Joel Embiid shows scoreless performance against Raptors was an extreme outlier

Joel Embiid shows scoreless performance against Raptors was an extreme outlier

Joel Embiid has a bit of a defiant instinct. 

Often, a reporter will ask him a question and he’ll begin by dismissing its premise. 

So, when he was asked Wednesday night about feeling a need to prove himself after putting up a goose egg Monday in Toronto — the first scoreless performance of his NBA career — it wasn’t shocking that Embiid strongly rejected the question. 

I didn't have to prove anything,” he said after posting 33 points and 16 rebounds in the Sixers’ 97-91 win over the Kings (see observations). “I’ve matured a lot since I got in the league. I understand that the end goal is winning the championship. So you got to take it day by day. People are gonna talk and I've learned not to pay attention to it. It doesn't get to me. I just do it for myself, I just do it for the organization and I just do it for my family. So I don't have anything to prove to anybody. I literally don't care about whatever anybody said after that performance, so like I said, I don't have anything to prove to anybody.

Whether or not he cared about them, he played like somebody who’d heard the criticisms directed at him and wanted to show his effort against the Raptors was an extreme anomaly. He scored the Sixers’ first four points, throwing down a powerful dunk on former teammate Richaun Holmes and draining a jumper from the top of the key. In the game’s first six minutes, he had seven rebounds. 

If Embiid had been shut down for a second straight game, that would perhaps have been an alarming story. What happened, though, was a return to the norm for a two-time All-Star.

“Did it surprise anybody?” Brett Brown asked rhetorically.

To Brown, the Sixers’ loss to the Raptors was an aberration. After reviewing the film, he didn’t see “a large method to the madness” in the Raptors’ double teams, just a persistent and effective mentality to do whatever was necessary to get the ball out of Embiid’s hands. He didn’t mind the looks the Sixers got out of feeding Embiid in the post — the main thing that bothered him was the open threes his team missed.

“The Toronto game is an outlier,” he said. “That’s not typical NBA post double team defense.”

When Embiid encounters such an aggressive scheme, Brown largely wants him to defer to his teammates. Embiid also leaned on that explanation Wednesday.

“Just take what the game gave me,” he said. “Obviously, against Toronto they guarded me differently. From double teams and Marc [Gasol] making sure that on every pick-and-roll that I set, he didn't give me an inch up on my teammates. All I could do is really just try to make the right play, try to get my teammates open. If it's gonna take me taking two shots, as long as we win, and I'm making the right plays by making my teammates open, I'll take that. But tonight it was definitely a different disposition. But I should play like that every single night.”

The Kings don’t have a post defender near Gasol’s caliber, and their double teams were easier to read. In that more traditional environment, Brown’s shift to have his team move more around Embiid down low paid dividends. Brown had previously limited his team’s movement off Embiid in the post because of a desire to simplify his outlets, but we’ve seen more cuts to the rim, weak side flare screens and spontaneous off-ball movement this season. The Sixers call it “Explosion.” 

While it might make Embiid's decisions more complex, it ideally removes help defenders from the picture and makes it harder to send double teams from regular, predictable spots.

“I like what we’re trying to do,” Brown said. “I like the scheme that we’re trying to grow.”

Embiid is posting up more than any player in the NBA and producing 1.05 points per possessions on post-ups, per NBA.com/Stats — identical efficiency to last season, even with the zero-point night.

“It was just about my teammates, the organization — just making sure I do a better job to put us in a situation to win games,” he said. “I didn't do that against Toronto so it wasn't about proving anything, it was just about making the right play, just like in Toronto. I had zero points, but I felt like in the circumstances I did what I was supposed to with how closely I was being guarded —  not play for myself and I always play for my teammates.

“And so whatever it takes, that's what I'm going to do. Tonight, it was a different story. I was a little bit more free and I took advantage.”

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Is Sixers' Tobias Harris an All-Star? He's making a compelling case

Is Sixers' Tobias Harris an All-Star? He's making a compelling case

Around this time last year, Tobias Harris was leading the surprising Clippers to a strong start. Harris was averaging over 20 points a game while flirting with the 50-40-90 shooting line. He was a borderline All-Star.

Fast forward a year later and the 27-year-old resembles that player more now than he ever has during his tenure as a Sixer.

Harris added another impressive performance to his recent stretch of strong play in the Sixers’ 116-109 win over the Pelicans Friday night (see observations).

It wasn’t the cleanest performance for the Sixers, but Harris’ team-high 31 points helped the Sixers stay a perfect 14-0 at the Wells Fargo Center and become the only undefeated team at home in the NBA.

Every night is an opportunity for me to go out there and do the best I can to help our team win,” Harris said. "I’d love to be an All-Star — it’s a goal of mine as a player. I felt last year I was an All-Star in the beginning of the season. It didn’t happen that way. But I think each and every night, especially with our team, we have a nice amount of talent and I want to play at my best every single night to help us win games.

It hadn’t been the smoothest transition for Harris since he arrived in a blockbuster trade from Los Angeles.

The Sixers had just traded for Jimmy Butler a couple months prior and they were still trying to figure out how to use the mercurial star alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. With Harris, it was another mouth to feed and another piece to fit into the puzzle.

On paper, it looked like a master stroke by GM Elton Brand. Harris had become an elite three-point shooter and a go-to scorer for the Clippers. But the chemistry didn’t develop as quickly as they would’ve liked as Embiid missed a significant amount of time down the stretch with tendinitis in his left knee.

Over the last 16 games — and with Butler in Miami — Harris seems to have found his niche with the Sixers.

“Yeah, there’s definitely a comfort level, just being able to get familiar with guys on this team on and off the floor,” Harris said. “I think as a team, the comfort level from each and every one of the guys that’s on the floor is continuing to increase. I’m able to find ways to play with Ben in different pockets of the game, and Joel, also. There’s been a lot of things that I’ve liked. I’m going into games understanding more of what we need to do, where I’m at, where I’m going to get this play, that play, things like that.”

While the All-Star game doesn’t generally account for defense, that is likely where Harris has seen his most improvement.

In Friday night’s game, he was tasked with guarding former Sixer JJ Redick. As we saw during Redick’s time in Philly, that’s not an easy ask. Redick runs a marathon every game, navigating around screens and running dribble handoffs. Harris did a decent enough job, as Redick went 6 of 15 on the night.

Improving on the defensive end was Harris’ biggest point of emphasis this offseason. He went to Brett Brown before the season began and let him know that he wouldn’t be the weak link amongst a starting five that had elite-level defenders.

The notion of putting Harris on someone like Redick wouldn’t even have crossed his head coach’s mind last season.

“Could Tobias have done something like that last year? I didn't see him like that,” Brown said. “Maybe he could have, but I never saw him or played him like that and this year I do. And I think that it's part of your question about, 'Oh, he's having a great year,' and you go right to offense. I think he's having a hell of a year defensively.”

Harris is 13th in the conference in scoring and fourth among forwards. His 2.6 win shares are second-most among any forward in the East.

Throw in the last 16 games, where Harris has averaged 22.1 points and shot over 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from three, and the case is making itself.

You don't need much more ammunition," Brown said. "I mean, he's been so steady and just responsible, reliable, go-to guy. I put him kind of in a bunch of different spots — middle pick-and-roll, iso, three balls, making his free throws, plays that back down pound, pound game and can jump over people, smaller people. He's having a hell of a year.

A good enough year to be in Chicago on Feb. 16 for the All-Star game?

There’s a strong case to be made.

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After unusual path, showman Norvel Pelle doesn't 'mess up' his moment

After unusual path, showman Norvel Pelle doesn't 'mess up' his moment

Norvel Pelle is not the typical NBA player.

A native of Antigua and Barbuda, Pelle was a top recruit out of high school — that part was normal. Then his path went sideways.

The wiry center never played college basketball because of eligibility issues. He traveled to Delaware, Italy, Taiwan and Lebanon before signing a one-year, two-way contract with the Sixers this summer and reaching Friday night, where Brett Brown turned to Pelle, in his third NBA regular-season game, as Joel Embiid’s main backup. 

“It’s just knowing that this opportunity is once in a lifetime,” Pelle told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I worked hard to get here and I can’t mess up. So, just getting the jitters out — obviously there are going to be jitters regardless, but just meditating and staying positive throughout the whole thing.”

In 12 minutes, Pelle was exceptionally active. He had six points, five rebounds, three blocks and a handful of altered shots. Every time Pelle has stepped on an NBA floor, it seems he has been immediately challenged by players on a mission to embarrass him. It hasn’t always gone his way. Julius Randle slammed one in over Pelle in his NBA debut in New York and Kevin Porter Jr. dunked on Pelle last Saturday and then flexed in his face despite the Cavs trailing by more than 40 points. 

A member of the G League’s All-Defensive First Team last season, Pelle sees no shame in taking the occasional ferocious dunk to the face. He’s a showman who enjoys playing to the crowd and feeds off its energy, and he never likes to show any fear. 

“Next play,” he said of his mentality. “Next play, next play, next play. At the end of the day, I’m a shot blocker, so if I get dunked on, I get dunked on — that’s my mentality. Next play.” 

After picking up two early fouls, Pelle waited out a series of pump fakes from former Sixer Jahlil Okafor to record his first block of the night, leading to a Ben Simmons dunk. He then denied a slam attempt by Brandon Ingram, creating a fast break that concluded with a James Ennis three. 

“You know every game he's going to bring you energy,” Simmons said following the Sixers' 116-109 win over the Pelicans (see observations). “He loves blocking shots, just risking his body for those blocks and protecting the rim. I love having him as a part of this team.”

Both Simmons and Brown said Pelle reminded them of Nerlens Noel. Like Noel, Pelle’s offensive game is not too extensive — it’s mostly screening and rolling, lob catching and energy. The defensive package, though, is intriguing.

“Just wanted to see what we have in him,” Brown said. “We had a little taste in New York. I wanted to see more. And I thought he was really good. I thought he was really good. He is sort of Nerlens like to me — rim protector, shot blocker, quick off the floor. I thought he was good.”

It’s uncertain whether Pelle could eventually have a consistent role with the Sixers. The man whose job he temporarily took Friday, Kyle O’Quinn, was signed this offseason to be insurance for Embiid. Al Horford should assume the primary backup center position once he returns from the left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness that’s sidelined him the past two games. 

Pelle’s two-way contract also means he can’t be with the Sixers for more than 45 days between the start of Blue Coats training camp and the end of the G League regular season, and he’s not eligible for the NBA playoffs.

Brown didn’t attribute Pelle’s five fouls vs. the Pelicans to being “undisciplined,” but the big man would likely need to refine his game a bit if he was tasked with a regular role.

Embiid wasn’t worried about any of that. 

“I told him if he got the minutes, he would probably lead the league in blocks,” he said. “He has a chance to become a fan favorite, so he should just keep doing whatever he’s doing.”

After all the empathic dunks and dramatic poses and swatted shots in foreign gyms, Pelle had time to reflect Friday night. 

“This was more than what I expected,” he said. “I’m appreciative of everything and everybody. I’m taking it day by day, moment by moment, opportunity by opportunity and just go out there and do what I have to do.”

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