Last season, Joel Embiid returned from the All-Star Game unhealthy, bothered by a left knee injury that would sideline him for eight straight games and jeopardize his status throughout the playoffs.
Thursday night, he saved the Sixers from what would have been a bad defeat to the Brooklyn Nets, scoring a season-high 39 points and snatching 16 rebounds in a 112-104 overtime win at Wells Fargo Center (see observations).
He did, however, have a cold. (His postgame coughing had given a reporter a clue.)
Embiid didn’t have a splint on his left hand, though, which he thought “helped a lot” in converting 18 of 19 free throws, including four in the final 35.9 seconds of regulation. In the previous eight games, he’d shot 69.9 percent at the foul line. He dove on the floor, sprinted down it and looked like a player invigorated by the prospect of the home stretch.
“Like I’ve been saying, I’m getting back to myself,” he said. “I’m telling my teammates, ‘Just get me the ball.’ … But that’s the mindset I’ve got to have. I want my teammates to know that I’m going to be there, especially in those type of situations.”
To call Thursday’s contest the ultimate game of runs would not be hyperbole. The Sixers claimed an early 20-4 lead, followed by a 46-10 stretch by Brooklyn. Because of a 12-2 spurt to finish the first half, the Sixers stayed in the game. It was a weird, unpredictable game ultimately decided by one dominant player.
“The All-Star Game is just proving that I’m here, I belong, and being the best player in the world,” Embiid said. "I just intend to keep coming out every single night, just play hard and try to get wins. Go hard and try to win a championship.”
Though there were areas to nitpick — five turnovers, for instance — Embiid generally did and said all the right things.
He even spun a question about the team’s free throw shooting into an opportunity to praise fellow All-Star Ben Simmons, who missed the game with lower back soreness. Simmons had made 69.6 percent of his free throws on seven attempts per game in the 16 games before the All-Star break, and Embiid saw an opening to recognize that recent improvement.
“The thing I’m so happy about is Ben,” he said. “He’s been shooting the lights out at the free throw line. It shows his work ethic. He’s been working really hard, and it’s showing. He’s gotta keep doing that — keep working and keep improving — and I think that’s a big part of it.”
Embiid has often raised the issue of his personal disposition this year, commenting at length on topics like maturity, authenticity and his desire to have fun.
He was certainly not in a brooding mood late Thursday night.
Having fun means a lot of things,” he said. “This year I have not been smiling as much as previous years. That doesn’t mean that I’m not having fun or anything is not going well. It’s just about just playing basketball the right way. First part of the season I was trying to make sure I was comfortable, kind of took a step back. But if we’re going to go somewhere, I’ve gotta be one of the guys. And it starts on defense — just playing hard, running the floor, doing the little things.
That apparent level of clarity and, more importantly, the level of Embiid’s play vs. Brooklyn, are obvious positives.
Still, he’s started three straight All-Star Games. It’s been clear for a while that he’s one of the top players in the sport. One excellent, healthy game is worth acknowledging, without a doubt. But, if things go according to Embiid and the Sixers’ plan, it shouldn’t be the sort of thing that merits much consideration when one looks back at the season.
“I expect greatness from him,” Tobias Harris said. “I think we all do as a team.”
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