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December 16, 2017

Sixers' triple-overtime thriller a reminder to treasure every minute of Joel Embiid

Forty-eight minutes, 34 points, and far too many turnovers later, Joel Embiid's night was finally over when the buzzer sounded at the end of a 119-117 triple-overtime loss in South Philly. After finally snatching the victory, Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook sarcastically waved Embiid goodbye while leaving the court, mocking Embiid's own wave to Steven Adams after he fouled him out of the game in the final frame.

Bested by the reigning MVP, most players would have been content to spout platitudes about respecting their opponent's talent after the game. Embiid took a different approach, and he described the trash talk flying between he and Westbrook during his postgame availability.

"He told me to go home," said Embiid. "I mean this is my home, so I guess it's [time for him] to go home. They won the game, I give them a lot of credit, he did a lot of things, but the dude shot like 10/33. I wish I would have shot 33 times, I guess we would have had a better chance of actually winning the game. But you know, he told me to go home, and this is my home and I ain't going nowhere."

Embiid had another future Hall of Fame player in his sights after the game concluded. The young center got into a visible shouting match with Carmelo Anthony after the Thunder forward fouled him on a post-up, and Embiid was more concerned with getting the crowd to cheer than entertaining Anthony's tough-guy posturing.

If you let Embiid tell the story, he fears nobody coming at him within the boundaries of an NBA court, and he shrugged off the exchange with Anthony.

"I'm just worried about going to the free-throw line and making my foul shot — which I actually missed and I was pissed about it — but you know, guys in the league, I can't remember the last time someone actually threw a punch at somebody," said Embiid. "I'm not worried about anybody, I see that a lot all over the place, a lot of people talking about people coming back at me. I'm African, so don't try me."

The concern over Embiid's future and how he'll hold up, the worrying over his grimaces throughout an exhausting game against the Thunder, it all comes from a good place and a desire to protect a wonderful basketball player and personality. But nights like he had this week against Minnesota and Oklahoma City are a reminder to treasure every minute you get to spend within the orbit of Embiid, who is liable to turn a dull game into a game-of-the-year candidate.

Embiid's best work was not done in front of a microphone after the game. It was in the impossible stretch starting from 6:27 of the fourth quarter onward, when he reentered the game and didn't come out for 21:27 of action. You were treated to the full package: the whooping and hollering after a finish, the turnovers, but most of all, blinding dominance on both ends of the court.

There are not many basketball players who are audacious enough to even try to meet Russell Westbrook at the rim. They do not want to live on as a victim on his highlight tape in perpetuity. But Embiid shows no fear, and on a couple of occasions late in the game, Embiid made one of the best athletes on the planet look ill-equipped to be in the same space as him.

The craziest part about that play is Embiid is actually moving in the wrong direction when Westbrook begins his drive. A quick plant, an explosion and a preposterous amount of length vaporize the head start Westbrook has to smithereens.

He would summon the strength to do so one more time before the game was done. Gasping for breath and looking like he might need someone to wheelbarrow him off the court, Embiid spied Westbrook trying to pick up an easy bucket in transition. With whatever strength he had left, Embiid dialed it up one more time and made an outrageous recovery to deny Westbrook at the rim.

Embiid is the personification of YOLO, on the court and off, a man who lives unafraid to challenge his peers and unable to consider pumping the brakes on his 150 miles per hour style. When all was said and done, he brought it over the finish line with a preposterous line: 48 minutes, 34 points, eight rebounds, six assists, two blocks, and yes, those painful, hard-to-forget seven turnovers. His coach considered sitting him at times during the overtime sessions, knowing how tired he was and how his health is always the elephant in the room. But they needed him, and even after conceding they'd talked about it as a staff, Brett Brown only felt comfortable saying he might have given him a brief breather.

"He felt good about playing," said Brown. "We listened to him as a staff and thought that was going to work. Maybe, in the light of day, we could've given him a minute here or there."

I'm not sure Brown would have survived had Embiid spent even a second of those overtime minutes on the pine. Wells Fargo Center devolved into a screaming, swaying mob during the final stages of the game, desperately trying to make up for the time they missed in the first half while trapped outside in the snow. The noise hits a crescendo every time Embiid touches the ball on the block as if his fans believe they can will him into producing points.

I wouldn't say they're totally off base.

I don't know how long he will or can last. But I know he is worth that massive contract the Sixers gave him, I know he is worth paying to show up at the home arena in the middle of an unexpected snow storm, and I know the Sixers matter because he matters. He talks, plays, and lives every moment as if this could all be taken away at a moment's notice, and I would advise you to treasure it for as long as we're all fortunate enough to experience it.

Odds and ends

We still need to have a discussion about the ramifications of a game like this, however. There's a certain level of excitement seeing Embiid gut it out on a gargantuan minutes load, especially when he's able to impact the game through his fatigue. But everything we've learned about human health and fitness says fatigue is a major contributor to injury, and there's no getting around the fact that Embiid just had his two biggest minutes loads stacked back-to-back in the span of four days.

It is easy to say you have the best long-term interest of your player in mind when you're not actively pushing for the playoffs, or when scheduling provides you with an opportunity to build rest into Embiid's workload rather naturally. The challenge is much greater when he's carrying your team in a slugfest on national television, and the Sixers erred on the side of playing him.

This is not necessarily the wrong decision because they have access to a lot more advanced biometric data than the public does and can make more informed decisions. But it is something to be noted nonetheless, and with Embiid still dealing with a sore back that left him wincing at times on Friday night, there will be plenty of second-guessing in the coming days. They always need to keep an eye on the bigger picture with Embiid, even if it means pushing back on him as he advocates to stay on the court.

The good news for the Sixers is they play a pair of cupcakes in the immediate aftermath of the Thunder game. They take a quick trip to Chicago to play the hapless Bulls on Monday night, then return home to play Sacramento on Tuesday. The back-to-back will likely take Embiid out of the running for at least one game, but even if he misses both to rest up, the Sixers should win both games.

A lot of the conversation about Ben Simmons' game — at least in real time — was centered around his attacking or lack thereof. In 52 (!!!) minutes of action, Simmons attempted just 10 shots from the field, a low number for a guy who had the ball in his hands for a large chunk of the evening. That is and will continue to be a worthy conversation, even if he was guarded by strong defenders like Paul George and Andre Roberson.

But I think it is worth reflecting on the performance Simmons had on the defensive end of the floor, where he was asked to do a little bit of everything. Simmons defended Westbrook for long stretches on Friday night, and though he didn't always get the better of him, Simmons was a huge reason why Westbrook had the 10/33 night Embiid mocked him for after the game.

No one is going to stop Westbrook from attempting shots, so the key is to make the shots he does take as difficult as possible. Simmons did an excellent job at that all the way until the end of triple overtime, keeping his body in front of Westbrook and forcing him into bad shots.

It certainly helps that Simmons has Embiid behind him to play traffic cop. There were some really important plays involving the pair on the offensive end of the floor, and those are the plays you tend to leave the arena thinking about.

But for my money, the combination on the defensive end is what really matters. On one particular play at the end of regulation, Adams hit Simmons with a screen that briefly took him out of the play. Through a combination of size and positioning, Embiid cut off Westbrook's path to the rim and a potential lob to Adams at the same time and allowed Simmons to get back in position to defend Westbrook. The rookie took care of the rest, trusting that his length would be enough to get it done.

That's not something many rookies do. They get overanxious, they jump into their man, and it usually ends with free throws for the opponent. Simmons gambles a little too much away from the ball, yes, but he is far ahead of where I thought he'd be on defense this early.

The defensive stoutness was not limited to his work on Westbrook. Simmons spent time on George throughout the night as well and was switched onto him on a crucial possession late in triple overtime. 50+ minutes into his evening, Simmons' defensive fundamentals remain intact, with the rookie sinking deep into his stance on putting a body on George during his drive without getting handsy. He does his job, and it puts Robert Covington into a position where he can block George's shot.

No, it does not explain away the holes in his offense right now, and you have seen opponent adjustment impact Simmons' ability to control a game on offense in recent weeks. That is a major storyline to keep an eye on. But basketball is played at both ends of the court, and I will give plenty of leeway to a rookie who is competing and making a difference on both ends of the court.

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