Joel Embiid was listed as “out” against the Spurs an hour before the game. He had other plans.
Embiid’s sprained right hand was tight and swollen so badly it had been preventing him from shooting. But as he went through pregame warmups, and still experienced discomfort, he decided he would play.
Not just because he dislikes being sidelined. Because he wanted to get this victory specifically for Brett Brown.
“I love my team,” Embiid said after the Sixers’ 112-106 win Wednesday (see observations). “I want to be right there with them. I don't want to quit on them. Then, also, I wanted to give Coach his first win against his former team and we did that for him.”
Brown spent 11-plus seasons on the Spurs’ coaching staff with Gregg Popovich. He had not defeated them since coming to Philadelphia in 2013. In fact, the Sixers’ struggles began before he arrived. They entered Wednesday with a 12-game losing streak against the Spurs, with their last win on Feb. 11, 2011.
There was a clear opportunity for the Sixers to snap this skid. Rudy Gay (right heel bursitis), Manu Ginobili (rest), Danny Green (left groin tightness), Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker (both return from injury management) were all sitting out on the second night of a back-to-back. The Sixers would still have to deal with starter LaMarcus Aldridge, who ended up with a 24-point, 14-rebound double-double, and a well-coached squad, but the odds were greater with a shorthanded lineup.
So Embiid played through the pain of the injury he suffered Sunday during a fall against the Suns. He battled for rebounds and blocked shots that “kind of hurt” him while hitting baskets with more ease than expected.
He started off the game with six points, six rebounds, four blocks and three assists in the first quarter alone. Embiid finished with 21 points, 11 boards, four dimes and four blocks in over 35 minutes.
“To Joel Embiid’s complete credit, he came in and he surprised me — he actually made some shots,” Brown said. “If you saw the swelling in his hand, you wouldn’t have thought that would have been the impact. He would’ve blocked shots, he would’ve rebounded, he would’ve been physical defensively. But he actually still had some finesse and touch to his shot with a swollen right hand.”
Brown and the Sixers had been preparing throughout the day to play without Embiid, a situation they have found themselves in several times this season between injuries and medical restrictions. Embiid had been ruled “doubtful” at morning shootaround. Less than two hours before game time, Brown said Embiid was “very doubtful.” Prior to warmups, even Embiid himself said of his hand, “I can’t really use it.”
The final determination period was those warmups, though, when Embiid made the eyebrow-raising decision to play. Brown was informed of the news during the team’s pregame meeting, about 35 minutes before tipoff.
“It happened quick,” Brown said. “It was completely unexpected. I give him a lot of credit for playing through complete pain and trying to play in front of the Philadelphia fans and help his teammates. That’s a gutsy effort.”
The Sixers won their third straight game to improve to 18-19. Embiid was front and center when the team insisted Brown have the honor of the celebratory bell, a symbol of winning, in the locker room after the game. And with each ring, Embiid smiled at his mission accomplished (see story).
“It’s a team that didn’t have their full-strength roster, but in my eyes, it’s still the San Antonio Spurs,” Brown said. “You can put in whoever you want, they’re still going to play and compete and be organized. From that perspective, the win is satisfying.”