In years past, it was a common occurrence for Joel Embiid to make a big play and elicit cheers from a sold-out Wells Fargo Center. He’d then raise his arms, imploring the crowd to get louder — and they’d oblige.
This kind of moment happened in Tuesday night’s 97-92 win in a slugfest against the Nuggets (see observations).
With Denver having gone on a run to cut a double-digit deficit to two, the Sixers made a push late in the third. As the clock was winding down, Embiid grabbed an offensive rebound and made a circus shot while he was being fouled.
Embiid went out to center court, raised his arms and the fans went nuts.
Moments like this haven’t been as frequent this year. Not because Embiid hasn’t had spectacular moments, but because he’s trying to be even-keeled.
I haven't done it enough all season,” Embiid said. “I have not been having fun like usual. … It goes back to with me being mature. And one of the biggest parts of my game is just having fun and by having fun is talking trash, but that part, that's kind of been cut. I just need to be myself and I guess just do whatever I want. Because when I'm having fun, I dominate. But this year, I don't know, I can probably count on one hand how many times I've done it. Last year was basically a reaction that I love it. They get me going. They understand me, I do understand them. So, I need to start doing it again because that's how I'm gonna dominate.
Embiid continues to be his dominant self on the defensive end — in case some national pundits forgot that there are two ends to a basketball court. He’s No. 1 in the NBA in terms of defensive rating (95.3) and anchored the defense that held the Nuggets to just 92 points.
With Jimmy Butler gone, it’s also been Embiid who’s been tasked with being the team’s go-to scorer in the fourth quarter. Going to a post player late in games is not something a ton of teams do. Then again, most teams don’t have a big man as physically gifted as Embiid.
Brett Brown has tried to do different things here and there — run isos for Tobias Harris or pick-and-rolls with Ben Simmons. Ultimately, though, Brown said his offense still runs through his “crown jewel.”
Embiid, who almost sounded like a player that had just lost, admitted that he’s still adjusting to his late-game role and also to the idea of drawing attention to free up his teammates.
“Not good enough,” Embiid said when asked about his late-game scoring. “Still getting used to [it]. The whole season I've been trying to adjust. Obviously, it's not the same as last year. It's completely different. So the adjustment has been hard but I'm gonna do whatever I'm asked to every single night. Like I keep mentioning, even if it's being a ball screener or just rebound the ball or take three shots — I'll do that. Whatever they ask me to do.”
It’s been a peculiar season for Embiid. If you were to just look at his scoring numbers, they’re way down. He’s averaging just 21.9 points, down from his 27.5 mark last season. A lot of that is the result of more aggressive double teams and a new supporting cast.
He also just seems a little off as far as his personality goes — and his words Tuesday kind of confirmed that. The only game where he seemed to be his usual plucky self was back on Oct. 30 against the Timberwolves. Of course, that’s the game where he got into a scuffle with Karl-Anthony Towns, shadowboxed to the crowd, got into a profanity-laced Instagram war with Towns, and got suspended for two games.
After that incident, Embiid vowed to never get suspended again. It’s a respectable cause, to be sure, but it seems like it’s led the 25-year-old into an existential crisis.
I'm not trying to be a distraction to the team," Embiid said. "The fight happened and we had good momentum and from there, we just kind of lost it. We lost a couple of games. So, I'm not trying to be a distraction, but that's just part of my game. And I feel like me losing that part, I think it's kind of taken a toll on my game. So it just goes back to me. Sometimes I might be childish and like I said, do whatever I want to, but then again, I care about winning. Everybody knows that. I'll do whatever it takes to win. I care about my teammates, I care about the organization, I care about being a role model. Everybody told me that I need to be — from fans to everybody else — I gotta be mature, so I'm doing it and I don't think it's working but I'm gonna keep doing it.
To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question.
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