76ers

Joel Embiid on Andre Drummond, Zaza Pachulia: 'I kicked both of their a--'

Joel Embiid on Andre Drummond, Zaza Pachulia: 'I kicked both of their a--'

BOX SCORE 

The much-hyped matchup between Joel Embiid and Andre Drummond wasn't a fair fight.

Embiid dominated Drummond and the Pistons Saturday afternoon, scoring a Wells Fargo Center record 32 first-half points, 39 overall and grabbing 17 rebounds in a 109-99 win (see observations).

And afterward, he wasn't shy in calling it exactly how he saw it.

I thought that both of the bigs [Drummond and Zaza Pachulia] tried to flop a lot, especially on the back downs, trying to get me my fifth foul or to foul out, which I thought was whatever. But at the end of the day, I kicked both of their ass, whoever was guarding me, and we got the win.

Pachulia played a significant role Saturday because Embiid drew two fouls on Drummond within the first three minutes. Embiid was quick to let Drummond know it was time to take a seat.

Drummond was limited to 20 minutes, posting eight points and nine rebounds. 

Embiid took to social media after the game to call out Drummond.

Embiid drew fouls on just about anyone who tried to defend him, attempting 23 free throws, the most by a player in the NBA this season. His 99 free-throw attempts this season are the most in the league. Damian Lillard has the second-most free throw attempts, with 67.

That ability to get to the line at will is one of Embiid's greatest strength, but it's also one reason why it's easy to overlook his dominance or to be a step slow in realizing he's playing at a historically great level. It's not as attractive as his powerful dunks in the post or his outrageous agility on the perimeter, but it's a key part of his game. 

"To me, I knew he was having a good game," Brett Brown said, "and you look at what his numbers were at halftime and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ To come in at the end of the game and have 39 and 17, that is dominant. And 23 free throws, I think that is my favorite stat out of all of that. That is a mentality, that is a disposition.”

Embiid said he surprised himself with his ruthless approach early.

“I thought I was really aggressive to start the game, which I didn’t expect because it was such an early game," he said. "Going into the game, I was kind of just chilling or whatever. Just being aggressive, a lot of duck-ins. If you go back to the Atlanta game, they kind of put me in a tough spot, especially every time they triple-teamed me.

"That was an opportunity for me to learn and I did learn from it. When I’m in that situation, a lot of duck-ins and just being aggressive, that’s what I gotta do each and every game.”

As for the Drummond battle, Embiid wouldn't bite on a question about whether it was his favorite matchup in the league. But he would say that anyone who watches the Sixers knows — just about every night, there's a good chance Embiid is going to do something special.

“It’s a fun matchup," Embiid said. "I feel like I dominate every game, especially against them."

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How to watch Sixers at Blazers: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

How to watch Sixers at Blazers: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

Updated: 5:35 p.m.

The Sixers are 7-5 this year without Ben Simmons, who will have surgery to remove a loose body in his left knee. They’ll aim to improve to 43-27 overall on Sunday night when they play the 32-39 Portland Trail Blazers. 

Glenn Robinson III is available after missing the Sixers' first four seeding games with a left hip pointer injury. Hassan Whiteside (left hip strain) is out for Portland

Here are the essentials for Sunday’s game: 

When: 6:30 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 6 
Where: Visa Athletic Center 
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

Distant memories 

The Sixers came back from a 21-point second-half deficit to win their first meeting with the Blazers this season back on Nov. 2. Furkan Korkmaz’s three-pointer from the right corner with 0.4 seconds to go lifted them to 5-0

There are few similarities between the situation that night and this one, other than that the Sixers were missing a star and relied more heavily than usual on Al Horford. With Joel Embiid serving a suspension after fighting with the Timberwolves' Karl-Anthony Towns, Horford had 25 points, seven assists, five rebounds and one turnover. Tobias Harris posted 23 points on 10 for 15 shooting. 

Seeding implications 

As the playoffs draw nearer, the standings remain bunched at several spots in both conferences. 

The No. 6 seed Sixers are a half-game behind both the Pacers and Heat, who will play each other on Monday night. Since the Sixers have dropped their season series against Indiana and Miami, they’d lose a potential tiebreaker. 

Portland’s main concern is qualifying for the playoffs. After falling to the Clippers on Saturday despite Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent all scoring over 20 points, the Blazers are ninth in the Western Conference, 1.5 games behind the Grizzlies and a half-game ahead of the Suns and Spurs. If the eighth and ninth seeds are within four games of each other at the end of the seeding games, those two teams will have a play-in tournament.

What’s the response? 

We highlighted four main on-court issues for the Sixers to consider without Simmons here

On a more fundamental level, it’ll be interesting to see how the team reacts to learning that one of its two All-Stars will undergo knee surgery. Brett Brown talks frequently about wanting to maintain his team’s “spirit.” That will be tested yet again.

“You’re numb to it,” he said as Simmons was considering treatment options before Friday’s game. “You just move. It ends up, as I’ve said, like ready, fire, aim. You figure it out. You take something and you figure it out, you coach who you have. And I do genuinely believe that this can galvanize our group and bring us, in a sort of inverted way, together, knowing that Ben is not going to be with us.”

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Four main issues to consider for Sixers with Ben Simmons to undergo knee surgery

Four main issues to consider for Sixers with Ben Simmons to undergo knee surgery

A rational response to the news Saturday that Ben Simmons will have surgery to remove a loose body from his left knee is that it’s time to recalibrate expectations for the Sixers. 

The notion of a championship run naturally dims with the loss of an All-Star. With four seeding games to go before the playoffs, the Sixers will have to address the myriad of concerns raised by Simmons’ absence.

Let’s dissect four main issues: 

Guarding stars 

When games this season have been on the line, Simmons has often helped the Sixers seize control with excellent defense on the opponent’s best playmaker. His versatility has also enabled the Sixers to give other players favorable matchups.

Who takes on the job of defending top scoring threats late in games? It will presumably be dictated by matchups — for instance, you’d think Joel Embiid and Al Horford would guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, while Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle would split time on Jayson Tatum. There’s no default answer anymore, and it’ll be a bigger challenge to “hide” players like Furkan Korkmaz.

Horford in the spotlight 

The instinctive reaction when a team loses a player of Simmons’ caliber is that everyone else needs to "step up." That’s fair enough, and yet much of the attention will shift specifically to Horford.

He started in Simmons’ place on Friday and played well, scoring 21 points and grabbing nine rebounds. His much-scrutinized pairing with Embiid is the only Sixers duo with at least 300 minutes together this year to have a negative net rating. In 60 Horford-Embiid minutes at Disney World, though, the Sixers have a plus-9.2 net rating. 

Notably, the presence of Simmons has had a negative effect on the Horford-Embiid pairing, at least offensively. The team has a 98.7 offensive rating when Horford, Embiid and Simmons have played together, by far the worst of any three-man group. Perhaps removing Simmons from the equation and losing another player whose preferred territory is near the rim in the process will help Horford-Embiid lineups score efficiently. 

When Brett Brown was asked what he found out about his team Friday night with Simmons sidelined, Horford was the first name that came to his mind. 

“You can’t help but feel an emerging Al Horford,” he said. “It’s clear that he understands we need him more than we ever have needed him.” 

Post-ups and 3s 

During the eight-game stretch in late February and early March when Simmons was out with a nerve impingement in his back, the Sixers fired up 35.8 three-point attempts per game and converted 42.3 percent. They’ve posted up far more than any other team and have the league’s best high-volume post player in Embiid. Without Simmons, a blend of Embiid post touches and more three-point attempts from players such as Richardson and Tobias Harris would make sense. 

Brown has requested throughout the year that Harris and Richardson “hunt threes." The Sixers, however, are 20th in three-point attempts per game out of the 22 teams in Florida. There has to be a collective willingness to shoot from beyond the arc, and a reduction in the low-efficiency plays where an open three turns into a contested two. 

Embiid’s averages at Disney World are 30 points, 13.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s attempted 11.4 free throws per game and facilitated for teammates well when powering through a double team isn’t the smart play.

“(He has) the willingness and unselfishness, born with the confidence of ‘I know where my teammates are coming,’ under a backdrop of a poise and a patience — it’s ball to chin, tuck it in stuff you’d teach young players — and he’s figuring stuff out quite quickly — like real quickly,” Brown said before Friday’s game.

“All of those things, when you add them all up, equal a team offense. Arguably the best play that J-Rich can have or Tobias can have is throw the ball into Jo and they’re probably going to double, and then it’s coming back out.” 

Creativity required 

The Sixers’ unofficial mantra this year has been “built for the playoffs.” They maintained faith that talent, size and defense would prevail in the postseason. 

Being down a star should change that. Against the Celtics, Bucks or Raptors, Brown may need to adopt unorthodox strategies if feeding Embiid, relying on the big man to protect the rim and asking Thybulle and Richardson to shut down perimeter scorers is ineffective. 

That could look like blitzing the pick-and-roll if Kemba Walker is giving Richardson trouble. It could mean calling some double drag actions with Embiid and Horford if the defense is denying the Cameroonian and Horford is knocking down jumpers and distributing sharply as a pick-and-pop guy.

Perhaps Brown could ask for spurts of full-court pressure with Thybulle on the floor in an effort to force turnovers, spark transition offense and boost the rookie’s disruptive abilities. If Alec Burks is hot and Milton is making poised, intelligent decisions, Brown could play the two ball handlers together, as he did Friday at the start of the fourth quarter.

Philosophically, Brown likes letting his players figure things out for themselves and setting them up in “environments” over calling a ton of plays. He may now have to embrace greater proactivity and innovation. 

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