76ers

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

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The Sixers weren’t supposed to beat the Raptors, were they? This was going to be an “easy” game for the visiting team, which was coming to Philadelphia on a back-to-back that started in Brooklyn. The Raptors are a playoff team, and second in the Eastern Conference at that. Not to mention, they had defeated the Sixers in their last 14 meetings.

Maybe easy would have been the case the last time the two teams played back in mid-December. For the Sixers, though, things have changed since then and a 94-89 win over the Raptors on Wednesday proved this recent success is not fleeting (see Instant Replay).

“I don’t think it’s a fluke,” Joel Embiid said. “We’re competing. We’re winning games. We’re playing great defense. We finally found what we’ve been looking for.”

The Sixers had been missing clearly-defined roles and a defensive identity (see story). Now that Brett Brown has whittled down his roster to 10 players and laid out a starting five and second unit, the team has been gelling in those two aspects. The Sixers have won seven out of their last nine games, with the Raptors being the highest caliber of competition.

The Raptors entered the game averaging 111.5 points per game, first in the East and third in the NBA behind only the Warriors and Rockets. They had scored less than 100 points in just seven games this season. Additionally, the Raptors had been held to under 90 points by a single opponent: the Spurs. Not bad company to be in. 

Embiid led all players with 26 points (including 12 for 14 from the free throw line) to go with nine rebounds (see highlights). The Sixers staved off 25 points (11 for 21 from the field), six assists and three rebounds from DeMar DeRozan and 24 points (11 for 16 from the line), four rebounds, four assists and five steals from Kyle Lowry, who fouled out. The Raptors shot 25 percent from three and 65.2 percent at the free throw line.  

“We’re playing with a spirit, we’re playing with a defensive mindset,” Brown said. “There is a belief within each other amongst the team that is the best that it’s been since I’ve been here.”

The Sixers' winning stretch began against subpar teams, opponents who earlier in the season some would look at the schedule and say, the Sixers could probably take that one, as they tried to project a batch of victories. The Sixers turned those wins over the Nuggets, Timberwolves and Nets into momentum and carried it into a matchup against the Knicks.

Even though the Knicks are looking lost this season, they still have veteran offensive firepower that can take over a game against a struggling opponent. The Sixers made noise by beating them at the buzzer, then escalated their performance against the postseason-hungry Hornets and Bucks. 

The Raptors are different, though. There is no questioning their success and potential to make a deep playoff run … again. Nonetheless, the Sixers handled this well-seasoned opponent with composure and confidence down the stretch. 

They stayed together when DeRozan hit a jumper with 1:53 to play to give the Raptors their first lead since the second quarter. The Sixers responded to the one-point deficit with a 7-0 run to push the edge up to six points with 20.7 seconds to go.

“I think it says we’re for real. It shows our consistency that we’ve built throughout the year,” Nerlens Noel said. “We’re relentless. We have a young group of guys that know how to play the game and play it the right way and will come out there and compete against anybody in this league. I think the perception should be a whole different one now.”

The Sixers showed they can compete with top talent. Their wins aren't just coming from teams at the bottom of the standings. 

"That gives us a lot of confidence," Embiid said. "Coming into the game, we had a lot of confidence. Winning against the second-best team in the East is just amazing. We’re going to keep on working."

Joel Embiid doesn't want Sixers to end up like OKC

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Joel Embiid doesn't want Sixers to end up like OKC

Joel Embiid doesn't want the Sixers to end up like the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Not the 2017-18 Thunder, but OKC circa 2011-12.

Embiid is convinced that at some point soon, the media will turn on him and the Sixers. 

Speaking specifically about the core trio of Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, Embiid told ESPN's Ramona Shelburne:

"I think with everything, the main thing we have to do is just stay together because I feel like there's going to be some type of situation where people say who is better between us three. And that's how it splits."

Shelburne, who wrote a long and interesting feature on Embiid this week, told more of the story Wednesday on Zach Lowe's podcast.

She recalled talking to Embiid about his social media presence at All-Star weekend in 2016, when he told her, "I'm just trying to have as much fun before everybody turns on me."

Shelburne pointed out the uniqueness of a then-22-year-old — who had been in the United States just seven years — understanding the "fame cycle" well enough to know that things could soon turn.

"I saw what happened in Oklahoma City with (James) Harden, (Russell) Westbrook and (Kevin) Durant and I don't want that to happen here," Shelburne recalled Embiid saying.

If the Sixers get to that point ... it'll probably be a good problem to have. Just prior to the 2012-13 season, the Thunder traded Harden to Houston in one of the worst trades in recent NBA history. OKC did it for several reasons — salary cap, personalities, only having enough shots to go around. And really, who knows if Harden would have been able to grow into this superstar had he been sharing the ball the next handful of seasons with two other alphas?

Embiid and Fultz have already grown close, and it's important to Embiid that the three young Sixers don't get caught up in the "Who takes the last shot?" conversations or "Who should be the All-Star" questions that inevitably come up. 

Luckily for the Sixers, Embiid, Simmons and Fultz have different enough skill sets that they should be able to coexist. It's not directly analogous to the OKC situation where all three players needed the ball in their hands. The Sixers were built this way for a reason. 

Right now, it's clear Embiid is the alpha of the group. He's the go-to guy in crunch time and again has a top-five usage rate. When Simmons eventually becomes more comfortable with his jump shot and Fultz finally makes his impact on the court, we'll see whether or not Embiid was prescient.

Joel Embiid puts back pain aside to get Sixers 'needed' OT win

Joel Embiid puts back pain aside to get Sixers 'needed' OT win

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MINNEAPOLIS — Joel Embiid's presence was arguably the biggest factor in the Sixers’ snapping their four-game losing streak on Tuesday.

The center was especially key in the final two minutes of regulation and in overtime, as the 76ers defeated the Timberwolves, 118-112 (see observations).

Embiid assisted on Ben Simmons' go-ahead dunk with 1:17 remaining in regulation and hit the game-tying free throws with 14 seconds remaining. He then scored seven points in overtime, including a three-pointer that gave the Sixers a seven-point lead with 1:39 to go.

Embiid finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds in 39 minutes (see highlights), despite missing the two previous games in Cleveland and New Orleans with back tightness.

"I would not have expected him to play as well as he played or as many minutes as he played," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "… He obviously was massive."

Embiid said he didn't feel 100 percent going into Tuesday's game and added that his back was really tight before the game against New Orleans. He said he didn't have the lift during Tuesday's game that he typically does but that he knew his back would get tight while sitting.

"We needed this," he said of the win.

Embiid’s being in the lineup changes how the 76ers' offense operates, rookie Ben Simmons said. Embiid changes the team's spacing but also gives the Sixers an offensive presence in the post.

"You have to find your spot, but it's a big help also," Simmons said.

Simmons finished with just seven points, as Timberwolves wings Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins guarded him most of the night. However, the rookie was key down the stretch as he scored all seven points in the final 6:17 of regulation and overtime (see highlights).

Brown noted how Simmons ended up with a rating of plus-3 despite the below-average point total. He said he loved that Simmons and Embiid were able to connect for big plays late.

"It wasn't statistically one of his best games," Brown said of Simmons, " … [but] for him to help us get that win on the road, that's a good night."

The win also snapped the Sixers’ recent run of fourth-quarter letdowns. The 76ers trailed by nine with six minutes remaining Tuesday, but they went on a 14-4 run to take a 91-90 lead with 2:17 remaining in regulation. Richaun Holmes completed the run with a three-point play.

Brown said he thought JJ Redick, Simmons and Embiid executed well during that stretch and made note of a three-pointer Redick hit to start the run. 

"To me, that was the tipping point when things started to run," Brown said of the shot.

The coach added that the Sixers will need to cut down on turnovers in order to achieve their goals. The Sixers had a season-high 24, though none came in overtime.