76ers

After being listed as doubtful, Joel Embiid dominates Nets in Sixers' Game 4 win

After being listed as doubtful, Joel Embiid dominates Nets in Sixers' Game 4 win

NEW YORK — So far this postseason, there is no way to predict if Joel Embiid will play in a playoff game.

He was doubtful in Game 1, but played. He was questionable in Game 2 and played. He was questionable and said his knee was feeling better pregame, but didn’t play in Game 3.

So naturally, with him being listed as doubtful, he played and was absolutely magnificent in the Sixers’ 112-108 Game 4 win over the Nets at Barclays Center Saturday (see observations).

After playing just 10 minutes in the first half, Embiid played 21 of 24 minutes in the second half. He finished with 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists and six blocks. The only other player to put up that stat line in a playoff game is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1974, per Basketball-Reference.

“Just look at the magnitude of what the numbers say, the influence that the numbers say he must’ve had on a game,” Brett Brown said. “It’s hard to sort of say it any better than that. He was dominant. 

“There are times you could see it’s still raw. There are some decisions that he would probably like to have over again, but given the volume of playing time lately that he hasn’t had, it’s just a dominant performance. What more can you say?”

Beyond the numbers, Embiid was a force on both ends of the floor. His physical presence has been tough for the Nets to handle, especially young center Jarrett Allen.

Embiid was assessed a Flagrant 1 in Game 2 after delivering an elbow to the neck of Allen when making a move to the basket. On Saturday, Allen drove to the rim and was met by Embiid who was called for a foul. Veteran Jared Dudley, who’s become public enemy No. 1 in Philadelphia, took exception to the contact and charged after Embiid. Jimmy Butler in turn rushed at Dudley.

Butler and Dudley were both given double technicals and ejected while Embiid received yet another Flagrant 1. It’s worth noting that the league uses a point system with flagrant fouls. Embiid is up to two points. Four points and he’ll get an automatic one-game suspension, though the league could rescind the Flagrant 1 from Saturday.

Embiid was adamant postgame that he got “all ball.” 

“I’m not that type of player,” Embiid said. “Any chance that I get I try to go for the ball and if I feel like I made a mistake, I always apologize. At the same time, that’s also a mind game. l know these guys are going to go at me because they want me to retaliate so I got to be the mature one on the court and just stay cool and not react. Today I knew I could’ve reacted but I felt like my team needed me more than [the Nets] needed Jared Dudley.”

That’s an understatement — especially on Saturday.

The Sixers were able to win Game 3 without Embiid with Boban Marjanovic having his third consecutive standout performance. Marjanovic came down to earth in a big way in Game 4. Brown also tried plugging in rookie Jonah Bolden and Greg Monroe to buy Embiid more rest. It didn’t work out.

Brown was forced to ride his All-Star big man, who always seems to be in the middle of the action.

“He’s got a spirit about him — that’s the word I choose to use,” Brown said. “There’s a belief, there’s a swagger, there’s a spirit — choose whatever word you want. He’s got that persona. And then you say well, he’s incredibly physical. You take 7-foot-2 and you have that sort of dynamic personality and kind of the way you live your life and play basketball and you’re completely physical and highly competitive. It produces environments like that. 

“As his coach, you kind of wouldn’t trade it for much. It’s a rare combination that he has with his skill and his personality and his sort of innate competitiveness.”

What’s crazy is for as dominant as Embiid is on the offensive end, you can make the argument he’s even better on defense. He was otherworldly in this one with those six blocks and providing outstanding help defense all afternoon. 

With the way Ben Simmons has been playing against D’Angelo Russell in this series, the combination of Embiid and Simmons has neutralized Brooklyn’s pick-and-roll — not a sentence anyone expected to be typing while the Sixers were getting scorched in Atlanta by Trae Young just a few weeks ago.

But that was the regular season. The postseason is a completely different animal as the young Nets are finding out the hard way.

There is one thing that hasn’t changed from the regular season for the Sixers. The offensive strategy remains the same.

Get the ball to Embiid.

“The game plan has always been the same,” Embiid said. “I just got to be aggressive. These guys are trying to find me any ways they can … just got to play through the system. They want me to be aggressive. Any time [Brown] gets a chance to post me, he does it. For me, it’s just about being aggressive all the time and they do a great job finding me.”

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

Backup center near top of list for Sixers in NBA free agency, NBA draft

Backup center near top of list for Sixers in NBA free agency, NBA draft

The starting five was not the problem for the Sixers in their second-round loss to the Raptors. Their top two reserves, James Ennis and Mike Scott, were also strong.

The biggest issue was backup center … and it’s not even close. 

As we approach the draft and free agency, figuring out the situation around Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris is the priority. After that, finding a capable backup big is the most pressing need for GM Elton Brand.

“Definitely [backup center is] one of the priorities outside of free agency with the top guys,” Brand said at the team’s practice facility last Tuesday,” but I look forward to being the GM for the first time entering free agency to address certain needs of a backup center, certain depth, certain pieces that I feel needs to be in place.”

Joel Embiid wasn’t himself throughout the playoffs, but his impact was unmistakable. The Sixers were a plus-90 with Embiid on the floor in the Toronto series and minus-111 without him. In Game 7 alone, the Sixers were outscored by 12 points in the 2:49 Embiid was on the bench. 

The team certainly didn’t lack options. Greg Monroe, Boban Marjanovic, Amir Johnson and Jonah Bolden weren’t good enough. The three veterans just didn’t have the necessary athleticism and feet to hang in the series. Bolden’s inexperience showed up and discipline continued to be an issue.

So why didn’t the Sixers target that position sooner? Brand pointed out this will be his first real offseason as GM. While the role behind Embiid may not be what a free-agent center is looking for, Brand is confident he can convince players to come here.

Bolden will likely be the only one of aforementioned guys back next season. It’ll be up to Brand to find a capable five behind the team’s “crown jewel.”

“I had a voice and I didn’t speak up loud enough I guess, but there’s definitely some ways that we can sell Philadelphia,” Brand said. “We’re a destination team right now, we’re a destination city. Players want to be here. So if I say, ‘Hey, there’s going to be X amount of minutes for you, we’re going to have a deep playoff run,’ I’m confident we can get some talent in that backup center.”

Brand will scour the free-agent market for a veteran big. It’s likely not something he can address early. Butler and Harris will dictate what happens with the Sixers’ offseason. If they’re able to sign both, it could make filling out the bench a little trickier, but certainly not impossible. 

Brand will be able to use the mid-level exception, the amount of which we’ll find out later this offseason. He also has two trade exceptions ($2,339,880 from Markelle Fultz, $957,480 from Dario Saric) if he can swing a deal where the salaries don't match. Still, depending on what the Butler and Harris deals look like along with a possible Ben Simmons rookie max extension, Brand will have his work cut out for him in building his bench.

Former Process Sixer Dewayne Dedmon will be out there, though he may be out of the team’s price range. There are also players like Tyson Chandler and JaVale McGee, though both players seem to prefer the West. Nerlens Noel would be a perfect fit on the floor, but that doesn’t seem likely. Going down the list, Kyle O’Quinn could give you something for a few minutes a night.

But the Sixers could also use an infusion of youth. The draft isn’t exactly flush with centers, but there are a few options. Daniel Gafford from Arkansas is a super athletic rim-running center that could provide energy and toughness. Nic Claxton of Georgia and Bruno Fernando out of Maryland are long, offensively skilled and also athletic. Mfiondu Kabengele from Florida State is another big to keep your eye on. 

All of these players will likely be available at pick No. 24 or with one of the Sixers’ four second-round picks. And all four players to an extent fit what Brand said he was looking in this year’s draft.

“Where we are in our trajectory, we need players that can play, players that can add to our team now,” Brand said. “We’re looking for maybe older players. For sure, defensive minded players and we always place a premium on shooting. But defensive-oriented players that can contribute now, we may look at, I don’t want to tip my hand too much, but that may be something we’re looking at.”

Through the draft and free agency, Brand will have to give Brett Brown more options to back up the team’s best player.

And those options need be a whole lot better than they were this season.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

Decision of free agent Tobias Harris toughest Elton Brand will face but may define offseason

Decision of free agent Tobias Harris toughest Elton Brand will face but may define offseason

Everyone was in shock when Elton Brand was able to acquire Tobias Harris before the trade deadline.

Harris was having an All-Star-caliber season, flirting with the elite 50/40/90 shooting line and on his way to a big payday this offseason. 

When the move was made, and after Harris’ red-hot start with the Sixers, bringing him back seemed like a no-brainer. But Harris stumbled to the finish line and had an up-and-down playoff run. 

Should the Sixers bring back Harris and see what this loaded team can do with a full season or let him walk and secure the team’s depth? The answer isn’t black and white.

Harris’ first eight games as a Sixer were remarkably good. He averaged 21.9 points and shot 55/42/83, looking every bit like the player they traded for. His clutch 32-point performance in the team’s first win against the Thunder in forever was a virtuoso performance. He was outstanding and played closer.

Over the last 19 games, Harris averaged 16.7 points and his line went down to 43/27/85. That is a precipitous drop off. His playoff numbers were OK and reflective of his uneven performances. What will stick out most to fans is his 7-of-23 performance in a pivotal Game 4 against Toronto. That series loss is still raw and that game very well may have swung the series, so it’s fair.

But who outside of Jimmy Butler was consistently good in the second round? Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons both struggled mightily in just their second postseason. Even Butler himself had a rough Game 7.

It’s important to keep in mind the context of Harris’ career. This was his eighth NBA season, but he’s just 26 years old. He’s also improved markedly over the course of his career. He was pretty much a non-threat from three for the first six years of his career, shooting just 33 percent on less than three attempts per game. Over the last two seasons, he was over 40 percent on over five attempts while being traded twice.

Given that improvement, it’s also fair to project Harris’ playoff play will improve. Before playing in 12 postseason contests with the Sixers, Harris’ only other playoff experience was when the Pistons were swept in the first round in 2016. Like Embiid and Simmons, this taste of failure could fuel him. It’s also fair to believe that improved performances by the Sixers’ young All-Stars could open more things up for Harris.

When you start talking money, it gets exceedingly more complicated. Signing Harris and Butler to near-max deals and giving Simmons his first max extension would push the Sixers over the luxury tax. It’s something that Josh Harris has repeatedly said would not be a problem. At that point, you’d be looking at a bench full of young, cheap players  and veteran ring chasers. 

If you let Harris walk, you could look on the free agent market and perhaps sign a trio of Terrence Ross, Corey Joseph and Dewayne Dedmon, as an example. There’s also a greater chance you could bring back JJ Redick and/or James Ennis and/or Mike Scott. That could ultimately be the more attractive option if you’re able to sign Jimmy Butler. 

If Butler leaves, you almost have to keep Harris. While the loss of Butler would sting, you’d be in solid shape building around the trio of Embiid, Simmons and Harris, all 26 or younger. If you don't strike early enough with Harris, he's going to have other suitors. He may have a little patience, but he's not going to wait forever.

Brand’s intention at the time of the Harris deal was to keep all four star-caliber players. While Brand said he was happy with what he saw out of Harris and Butler, was it enough to bring both back? 

It’s as difficult a decision as Brand will face this offseason.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers