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May 03, 2019

Sixers, Joel Embiid look like they're finding their identity vs. Toronto Raptors

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The third game of Sixers vs. Raptors was billed as the biggest Sixers home game in 18 years, and the atmosphere in South Philly lived up to that billing. A smoke machine in the corner of the arena was in overdrive before tip-off, and it left a fog over the court through the first couple minutes of the first quarter, creating a scene befitting a rock concert. These were two titans of the Eastern Conference, ready to square off in a pivotal game.

But when the smoke cleared, there was but one titan standing. It was Joel Embiid, who towered over the Raptors on both ends of the floor and drove the Sixers to a stunning, spectacular 116-95 victory on Thursday night.

The Sixers beating the Raptors on their home floor is what the home crowd would have expected. But this game devolved into a blowout in the final quarter, with Embiid hitting a windmill dunk to put one final exclamation point on the game.

"When he did it I was like oh, shit, hell yeah, oh man, that was dope," Mike Scott said in the locker room on Thursday. "One-dribble windmill from the top of the key."

That video is Joel Embiid at his very best: a beaming smile on his face, his physical gifts on full display, his influence on the game not in doubt. When the Sixers are at their best, it is with this version of Embiid at the center of everything, inspiring joy in everyone around him.

For Embiid, a game of basketball is all about that search for joy, which he believes is directly connected to how he plays.

"I think for everybody that knows me, I need it. When I have fun, my game just changes," Embiid said after the game. "I know that to get my game going, I have to have fun on the court. At the same time I got to make plays, but that part of the theatrics, it has to happen for me. The game is more fun that way. We have more fun as a team. You can see it lifts my teammates and we all do a good job."

Moments like that windmill dunk are tough to find during a playoff game against a team with elite defensive pedigree. What is more important for Philadelphia is how they got Embiid to that point, and how they may wield that knowledge to potentially win the series.

Fans have long clamored for an increase in pick-and-roll action from the Sixers, and there is a side of that battle we don't see play out in public — getting a post-up big man to play more like the sleeker, "modern" centers around the league isn't always easy. You want Embiid to feel he can dominate any one-on-one matchup, but that means there can be resistance if you take him away from the spots he likes to operate from.

It has also been a long time since the Sixers have had the proper personnel to run pick-and-rolls. Brett Brown compared it to "screening mist" when the plays involved the non-shooting guards the Sixers had on the floor for years.

Nowadays, they can put Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris on the floor. And the big fella has proven he can manage just fine rolling to the basket.


These plays were just part of the offensive attack for Embiid in Game 3, but adding this to his repertoire makes the game that much harder for Toronto on defense. You're already sending double-teams at him on the low block and getting crushed when you don't have Gasol on the floor to guard him. Now you also have to defend him going downhill with minimal dribbling necessary. Add that to lights out shooting from beyond the arc, and how do you expect to guard him?

The ramifications were instant and obvious in Game 3. Embiid has struggled with Marc Gasol all series, but on Thursday he got him to bite on rip-through moves, to jump one way before Embiid drove the other, to do the things Embiid has made many lesser big men do. He took one of the league's smartest and strongest big men and moved him where he wanted him.

Beating a team as talented as the Sixers are is tough enough when Embiid is having a down night, as the Sixers showed in Game 2. Still, even Embiid's teammates recognize they are at their best when Embiid is at the heart of what they're doing.

"Get the ball to the big fella and it opens up for everybody else," Scott said. "Then when they play him one-on-one, good luck. If they start double-teaming, that's when we start eating. For now, let him work."

"Obviously he's a force to be reckoned with, especially when he's making trey balls like he does but then attacking the rim at the same time," Jimmy Butler said after Game 3. "I think that's how we've got to play. You get the ball to him, he's going to score or make the right play."

If you can believe it, Embiid's defense may have been even better than his offensive performance. His five blocks were what his coach pointed to first after the game, and that number still feels like it undersells his effort on that end of the floor.

When your franchise player and hub of your offense is careening into the front row at the mere hope of blocking an opposing player in transition, as Embiid did midway through the second quarter, it sets a tone for the rest of the group. The others fall in line behind Embiid — Jimmy Butler's intensity on the defensive end of the floor has been tremendous outside of a Game 1 blip in Toronto, and it has the Sixers looking as crisp as they've been on defense in recent memory.

This sequence, for example, was inch-perfect before Ben Simmons careened into Danny Green with the shot clock about to expire.


This all would have seemed impossible a month ago when the Sixers were sputtering through the end of the season and prompting a few contrarians to wonder if they would even beat a team like the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. The attention to detail, the commitment to getting stops, the cohesion many felt was missing, all of that has finally arrived.

There is a lot of work left to do to finish this series. 2-1 feels good for Philadelphia, but they know how quickly things can turn and how talented the team standing across from them is. Lose Game 4 on Sunday and you have to win 2/3 games with only one home game in the middle.

And it was Embiid, the guy who joked about his own diarrhea at the podium following a win in Game 2, who was all business at the podium following Game 3.

"On Sunday, we've got to take care of business," Embiid said. "It's great considering what we've been through all these years but we've got a lot more to give. We have a chance to accomplish something special and that's what I'm focused on."

If there are a few windmills and finger guns along the way, I doubt anyone will complain.


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