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January 29, 2023

After MVP effort vs. Nuggets, Joel Embiid hopes winning will do the talking

A strange thing happened immediately after Joel Embiid's 47-point, 18-rebound, five-assist performance against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday afternoon. In a media room filled with people who had just watched a future Hall of Famer essentially double up the back-to-back MVP in scoring, somehow the topic drifted to P.J. Tucker, or the 12 minutes Matisse Thybulle played, or Tobias Harris' dirty work, or...well, you get the point.

And maybe that sort of drives home something Embiid said himself after the game. Fresh off of his All-Star starter snub, on the heels of a C-level game against Ben Simmons' Nets, and after unleashing a tour de force on Nikola Jokic, it was as if his performance was simply expected. Not an amazing feat, not a headline outing, just the postman dropping off today's mail.

"I think it’s more motivation to try to go out and win the whole thing," Embiid said while discussing All-Star voting. "I guess that’s the only way I'm probably going to get that respect." 

"I think we probably got a pretty good chance. You’re playing the best team in the West, down 15 points or something like that, and to come back and to be able to win the game, that gives us a lot of confidence. If we could clean up a lot of areas defensively, I think we could be even better."

Maybe Embiid undermines his own points at times. At that same podium on Saturday, he described regular season games — while dropping the always hilarious "no disrespect" qualifier — as basically practice for the playoffs. At this stage of his career, with his game in full bloom, he believes these 82 games are about figuring out what does and doesn't work ahead of the postseason, adding or subtracting from his bag based on trial and error. Other players (and perhaps most players) probably believe that to be the case, but they might not say so in those exact words.

Even still, it does feel like we are slowly running out of reasons to discount the Sixers, and Embiid and running mate James Harden have certainly made it look as easy as a practice session over the last couple of months. Since Harden's return on December 5th, the Sixers have the NBA's No. 1 offense, scoring a staggering 121.1 points per 100 possessions according to Cleaning the Glass tracking. Embiid has posted a line of 35.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game on 54.9/42.6/86.8 shooting splits during that time period. Their two stars have been a pick-and-roll metronome, with every team knowing what is coming their way and somehow never finding a way to stop Harden and Embiid from executing.

Most importantly, the Sixers are 20-5 during that time period. That includes the second 5+ win, undefeated road trip in franchise history, a number of dramatic late-game wins, multiple victories with a star (or multiple stars) out of the lineup, and a somewhat skeptical view from local and national viewers alike. A team led by Embiid, Harden, and Doc Rivers? Wake us up when they get to the conference finals, the thought process goes.

Fair enough, but the final eight minutes of Sixers-Nuggets are a window into the dream world for Philly in the postseason. Most possessions start with the same play or a variation of the same play, but Harden and Embiid are constantly tweaking and sliding and thinking their way through. When Jokic came up to the level to meet Harden, one quick swing to Tyrese Maxey is all it took to get Embiid isolated 10 feet out with no one in a position to help. Stick Embiid at the elbow with a chance to face up, and the only thing a defender can do is pray his touch is off. The window Harden needs to get Embiid the ball is tiny — Jamal Murray often knew where a pass was going and tried to anticipate it, but there the ball goes, through a pair of defenders and into the waiting hands of the NBA's leading scorer.

"I swear, I was going to tell at Tyrese twice," Doc Rivers joked on Saturday, "because we were running the same action, and then he shortcutted it twice, and even James, the king of the shortcut, was yelling at him."

Rivers' favorite play, though, was the one where Embiid didn't score the ball. Putting Murray and Jokic to work once again, a behind-the-head pass from Harden found Embiid at the top of the circle with Murray scrambling back, hoping to step in front of the locomotive. And instead of trying to go right through Denver's smaller defenders, Embiid waited until Aaron Gordon cheated from the corner, picking out Tobias Harris for a massive three. An eight-point lead might as well have been 80 at that point:

No one has ever been able to doubt Embiid's talent or even his impact, but being a franchise-leading, title-winning star is the highest hurdle to clear. It takes mental fortitude as much as elite production, finding a balance between making teammates their best selves while rendering their mistakes harmless. It's not even just about basketball — in the first half of Saturday's game, Shake Milton and Georges Niang had an animated exchange on the sideline, Niang upset at a non-pass from Milton and Milton bothered by Niang's reaction to the play. Right after Montrezl Harrell stepped in and held Niang back, Embiid came swooping in, offering a not-so-gentle reminder that this was just one play.

"I just told both of them to let it go, that we had a fucking game to win," Embiid said. "Guys get into each other, it makes us better. I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, after the game, we're all laughing...when Georges had a couple of threes in the second half, I think some of them came from Shake. That's how basketball goes, you move on."

His foe on Saturday was an example of a leader's challenge in a regular-season setting. Jokic was ultra-efficient and had a tidy stat line, but his team was left wanting for production late, and rather than taking the game over, he was a passenger as Embiid seized the game for himself. The level required to win and lead is different every night, and the task only gets taller in the postseason, when every single game from round two onward is against a player (or multiple players) working on a Hall of Fame resume of their own.

There is no shame in wanting individual accolades and awards and recognition after dedicating yourself to a craft and rising to the top of your profession. Privately, Embiid still grumbles over slights and rankings and things that seem trivial even to a basketball-obsessed writer like this one. But he and his teammates are consistent in their message, knowing that the most important thing on their minds is within their control.

"He takes winning more important than any of that," Tobias Harris said Saturday. "He cares more about winning a championship than all those other types of honors. I think anybody, everybody in the locker room can attest to that."

"I don't worry about what you guys or the fans want from me, I worry about what my team needs from me," Embiid said Saturday. "It's all about playing whatever fits, whatever is going to help us win. Sometimes it's living [in the post], sometimes it's also spreading the floor, you've got so many guys, sometimes it's also good to give them space and let them do what they do best. As a team, I think we're finding the right way to play."

Last season put him in the history books, and he is a level or two beyond that this year. In Year 7, Embiid is still finding ways to raise the standard. If his focus remains on that, the goals in the distance, and the men in the locker room who are here to aid his journey, the rest will come.

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