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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