Life for Joel Embiid has sounded troublesome at times this season. He’s described a convoluted calculus including but not limited to “not trying to be a distraction to the team,” responding to nationally prominent critics like Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, making level-headed decisions when double teamed, and being his fun-loving self.
On Christmas, with the Milwaukee Bucks and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in town, everything crystallized into something coherent, joyful and dominant.
Embiid outplayed Antetokounmpo by a wide margin in a 121-109 Sixers win (see observations). He scored 31 points (23 in the first half), pulled down 11 rebounds and, when he was the primary defender on Antetokounmpo, limited him to 1 for 9 shooting. Antetokounmpo shot 8 for 27 overall, his worst field percentage of the season.
Embiid said playing against Antetokounmpo didn’t add any motivation to his performance.
“No. Just play my game,” he said. “Like I said, my goal is to get to the playoffs healthy. But if my team needs me, I’m going to show up. … A lot of people have kind of forgotten, I guess, who I am. When I’m needed, I’m going to show up. But God willing, hopefully I’m healthy for the playoffs, and it’s going to be a different story.”
Those comments might not sit well with many fans if they came after a loss. However, they indicate Embiid has perhaps found a guiding principle. The standard for when his team “needs him” won’t always be as obvious as it is when the Sixers are playing on Christmas against the team with the best record in the NBA, and against a freakish player. The Sixers would likely prefer that potential gray area, though, over their All-Star center seeming lost and confused about how to approach the regular season.
In a pregame press conference, general manager Elton Brand also provided a simple mission statement on what he wants from Embiid.
“I want Joel to have fun,” he said. “I want him to show his love for the game — he loves this game. I want him to have fun, I want him to be himself out there, ride the energy of these fans, the spirit of these fans. We know how great this city of Philadelphia is, especially when it comes to supporting their sports teams. So, I want him to have a joy. I don’t want him to get fined, but I do want him to have fun out there and be himself. Be dominant out there.”
After the game, Embiid told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi, “I want to be Defensive Player of the Year and I feel like tonight I showed it.”
He’s not the only Sixer who’s expressed a desire to win that award and flashed the skills to do so. Ben Simmons, who had three steals and two blocks vs. the Bucks, is also pushing for it.
“I mean, [Tobias] wants it, too,” Simmons said. “But I want it. And J-Rich wants it. So hopefully we all keep that mentality.”
Any way to make everybody happy? Embiid, after a festive, celebratory afternoon, had an idea.
“I hope we all win Defensive Player of the Year,” he said with a smile. “Obviously there’s only one that can win it. We’ve been a great defensive team the whole season. Everybody is unique in their own ways. Ben is going to get in the passing lanes, he’s going to guard the best guard on the opposing team most nights. And matchups like tonight, like I said, if I’m needed, guarding the MVP, Giannis. I hope we all win — it’d be great. But if we can’t all win it, I hope we all are on the First Team All-Defense.”
There will surely be new challenges for Embiid and his teammates in their final 49 regular-season games. They’ll need to address a few lingering ones, too, including the offensive fit with Embiid and Horford together and how things will work in the playoffs if Simmons remains an unwilling outside shooter.
For the time being, though, things don’t appear too complicated from Embiid’s perspective.
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