter noted Drummond told the media there were some "soft" foul calls against him.
"We came out today and we punched them in the mouth," said Embiid. "I thought that both of their bigs, they tried to flop a lot too, especially on the backdowns, trying to get me my fifth foul or to foul out, which I thought was whatever. But you know, at the end of the day I kicked both their asses, whoever was guarding me, and we got the win."
The final tally: 39 points, 17 rebounds, and two blocks on 10/18 from the field, with an absurd 18/23 mark from the free-throw line. Embiid's will to get to the line was immense in the first half, and he's not wrong about his dominance of Drummond and Zaza Pachulia — the big fella forced them into picking up seven fouls in the first 15 minutes of the game. As a result, there was very little thought given to how Philadelphia would run its offense in the first half.
You do not always see that version of Embiid, hunting opposing big men as if he has a blood lust. It's a very specific mentality he reserves for when he's matched up with the league's more traditional centers, a la Drummond or Miami's Hassan Whiteside. I'll spare you a montage of him drawing fouls in the paint, but there were scouts in front of the media section who just sat and laughed as Detroit's big men crumbled around him like pottery in a thousand-year old burial chamber.
"He really does get excited to do that, doesn't he?" said Brett Brown. "I looked at what his numbers were at halftime and you're like, wow. And to come in at the end of the game and have 39 and 17, 23 free throws — I think that is my favorite stat out of all that — that is a mentality. That is a disposition."
If there was a negative aspect to watching Embiid do that, it's that you wonder why he doesn't always apply the same sort of force against every team around the league. The competitive fire is always there, but if Embiid channeled that Drummond-style aggression on a nightly basis regardless of matchup, no team in the league is stopping him.
But let's be fair to Mr. Embiid — no one is really stopping him these days anyway. He was just a point shy of his second-consecutive 40-point game, and has put up 30+ in eight of his first 10 games to start the season. Embiid joined more elite company with another 30-10 game, joining Wilt Chamberlain and Walt Bellamy as the only three players to put up 30-10 or more in seven of his team's first 10 games of the year.
He has been immense, he has been consistent, he has been Joel Embiid. And his teammates know when he has it cooking like this, there's not a whole lot they have to do.
"Just keep feeding him, he got a lot of good bigs in foul trouble," said Markelle Fultz after the game. "And when you play through him, he's a willing passer, so when you play through him and he's going like the way he does, it just opens up the floor for everybody else."
It doesn't count on the scoresheet, by the way, but Embiid's roasting of Drummond on social media following the game was absolutely A1.
This won't be a game Markelle Fultz writes home about offensively. With just four points on 1/6 from the field, Fultz never found his rhythm and was part of the reason things got out of sync in the second half, though he certainly shared that responsibility with other guys on the floor.
But Fultz followed up a stellar two-way effort against the Clippers with what may have been his best defensive performance of the year against Detroit. Fans will gravitate to the block and save he had in the first half, an admittedly excellent play that sent the crowd into hysterics when Robert Covington knocked down the three in transition.
Markelle Fultz continuing with some more good defense. Engaged on the ball here before coming up with a great block and recovery/pass to lead to a Covington 3 pic.twitter.com/nhBd51saeD— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) November 3, 2018
The bigger deal for Fultz, though, is his work within the play-to-play framework of Philadelphia's defense, making the correct reads and fighting through traffic to lock up opponents. He continues to improve there, as his head coach was pleased to note after the game.
"I thought Markelle's game was excellent defensively," said Brown. "I felt like he was in it to mean it, and intelligent with his rules and reads in our gameplan... he was okay offensively, but he really I thought was prideful defensively."
Being a helpful part of a good defense sometimes just comes down to executing the simple stuff. The Sixers' length and athleticism allows them to close off lanes all over the court so long as everyone does their job. On this early-game play, for example, Fultz switched Bruce Brown in traffic without allowing him to get good separation one direction or another. And after denying the potential DHO at the elbow, all the Sixers had to do was win a one-on-one battle against Stanley Johnson to get a stop.
He was also a participant in my early nomination for the defensive possession of the season from the team, with a bench-heavy unit combining to force a Pistons turnover that resulted in a Muscala three at the other end.
Mentioned this play during the game — the help defense reads on this play were on point all over the place. Deserved stop + score the other way. pic.twitter.com/lbYlw7aEf7— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) November 3, 2018
The steals and blocks that drive the crowd into a frenzy are great. But when he can do the little things on defense even when his shot isn't dropping, simple as they may look, it gives him a foundation that will guarantee his place in the lineup. The more he's able to play, the quicker he can grow. This is his ticket to expanding his game.
We're almost at the point where it should stop surprising anyone that Shamet is offering immediate help. The Sixers run him through a lot of the same actions as JJ Redick, and Shamet's work with the veteran in the practice facility pays off when the bright lights are on him.
In fact, Brown went so far as to call him a "Mini JJ" when discussing what Shamet brings to the table after the game.
"He's just quietly jumping into this league," said Brown. "There is a consistency that he has shown, where he has been steady. Sometimes he'll miss a play call and I'll bark at him and he lets me coach him, and he's prideful. But I feel like in the capacity that we're using him...I'm running stuff for a rookie, and he's responded. He has delivered."
It's tough to overstate how big it is for the Sixers to get value out of late-round picks moving forward, with the constraints of the salary cap looming over their future. The best organizations churn out valuable role players at a quick enough pace that they don't need to overpay veterans to add individual skills to their bench, and the Sixers have failed at getting late-first value over the last few years.
Shamet looks to have changed that all by himself, at least for now. He's shooting 38 percent from three on over four attempts per game, and he has looked more competent than advertised as a defender. Shamet had a couple of rough moments there against the Pistons, but big picture he is executing many of the same sort of reads highlighted for Fultz above.
For all the fuss about Brown serving as lead decisionmaker over the summer, the group sure looks to have nailed at least this move. Long live Mini JJ.
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