November 30, 2019
Less than a week ago, Joel Embiid played the worst game of his professional career, a zero-point performance in Toronto that he plainly admitted was unacceptable. It was about more than just that big fat zero — Embiid allowed his opponent to dictate the terms of the game, floating around the perimeter with no discernible plan to break out of the funk.
In the games since, Embiid has been a different man. Saturday's win over the Indiana Pacers was the third consecutive game in which Embiid shot at least 14 free throws, with the big man piling up 32 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists as the hub of Philly's offense.
You do not shoot 15 free throws by accident. To let Embiid tell the story, that terrible night in Toronto was an eye-opener for him, and it didn't just change his approach for this week, it changed his approach to the rest of this season.
"Since the Toronto game, I kind of changed my mindset on the whole season. I have not been as aggressive as I was last year, attempting 10 free throws a game, so the last couple of games I have just been aggressive," Embiid said. "Just being more physical, creating the contact, causing whoever is guarding me to react to it."
"It's a disposition, it's a mentality more than it is a stat," Brett Brown added. "None of us can underestimate the hurt he felt after the Toronto game, where he felt like he let us down. And we have seen him respond.
The endless struggle is challenging Embiid to pull out the sledgehammer without overdoing it, seeing the playoff run in the distance. When he is as dominant as he has been around the basket the last few nights, the cries for him to camp out down low only grow louder.
That likely wasn't a feasible strategy in years past. Embiid is already the league leader in post-ups, and with health concerns looming at all times, you don't want to subject his body to more wear and tear than it needs to. There was another layer beyond that. His recognition and passing out of double-teams was often poor, making a turnover-prone style even more dangerous for Philly.
But finally, the game has slowed down for Embiid. Double teams are less effective than they have ever been against Embiid, who is finding open teammates on the perimeter for great looks. And some of that just comes down to slowing himself down, assessing the defense without dribbling or simplifying his moves to make the next read easier.
It has been a team effort, aided by an improved understanding of floor spots and better chemistry with certain guys, Tobias Harris and Furkan Korkmaz in particular. As the beneficiaries of all that extra attention they send his way, his running mates love to see Embiid down on the block as they soon get down the floor.
"We're best when Joel is that aggressive — so much attention and double teams — and he has been a willing passer to make plays out of that. It overall helps everybody because he's such a focal point, so if you're coming off pick-and-rolls, they're going back to him and whatnot, and he's a beast. You can't guard him down there, either you foul or hope he misses, that's about it."
The head coach, by the way, knows what all of you think about the down nights, the ones where Embiid drifts and misses too many outside shots, a misuse of his talent in the eyes of many fans. In a perfect world, they would probably throw him on the low block another dozen times per game, allowing him to run roughshod through defenders who aren't built to stop him.
But the environment often dictates how the game goes, and Embiid's nightly positioning is part of the season-long algebra. You cannot move him without moving someone else, and vice versa.
"He gets banged around and so do I with him being on the perimeter floating, and I think that it is true, how can it not be true? You wish he was inside more," Brown said before the Indiana game. "But...we've got a lot of post-up guys and sometimes there's no space. And so trying to work that ecosystem where you take our best post-up player and get him down there and still like, shape the team and form the team and coexist with Ben and all that, it's not a clear formula.
"We're learning about this. I think Joel's mentality has always been to try to go claim that. Sometimes that's connected to how good he feels physically — it's hard going rim-to-rim. But, by and large, lately I think he's been good, at times great."
As satisfying as it is to see him tear smaller men up in the paint, it would also feel like a waste if Embiid was turned into a traditional, immobile center on offense, an Al Jefferson for 2019. There is so much more in his bag than just being big and strong.
Over the last few games, he has found a way to do everything. That includes playing in another back-to-back, something that isn't wholly necessary but will always be welcomed by his teammates. With a group that is still learning, every moment counts.
"I'm getting better every game, this season is about getting better every single game, ramping up, getting ready for the playoffs, and that's been my approach since the season started," Embiid said of his big night. "My intensity [is] going up every single game just to get ready for the playoffs."
A night off won't kill him, but this is the Joel Embiid they need to contend.
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