It was a new level for Sixers fans: Getting insufferable about Joel Embiid's snub as an All-Star starter before it even actually happened. Embiid being overlooked for the mid-season classic last year, combined with him losing Rookie of the Year in the summer, combined with our general over-defensiveness and willingness to start s--t on the Internet, resulted in a days-long siege on any credible writer with the temerity to claim that Boston center Al Horford was more deserving of making the East first five than our JoJo.
We were jerks, but we were also right. And this time, we were actually validated twofold on TNT last night -- first by Joel actually being named an All-Star starter, then by him and the Sixers essentially creaming the Celtics and Horford in their subsequent matchup, ultimately winning 89-80 and moving over .500 for the first time in a month.
First, the All-Star spot: I mean, darn tootin'. You don't need to go particularly deep into Joel Embiid's sophomore season in the NBA to determine he's starter-worthy. You could look at his exceedingly impressive stat line (24 & 11 with two blocks on 49% shooting), or equally formidable advanced stats (a 23.3 PER, a top ten defensive rating, sixth in Player Impact Estimate). You could look at how his on-off splits affect the Sixers' net rating -- they're nine points better on offense and eight better on defense when he's out there -- or just look at the Sixers' record with him playing (19-13) vs. when he's not (2-7). Or, you could just look at him playing in a game like Thursday night's, and count the number of times you end up shaking your head in grateful disbelief. He's an All-Star, and he deserves to be out at opening tip.
And Al Horford... it's a silly enough argument that we don't need to spend a ton of time on it, but it's just hard to mount any kind of stat-based argument for why he should be in there over Embiid. People point to games played (40 for Horford vs. 31 for Embiid going into last night) as if Embiid doesn't still outproduce Horford in his more-limited PT -- he handily leads the Celtics center not just in points, rebounds and blocks per game, but in total points, rebounds and blocks, despite having played over 300 fewer minutes. His efficiency stats are superior, his advanced stats are superior, his on-off splits show a greater two-way impact -- the only number (besides games played) that Horford definitely has on his side is wins, with Boston having racked up 14 more of those than Philly.
But if there was any lingering doubt about which of the two should have made it as a starter -- and Horford will make it as a reserve, and deservedly so -- it had to have been put to bed last night. Not that one game is enough to draw a season's worth of conclusions, but Joel's 26-16-6 last night absolutely dwarfed Horford's 14-4-3, as the former took over the game in the third quarter while the latter was practically invisible on the floor. And if your case for Horford is mostly based on the ways he contributes to Ws while Embiid just compiles stats, you have to wonder why the C's looked absolutely inept for 44 minutes in this one without best player Kyrie Irving leading the offense, and why Horford missed on several shots to make the game really interesting as things tightened down the stretch.
Again, not like one game should really make the difference. But to me at least, it accurately exemplified how Joel is a transformative player that can make bad teams good, and Horford is a complimentary player that can help make already-good teams great. If you perceive the latter as more All-Star-worthy, I guess that's your call, but I see the former is the far rarer and more essential part of basketball greatness, which is what the game and the vote should probably be about.
Anyway, JoJo was awesome, the Celtics were lousy, and the Sixers beat Boston for the first time in four tries this season. As previously mentioned, asterisk on this one as a shoulder injury kept out fellow All-Star starter Kyrie Irving -- though we had to play 'em once without Joel, so fair play there -- but even against a sans-Kyrie C's squad, the performance was impressive. Boston was kept to 32 in the first half, and without free throws altogether until well into the third quarter, as the Sixers switched relentlessly on the perimeter and locked down brilliantly in the paint, giving up the fewest easy looks I can remember all season.
And then, of course, the late-game meltdown. The lead was big enough (18 points) and Boston's offense looked miserable enough that I thought this thing was essentially unblowable by midway through the fourth quarter, but Philly nearly found a way, allowing Boston to claw back to within seven with two remaining, and giving up several three-point looks (a couple by Horford himself) that could've cut it to four if they'd dropped. But they didn't, the Sixers maintained well enough, and escaped with the nine-point victory.
That's two straight should've-been-feel-good upsets of the East's top two teams that we're leaving feeling more frustrated and/or relieved than exultant. But again, they're still wins, and hard-earned ones against very tough squads, neither of which we have to play anymore this (regular) season. To squeeze this one out without J.J. is a pretty big deal for Philly, and gives us an even bigger buffer for when we go against the remaining tough teams on our schedule this January (Bucks twice, Spurs, Thunder) with our best shooter on the pine. And at 21-20, not only do we have a winning record again, but we're back in the playoff picture, tied for 8th with the plummeting Detroit, and just 3.5 games separating us with the fourth-place Miami Heat -- who we have a better point differential than, by the way.
Haven't crunched the numbers yet on where Thursday night ranks among the all-time most-validating nights in Process history, but the combo of Embiid's All-Star start and the Sixers beating the Celtics for just the second time in the last 16 tries has to get it up there. It's amazing how much has still gone right this season with so much also going wrong, and the biggest reason for that wears No. 21 and will be one of the first ten players on the floor this Feb. 18th. Plus, with 32 games played out of 41 -- already a new career best -- JoJo finally has us about halfway to a successful season on the whole.