March 10, 2019
There were conflicting reports on Joel Embiid's conditioning from people who would be in a position to know on Sunday. Before the game, head coach Brett Brown said that he would grade it around a C heading into a pivotal game against the Pacers, having seen him go through 75 minutes of five-on-five Saturday afternoon at the practice facility.
His star player didn't give his own letter grade, but when those 75 minutes were brought up after a 106-89 win over Indiana, Embiid made that C grade look charitable.
"Yesterday basically told me that I wasn't ready because yesterday after every game I was on the floor crying for my life," Embiid told reporters on Sunday evening. "So I didn't think I was going to come in and play [that well]. The goal of this game was basically, he thought I could only play 24 minutes depending on my conditioning, and I told him let's just go with the flow of the game."
If you were only judging Embiid on the results Sunday, you'd have never known that was the case. He was Philadelphia's best player on both ends of the floor, and shook off some early rust to put up a very typical Embiid line: 33 points and 12 rebounds in 28 minutes of action, on top of his spectacular defense that helped shut the Pacers down in the second half.
There was every excuse in the world for the Sixers to be cautious with Embiid on Sunday, and when he got into early foul trouble, they could have doubled down on that instinct.
When he picked up his third foul with over 10 minutes to play in the second quarter, the thought of, "Maybe it just isn't his day" runs through your mind. The time he'd missed was obvious early, with Embiid failing to connect with JJ Redick on a couple basic dribble handoffs, which are as routine as it gets for that duo.
But instead of going away from him, Brown turned to a foul-plagued Embiid to help stem the tide at the end of the first half, and the head coach asked him to keep building on that in the third quarter. Brown did this, he said, because of one simple factor: trust between the head coach and his best player.
"As he has gotten older and he and I have spent more time with each other, I trust him. At times it has backfired, but not many," Brown said after the game. "By and large, trust is probably the dominant word that had me have him stay in there."
Instead of wilting under foul trouble, it was Embiid who took it to Indiana on the interior, putting their big men in foul trouble through sheer force of will. The three-man combination of Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, and Kyle O'Quinn picked up 12 fouls on Sunday afternoon, with Embiid overwhelming them up front in the second half for 24 points and 13 free throws attempted.
You knew he'd arrived when he baited Sabonis on a pump fake in the fourth, drove into the lane and used a Euro step to go around Thaddeus Young, depositing a ridiculous shot through contact when all was said and done. He turned to the crowd and proclaimed it himself: "I'm back!"
As important as his offensive production was, it was Embiid's work on the defensive end that should remind the public why he is the key to their championship aspirations. Indiana scored just 30 total points in the second half on 9/38 shooting from the field, and with Embiid anchoring things on the back end, the Sixers' recent struggles on that end of the floor evaporated.
Embiid's physical gifts are critical to his defensive brilliance, but they do not tell the full story. Without his awareness and positioning, he would just be another big, gifted guy in the paint. But it's how he ties that full package together that makes him special — Embiid will bait players into decisions and then use his length to make those decisions look poor in short order.
He is their air-traffic controller on the back end, directing the rest of his buddies around with loud chatter and exaggerated arm-waving. On one possession in the second half, Embiid barked at JJ Redick on repeated "scram" switches away from the ball until the veteran guard finally settled onto the matchup the Sixers' center wanted, three switches later. They got a stop on the possession following a harmless Pacers jumper.
Those are the sort of plays that don't show up in his box score but end up making a difference on the scoreboard when it's all said and done. They are the plays that prompt Mike Scott to call him a "stud" that holds the Sixers together on the other end. And these plays are ultimately why Philadelphia's defensive scheme is designed around Embiid.
It takes a village to make this possible. When Embiid was on the shelf, there was Kim, a physical therapist from New York, who Embiid says he has worked with for the past three years. There was a man from Aspetar, the sports medicine hospital in Qatar Embiid visited years ago, who came to Philadelphia to help take care of Embiid "every single day" according to the big man. And there are figures in management like Elton Brand — who Embiid referred to as "fresh air" compared to the previous regime — helping to connect the different layers of the organization through simple communication.
At the center of all this, of course, is Embiid. It is one thing to possess all the gifts as an athlete, and another to actually make use of them. His greatest trait may be his championship-level spirit, which drives him to return to the court where he can help his teammates. His health indeed improved this past week, yet that is only part of the story.
"We're fighting for the third seed over here. We're fighting for homecourt advantage," Embiid said. "I felt like I had to play this game, just to make sure we were in good position."
He did a lot more than play in it. He starred in it, he owned it, he dominated it.
After Embiid got his legs under him in a sloppy first half, his coach turned the controls of the team back over to him, and Embiid did what he so often does — he led them to a victory.
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