It’s been 43 days since the Sixers and Thunder took part in the best NBA game of the regular season so far.
A quick rewind shows you the teams battled in a triple-overtime thriller at the Wells Fargo Center back on Dec. 15 that resulted in a 119-117 Oklahoma City win.
However, a closer look reveals that both squads learned much more about themselves that night in South Philadelphia.
For the Sixers, they perhaps realized for the first time that Joel Embiid isn’t in fact made of glass. Embiid went the distance … and then some. He gutted through a sore back to play a career-high 49 minutes.
And Embiid wasn’t just moving up and down the court. The big fella was putting in work as he poured in 34 points along with eight rebounds, six assists and two blocks.
“He felt good about playing and we listened to him,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said after the loss. "As a staff, we thought that was going to work. Maybe, in the light of day, we could have given him a minute here or there.”
Embiid was a little more certain that he could handle the workload.
“I’ll be fine,” he said.
Sure, the center missed the next three games to recover from the back pain, but the big man hasn’t sat out since. He’s moved beyond the injury-riddled first two seasons of his career and is locked in at 31.4 minutes a night.
What better way to show just how far Embiid’s come from a minutes and injury standpoint? By playing in the first — and possibly both — games of a back-to-back set, which starts Sunday.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. We know, pump the brakes. Embiid said he would like to play in games on consecutive nights by month’s end, but that’s hardly his decision alone. Anyway, just mark it down as potentially another lesson learned about his progression.
On the other end of the court, the Thunder found out about their squad as well, particularly who should lead OKC’s three-headed monster.
During the first two months of the season, Russell Westbrook spent a lot of time deferring to new star teammates Paul George and Russell Westbrook. However, the reigning MVP took the lead that night.
While Westbrook shot just 10 of 33 for 27 points — which Embiid reminded him of after the final buzzer — the point guard came through when it counted most. He connected on 6 of 15 shots during the three extra sessions for 14 points to secure the win.
“We live for it,” Westbrook said of the level of competition after finishing with a triple-double. “On the road, great environment. To come out and get a win like this, you live for stuff like this.”
And despite Westbrook’s shot attempts per game not drastically increasing (20.1 before facing the Sixers and 22.4 since), the Thunder have certainly benefited from him clearly being the No. 1 option. Entering Saturday, they were 14-6 since topping the Sixers.
But perhaps the main thing unearthed in the season’s first matchup: the rematch will definitely be a heated affair.
In that December clash, Embiid had words with Anthony in the fourth quarter and waved goodbye when OKC center Steven Adams fouled out during the third overtime.
That didn’t sit well with Westbrook, who waved goodbye to Embiid after the Thunder notched the win.
“I was telling him, ‘Go home,’” Westbrook said.
Embiid wasn’t impressed with point guard’s copycat act — or his performance in the game.
“He told me to go home,” Embiid said. “And this is my home and I ain't going nowhere.
“The dude shot like 10 for 33. I wish I would have shot 33 times. I guess we would have had a better chance of actually winning the game.”
We’re not sure about Embiid’s shot attempts making a difference in the first tilt. One thing that is certain: there will be a whole lot of buckets and even more trash talk taking place at Chesapeake Energy Arena Sunday night.