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March 11, 2023

How the Sixers arrived at Joel Embiid's game-winner vs. Portland

Inside Joel Embiid's game-winning shot against the Blazers and what led to that 21-point comeback win for the Sixers.

When Doc Rivers called a timeout to get Joel Embiid a look at the basket on Friday night, he had a very simple reason for wanting to regroup against the Blazers.

"It was a disaster," Rivers said of the play leading into the most important timeout of the game.

He was not wrong, and frankly, it had been a long road to even reach the chance to meet disaster. 

Philadelphia had gone down 21 points to the Blazers on Friday night, failing to execute their initial gameplan against Portland before eventually falling into a style (or multiple styles) that worked for them. The Sixers tried to get the ball out of Damian Lillard's hands early in the game, blitzing ball screens only to unravel on the back end once the ball went elsewhere. Philadelphia's pain there was felt in the three-point numbers for this game, with Portland's shooting just about the only category they bested Philadelphia in.

The Sixers revisited that plan at halftime, switching their matchups to stick Joel Embiid on returning wing Matisse Thybulle in the corner. As Philadelphia had seen teams do to them many times before, the Sixers used Embiid to roam off a questionable shooter, and they stopped bringing their All-NBA rim protector out so high on the perimeter. But aside from that, Rivers noted on Friday evening, there wasn't much about the gameplan that they discussed at halftime.

"I said, guys, we're going to make one little adjustment, but this game has nothing to do with adjustments. We have to play harder, we have to be more physical, we have to pass the ball. And then, maybe as a staff, we can actually see what we're doing wrong," Rivers said. "You know when you have the locker room because everybody was [like] yeah, I hear you, and they actually did it."

Philadelphia had an unexpected hero on that front — Tyrese Maxey. Oft-maligned for his defensive limitations, Maxey was charged with chasing around Portland's lethal guard combination of Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons for much of the night. Simons lit up the Philadelphia skyline with a brilliant shooting effort, but both guards faltered down the stretch, with Lillard's make over an outstretched Embiid at the 1:20 mark of the fourth quarter the only field goal either made in the final 11 minutes.

Once Portland head coach Chauncey Billups sat Matisse Thybulle in the second half, the Sixers reached a point in the game where they switched just about every action, which meant Maxey wasn't personally responsible for an extended cold spell for the Blazers' duo. But his defensive attentiveness was noteworthy late in the game, with Maxey pressuring Portland in their own territory. As the Blazers tried to get the ball up the floor in the final few minutes, a dash from Maxey toward Simons tipped a Lillard pass off of the former's hand, earning the Sixers an extra possession with a chance to take the lead.

It was a stretch run that earned cheers from P.J. Tucker in the locker room postgame, the floating of a "Two-Way Maxey" moniker, and a bit of kudos from his head coach, not to mention a, well, mention from their best player.

"Defense is about effort," Embiid noted postgame. "There's a lot of guys that are good defenders but they don't have a lot of size. I think he's been just trying to compete. Tonight, guarding Dame, chasing him around, Dame has been on a roll lately with how many points he's been scoring lately. He's been great, it's good to see."

Whittling into that 21-point deficit for Portland was, to be clear, mostly about Joel Embiid's greatness. He scored 19 of his 39 points in the second half, an almost perfectly balanced game that he finished with elite efficiency (65 percent from the field), overwhelming physicality (18 free-throw attempts), and impact all over the box score (seven rebounds, four assists, two steals, and three blocks). At times, it felt like a game that would require a 50-ball for Philadelphia to win, and he looked up to it if that opportunity had come knocking. 

As it was, he had proven it was his game to lose when Philadelphia went into the huddle for Rivers' timeout. The Sixers' call was meant to put Embiid in a handoff situation with Harden, with Embiid having the choice to either give the ball to Harden or fake the handoff and attack. But in the process of executing the play, Embiid ended up with the ball deeper than they had expected. At that point, Harden improvised, cutting away from Embiid in an effort to clear space for the big man. 

That impromptu decision earned rave reviews from the shotmaker and the guy who called the play in the huddle, who raved about Harden's presence of mind in that spot.

"He was actually supposed to come and I could hand the ball off or fake it and go, but he's so smart and he saw that if I did that, he was going to bring his man into mine," Embiid said Friday. "Just by the way he cut and him trusting me, the whole floor was wide open. When you're playing with someone who has such a high basketball IQ, it just makes it easy."

"There are 10 people that could see that," Rivers added, "instead of 99.9 percent of the league would have come anyway and brought their guy and crowded the thing. But James realized, he caught it on the elbow, when James saw that, he just cut was a hell of a read, and that was why he had space."

From there, it was up to Embiid, holding the ball in the middle of the floor where he has so often killed teams this year. Urged by the organization and under the watchful eye of his trainer, Embiid has spent his summers refining his craft from those elbow spots, moving away from being a post-up big to a more versatile, more unstoppable threat.

Great as he is, you can still feel a nervous energy hanging in the building as the Sixers play through Embiid late in games, the weight of past failures and the modern NBA draped over the thousands of people living and dying with this team. The burden of proof is on Embiid to beat back the tide of the league, to become the best player on a title-winning team as it becomes tougher and rarer for a big man to serve as the fulcrum of a champion.

If there is doubt in this group that he can do so, it has not been shown across a campaign with big comeback after big comeback, gutsy win after gutsy win. Their commitment to the game and the goal has been on display all season, something Embiid made note of on Friday.

"We're mentally tough," Embiid said. "A lot of times in the past, probably down 20, guys would probably be like, oh, the game's over, let's move on to the next one. But we keep going. We keep finding ways, offensively and defensively."

Most of those ways, naturally, are some variation of giving the ball to No. 21. And right now, that's not such a bad plan.

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