Is everything OK with Joel Embiid?

Is everything OK with Joel Embiid?

The Philadelphia 76ers' trouncing last night at the hands of the Golden State Warriors certainly wasn't all on Joel Embiid. After all, the game got out of hand with him on the bench: What was a tight 72-71 game when he sat with 7:44 to go in the third became a 94-78 Golden State runaway by the time he returned at the 2:36 mark. But JoJo failed to stem the tide, as the Warriors' lead ballooned until his early 4th-quarter exit, from which he didn't return. His final stat line was arguably his worst as a Sixer - 12 points and seven boards on 4 of 11 shooting, with seven turnovers in 25 minutes. 

Against a not particularly formidable front line -- Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, occasionally Draymond Green -- Embiid was largely bottled up all night, unable to get to his spots in the paint or make the Warriors pay for clogging the inside with his mid-range jumper. He made some good reads on the Warriors' double teams early, but failed to impose his will on them when they left him in single coverage. More concerning, though, was his late-game defense. As things were slipping away in the third, JoJo further killed the Sixers on a couple plays by being a step late and out of position, forcing rotations that left a wide-open Warriors shooter or gave up a clean look at the basket. Green even essentially blew by Embiid for a layup at one point, which should really never happen. 

It never doesn't sound ungrateful to grouse about anything JoJo-related, since even at his worst, he's special; per-36-minute averages of 26-14-4 on nearly 50 percent shooting for a player who doesn't seem to have even gotten into his groove yet remains absolutely remarkable. Yet there's a nagging feeling with Embiid this season that he's not quite all there yet -- there's a little explosiveness, a little poetry-in-motion, a little magic missing. He's played well, at times exceptionally so, but it doesn't feel like he's dominated, as least not as us suddenly spoiled Sixers fans have come to expect from The Process. 

The lag is most noticeable on defense. He rarely goes a game without a highlight -- he had a beautiful chasedown block on Klay Thompson in the second quarter last night -- but in the half-court, he seems encumbered, still a game-changer, but not quite a force of nature. He occasionally seems beaten by ball movement, unable to get his body to respond quite quick enough to be two places at once, as he so often was last year. I think back to that preseason possession of him defending John Wall on the perimeter last season, agile and intuitive enough to stay with the lightning-quick point guard. It's a little hard to picture Year 2 Joel Embiid making a stand like that.

On offense, he also seems uncharacteristically limited. Too many of his post-ups end in either a tough running hook shot or a turnover, and the three-point shot that made him seem so fully weaponized last season has eluded him thus far in his sophomore campaign as he's just 7 for 29 in total from deep. It seems like he should be able to back down and/or power through most defenders with relative ease, but few matchups this year has he owned to a comical extent, and despite his stated plan to "live at the foul line" this year, he's actually getting there far less frequently -- 6.8 times per 36 minutes, down from 11.2 last year. 

The question, of course, is if Embiid's seemingly diminished voodoo is as a combined result of a greater workload and a missed offseason, or of just one too many knee surgeries. The argument for the former probably remains the more compelling one: JoJo has stated himself that his conditioning is not where it should be after essentially missing nine months of action. The fact that he's dressing almost every night now (10 games out of a possible 12, after only appearing in eight of the Sixers' first 12 last season) and sometimes playing increased minutes (twice over 30 minutes, after never going over 27 early in his rookie year) may represent more of an ask of Embiid than we realized at this point in his ongoing recovery. 

Still, the solution doesn't necessarily seem to be more rest. Including the Jazz game he sat, he went six days in between outings before the Sacramento game on Thursday, in which he also labored somewhat. It may be a matter of off-court fitness work, and/or playing himself into game shape, but whatever it is, you just hope you see the improvement soon. The longer Joel goes without looking like his world-swallowing best self, the harder it is not to wonder when or if that guy is coming back. 

A healthy, effective Markelle Fultz might also help. One of the reasons Embiid is posting up so much these days is because he and Ben Simmons haven't really worked out reliable pick-and-roll chemistry yet -- which will be tough for them anyway, considering that defenders know both of them want to go to the basket pretty much all the time at the moment. Fultz, assuming he starts shooting right again, would make things less predictable, and hopefully serve as a more complementary pick-and-roll partner for The Process. 

And I certainly didn't expect to be saying this at this point in the season, but I also want to see Embiid start shooting threes more often again. A slow shooting start to the season appears to have dampened his confidence from deep, leading to him looking hesitant to shoot even wide-open triples. Re-establishing his long-range shot -- and, with it, the pump-fake-and-drive that defenders have now learned not to bite on -- could also really open things up for JoJo and the rest of the team, and also get him a little bit of his swagger back. Not saying he should get a Robert Covington-like green light, but I want to see him get his comfort level behind the arc back to the point where he's stepping into triples he does take with RoCo-like confidence, at the least. 

Of course, this is all largely an overreaction to one subpar game from The Process against the best team in the league, no less. It's not like he hasn't looked brilliant at points his season -- 30 points on 15 shots against the Pistons left Detroit feeling fairly owned a couple weeks ago. It's possible he hangs 33 and 15 on the Clippers on Monday night and makes this entire discussion moot, and I certainly hope he does. As much as things have seemingly gone right for the Sixers this season -- Fultz and Okafor nonsense notwithstanding -- it's still all about Embiid, first and foremost. I'd rather have the Sixers lose the next five and have Embiid back to full fire-breathing status than have tem win the next five with Embiid looking like he hasn't completely finished buffering yet. 

Get ready to cry watching Julie and Zach Ertz

Get ready to cry watching Julie and Zach Ertz

Find yourself a love like Julie and Zach Ertz.

While Zach Ertz was having his best season on the gridiron, Julie Ertz, who changed her name from Julie Johnston after their March nuptials, was having an amazing season on the pitch. After a 5-1 victory over Denmark on Sunday night in which Julie scored in the 19th minute, U.S. soccer captured this incredible moment.

β€œIs he really going?” she said.

Oh, he’s going. The Eagles trounced the Vikings, 38-7, advancing to Super Bowl LII (see Roob's observations).

When Zach was shown this video in the locker room, he was overcome with emotion (watch the video above).

Oh, to be young, in love, scoring goals and touchdowns.

Eagles score high grades in NFC Championship Game

Eagles score high grades in NFC Championship Game

Grading the Eagles' 38-7 win Sunday night over the Minnesota Vikings at Lincoln Financial Field to advance to Super Bowl LII (see breakdown):

Nick Foles: 26/33, 352 YDS, 3 TD

From the Eagles' opening snap, Foles looked sharp, picking up right where he left off last week. Yet, even the way he was slinging the football on those first few possessions, I doubt anybody envisioned this performance coming. Foles completed 78.8 percent of his passes, averaged 10.8 yards per attempt and connected on touchdown passes of 53, 41 and five yards β€” against the No. 1 defense in the NFL. He moved well in the pocket but stood tough when called upon to do so. Most importantly, no turnovers and just one sack. This was the finest moment of Foles' career, which is truly saying something for a guy who set multiple franchise and NFL records in 2013.

Grade: A+

Jay Ajayi: 18 ATT, 73 YDS, 3 REC, 26 YDS

Though Ajayi got the bulk of the word, LeGarrette Blount had the play of the game. Blount would not be denied on his 11-yard touchdown in the first quarter, barreling over and through Vikings defenders on his way across the goal line. It was exactly the kind of hardnosed postseason mudding the Eagles envisioned when they signed the two-time Super Bowl champion, even if he only finished with 21 yards on six carries. Ajayi was having a mediocre game, but picked it up on the Eagles' final possession and did his part to help put Minnesota on ice.

Grade: A-

Alshon Jeffery: 5 REC, 85 YDS, 2 TD

Torrey Smith was seen apologizing to Foles after dropping what should've been a 50-yard pass on the Eagles' second play from scrimmage. Smith did a bit better than "I'm sorry" in the third quarter, making a tough 41-yard grab at the pylon to complete a 41-yard flea flicker. That wasn't even the longest play by a receiver, falling short of Jeffery's 53-yard score in the second quarter. The play fell apart, so Jeffery broke off his route and headed for the end zone. All told, Jeffery, Smith and Nelson Agholor combined for 13 receptions, 213 yards and three touchdowns. Flat out dominant against the league's No. 2 pass defense.

Grade: A+

Zach Ertz: 8 REC, 93 YDS

It became clear early the Vikings had no answer for Ertz. The Pro Bowl tight end hauled in all eight targets that came his way, leading the Eagles in both receptions and receiving yards. Brent Celek and Trey Burton weren't as productive with their opportunities, combining for one 12-yard catch on three targets, but no matter. Ertz was a monster.

Grade: A

Credit Jeffery for turning his route up the field and catching the ball (see Roob's observations). Credit Foles for hanging in the pocket and delivering a perfect pass. But make sure you credit the offensive line as well for giving Foles' 53-yard touchdown to Jeffery time to develop. That pretty much personified the unit's performance. The quarterback was only hit five times and sacked once. The Eagles weren't nearly as strong on the ground, averaging a modest 3.7 yards per carry. Regardless, the run blocking wasn't exactly ineffective, either, not to mention that really seems like nitpicking.

Grade: A

Chris Long: 2 TKL, 2 QBH, 2 PD, 1 FR

Long has been good all season, but it was as if he took a dip in the Fountain of Youth right before this game. The 10th-year veteran caused a momentum-altering interception with one of his two quarterback hits, then fell on the fumble forced by fellow defensive end Derek Barnett's strip sack, both plays in the first half. Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry each got two pressures on the signal caller as well, as the D-line made throwing down the field next to impossible for the Vikings. Minnesota ball carriers averaged a respectable 3.9 yards per carry, but it wasn't enough to influence the game in any meaningful way.

Grade: A

Mychal Kendricks: 8 TKL

Ugly start for this unit. The Vikings' offense went right down the field on the game's opening drive, largely at the expense of Najee Goode. Playing for the injured Dannell Ellerbe, Goode was torched for 25-yard touchdown pass amid some confusion, and generally looked in over his head. Goode was on the field less as the game progressed, while it seemed at times there were two of Kendricks, who led the team in tackles. After a quiet first half, Nigel Bradham picked up his play as well, finishing with four tackles. No major complaints are given the outcome.

Grade: B

Ronald Darby: 7 TKL, 3 PD

Who knows the way this game may have transpired were it not for Patrick Robinson's interception return for a touchdown in the first quarter. Robinson took the woefully underthrown pass forced by Long, weaved across the field and outraced the Vikings' offense for a 50-yard score. Darby threw a key block on the return and later forced another turnover, one of his three pass breakups deflecting into the hands of Corey Graham. The Eagles' secondary was active and physical, as Minnesota completed just 58.3 percent of pass attempts for 5.6 yards per attempt.

Grade: A

Donnie Jones: 43.3 AVG, 3 IN20

Little of note from special teams. All three of Jones' punts pinned the Vikings' offense inside their own 20-yard line. Jake Elliott was perfect on one 38-yard field goal and five extra points, and all six kickoffs went for touchbacks. Kenjon Barner returned one punt for 10 yards. It was exactly what it needed to be.

Grade: B+

Eagles' record: 15-3

Absolutely masterful job by the Eagles' coaching staff on both sides of the football. Doug Pederson's play-calling was brilliant from start to finish, keeping the Vikings' No. 1 defense completely off balance. Jim Schwartz's defense recovered after an opening march 75 yards on nine plays for paydirt β€” it was the last time Minnesota would score. This was the No. 2 seed in the NFC, a team with 14 wins, including playoffs and the Eagles, went right through them like it was nothing. Amazing job and an amazing season overall by Pederson and Schwartz.

Grade: A+