February 21, 2020
If it were up to a lot of Sixers fans, Joel Embiid wouldn't even travel to the city the All-Star Game is played in every year. He would be sitting in Philadelphia, locked away in a padded room where he can't get hurt, drinking kale smoothies and gearing up for the final stretch of the regular season.
But that is not the world we live in. The world we live in featured Embiid as the hub of Team Giannis' attack in crunch-time last Sunday, willing himself to the line and the rim in the same manner he did in Thursday night's Sixers win over the Brooklyn Nets. And Sixers head coach Brett Brown sees a direct connection between an otherwise meaningless exhibition game and Embiid's dominant night against Brooklyn.
"When you come out of the All-Star Game and you feel other All Stars go to you when it's crunch time at the end of a game, there is no greater sort of boost as I see it than maybe that," Brown said. "His defense is still the thing that is our backbone. They had one point in overtime. Their percentages going down the stretch of the fourth period [were] low, and that's where I see his energy and passion being contagious with the confidence he gives the other four players."
You can point to tangible things like offensive rebounds and blocks, you can look at nebulous concepts like swagger, but you can almost always tell the difference between apex Embiid and every other level of Embiid. The Sixers got the former against the Nets to the tune of 39 points and 16 rebounds, and Embiid decided that moment offered him a chance to plant his flag.
"I feel like the first part of the season I was trying to make sure everybody was comfortable, kind of took a step back, but if we got to go somewhere, I got to be one of the [main] guys. And it starts on defense, just playing hard and running the floor, do the little things," Embiid said. "All-Star Game was fun, being there in the fourth quarter doing my thing at the end of the game. I thought it was great, the game against the Clippers was a good starting spot, but in the All-Star Game [I] was just proving I was here, I belong, being the best player in the world. I intend to keep coming out every single night, playing hard, trying to get wins, go out and try to win a championship."
Talk is cheap, obviously, and we have heard bold claims from Embiid in the past. He has laid out his desire to win MVP awards, Defensive Player of the Year trophies, and garner All-Star consideration even when he was just getting his feet wet in the league. But there is reason to believe the urgency is real, with Philadelphia still sitting in fifth place and the final stretch of the regular season upon us.
The tape will tell you there have been stretches of malaise for Embiid this season on both ends of the floor. If there is a finger to point for the team's bouts of apathy, it is at the big man himself, who has applied different levels of seriousness to being the tone-setter depending on the night.
Nothing was more indicative of Embiid's approach vs. Brooklyn than Philadelphia's opening possession of the second half, when he ran a pick-and-roll with Tobias Harris, watched the shot bounce off of the rim, and then decided to throw Brooklyn's entire front line out of the way to pick up a putback dunk.
It was the biggest reason the Sixers were able to rally after what looked like a backbreaking run from the Brooklyn Nets in the first half, a 44-8 spurt that didn't just erase Philadelphia's 20-4 start, it left the home crowd booing Embiid and Co. after they fell into a 20-point hole.
"It just really taught us to keep our composure," Tobias Harris said. "I really like the way that we handled the runs they made and how they made them. We didn't hang our head. We kind of looked each other in the eye and said, 'We know we need to be better, we need to be more physical, we need to be better defensively and get stops.'"
Hearing that quote, it's hard to think of anyone aside from Embiid, who was as active and physical at both ends as he has been all season. It certainly wasn't a testament to his backup and occasional frontcourt partner on Thursday — the Sixers were a staggering -26 when Al Horford was on the floor Thursday night, as Philadelphia struggled to keep pace whether he was flying solo or shoehorned back into a role next to Embiid.
Prior to the win over the Nets, Brown laid out to reporters his message to Embiid coming down the stretch of the season. He doesn't want to turn the big man into a post-only player, believing that to be an "archaic" approach to the sport, nor does he want him bombing away from three. But the head coach believes getting him rolling hard toward the basket is how they will get him going, and consequently, make life easier for his teammates.
It only matters, of course, if the big man is bought into that idea. Embiid is not suddenly going to turn into a rim-running maniac a la Clint Capela, but Brown wants to avoid what he referred to as a "death float," plays where Embiid drifts harmlessly out to the three-point line and forces up bad shots. By getting even to the fringes of the paint on the initial roll, life gets much easier for him, even if he's not trying to dunk or lay the ball in.
Though he had a few instances where his desire to set up shop in the paint was punished with calls against him, Embiid said after the game those are calls he is willing to live with so long as they are a product of the way he is playing.
"I got to duck in and run the floor, I got to be aggressive," Embiid said. "I had a couple of offensive fouls, three seconds and charges because of my duck-ins and how much I was in the paint. If I got to get three-second calls and offensive calls, so what?"
To Brown's point about rolling, it isn't all about scoring on those looks. When you get a 7-foot-2 guy moving toward the rim instead of being a stationary target on the perimeter, you're getting him in position for any number of positive plays. Asking a big man to wade through traffic and offensive rebound after starting from the three-point line is downright silly. It's an entirely different story when it's a continuation of his movement toward the rim, and in pick-and-roll situations, he may often find himself with a smaller guy trying to check him on the offensive glass.
Embiid has been a very good, at times great player this season, but he has not always been a leader in the ways they have needed. Being the best player on a championship-caliber team requires multi-faceted commitment, knowing when and how to demand the ball and control the game without letting everyone else fall out of the flow of the offense. You have to lead by example but also with your words, which older teammates like JJ Redick stressed to him early in his career. People's ears perk up when they hear Embiid talk, for better or for worse.
There was a terrific example of the power he wields after the Brooklyn win, when he was asked whether free-throw shooting was a point of emphasis for the team after some struggles there recently. With Ben Simmons out Thursday due to lower back tightness, Embiid still found room to include him in the discussion.
"As players, we got to do our job," Embiid said. "The thing I'm so happy about is Ben has been shooting the lights out at the free-throw line. It shows his work ethic, he's been working really hard and it's showing up. He's got to keep doing that and keep working and keep improving, and I think that's a big part of it."
The easiest way to squash concerns about their clunky fit and their viability as a contender is for Embiid to lead in this way on and off of the court. There were no off-color postgame comments, no late-night Instagram shenanigans, nothing but Embiid keeping his head down and going to work.
He is not the first or the last great Sixers big man to combine on-court dominance with big-time chatter. This is the franchise of the big man who once claimed to have slept with 20,000 women, and of another big man who boldly proclaimed the Sixers would sweep through the 1983 playoffs and almost pulled it off.
But it's time to deliver on all this promise and all this talent. Every few games isn't good enough. Embiid knows that, and his simple message for teammates in crunch time of Thursday's win should be a rallying cry for the rest of the season.
"I'm telling teammates, 'Just get me the ball,'" Embiid said. "That's the mindset I got to have, and I want my teammates to know I'm going to be there."
Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck
Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports