76ers

Sixers 131, Nets 115: With Joel Embiid out, Sixers impose will on Nets to take back home court

Sixers 131, Nets 115: With Joel Embiid out, Sixers impose will on Nets to take back home court

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NEW YORK — The news approximately 20 minutes before tip-off Thursday night of Joel Embiid’s absence with left knee soreness was not a death sentence for the Sixers.

A brilliant Ben Simmons (31 points on 11 for 13 shooting and nine assists), excellent shooting nights from Tobias Harris (29 points) and JJ Redick (26 points), and an unlikely tandem at center ensured the Nets are much closer to death this season than the Sixers, who beat Brooklyn, 131-115, to take a 2-1 series lead.

Here are observations from the Sixers’ win:

• Greg Monroe started in Embiid’s place, and it was not an auspicious first few minutes for him. He allowed two early offensive boards to Jarrett Allen, fouling the Nets’ center on one and conceding a dunk on the other as the Nets took a 9-4 edge. His mobility was minimal and labored.

Boban Marjanovic replaced Monroe after five minutes and, as he has throughout the series, improbably held his own in space defensively. The 7-foot-3 Marjanovic actually moved with more fluidity on defense than Monroe. In pick-and-roll coverage, Marjanovic had better instincts than Monroe for how to buy the ball handler’s defender time when he fell a step behind on the initial move, and for how to challenge shots at the rim.

Monroe had seven points on 3 for 12 shooting and 12 rebounds, while Marjanovic finished with 14 points and eight rebounds. He’s the only Sixer who’s played well in all three games against Brooklyn.

• Simmons proved again that his poor Game 1 performance was an anomaly.

Jared Dudley, the 12-year-veteran who’d called Simmons “average” in the half court, had no points in 16 minutes and air-balled a three-point attempt from the right wing. Though Simmons dismissed Dudley's comment at shootaround, saying, “That’s coming from Jared Dudley. Come on,” he seemed determined to show just how wrong Dudley’s assessment was.

There’s no doubt Dudley is correct, however, that Simmons is a tremendous player in transition.

Simmons made two key plays at the end of quarters. He blocked LeVert’s three-pointer at the end of the first, timing his jump to perfection.

And he slammed in Redick’s miss with 1.1 seconds left in the first half, lifting the Sixers to a 65-59 lead.

The Sixers frequently used Simmons off the ball, allowing Jimmy Butler to handle much of the point guard duties. Butler had 16 points, seven assists and one  turnover. He has 14 assists and two turnovers over the past two games. 

• When Marjanovic sat, you gained a better appreciation for how vital he’s been for the Sixers this series.

Brooklyn soon erased the Sixers’ 32-24 lead after the first quarter, and their run again came with Monroe on the floor. Caris LeVert beat Redick in the pick-and-roll and converted back-to-back floaters without any resistance from Monroe early in the second, prompting a Brett Brown timeout. After yet another LeVert floater and a LeVert three-pointer, Brown re-inserted Marjanovic.

It had only been a few minutes, but it felt like the Sixers had been without Marjanovic forever, given the Nets’ stretch of uninhibited success in the paint.

The pattern continued in the second half as the Nets went on runs in the third and fourth quarter when Marjanovic exited the game. Brown was so reliant on Marjanovic that he put him in the game with five fouls and just under nine minutes to play. While understandable, the decision didn’t pay off as Marjanovic was called for a dubious offensive foul with 7:05 to play.

Mike Scott stepped in at center with Marjanovic out, and he matched up well against the Nets’ Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The Sixers pulled away from the Nets with Scott on the floor.

• It took almost seven minutes for Harris to attempt his first field goal, a smooth jumper from the right wing off a side pick-and-roll with Marjanovic. He wasn’t shy about searching for his shot once he broke the ice, though, stepping into a pull-up three soon after from the top of the key.

The law of averages was a beautiful thing to behold for Harris, Redick and the Sixers. Redick, 3 for 9 from three-point range combined in Games 1 and 2, made three in the first four-plus minutes of the second half alone and scored 16 of his 26 points in the quarter.

Meanwhile, Harris nailed all six of his threes after shooting 2 for 6 from long range in the series’ first two games.

• “Same old, same old,” Brett Brown said pregame when confirming Embiid would be a game-time decision.

But unlike the first two games in this series, the Sixers decided Embiid’s left knee soreness was enough to sideline him.

Embiid spoke a little less than an hour before the game. In the middle of a large scrum of curious reporters, he said his knee was getting better “slowly but surely,” though it doesn’t sound like his progress is linear or predictable — he characterized some days as worse than others.

He said he’s concerned with “loading” and taking care of himself on off days, in close consultation with the Sixers’ training staff. Shortly after declining a reporter’s request to reflect on “The Process,” Embiid — who again used the word “tendinitis” to describe his condition — said he has to “Trust The Process” with his knee. Even when the circumstances are serious, he can’t help but use his signature slogan. 

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To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question for Joel Embiid

To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question for Joel Embiid

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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Charles Barkley takes aim at Joel Embiid, says Sixers ‘got no chance’ at NBA Finals

Charles Barkley takes aim at Joel Embiid, says Sixers ‘got no chance’ at NBA Finals

The Sixers have only played 25 regular-season games, but that has been sufficient time for Charles Barkley to form some strong opinions about his former team and Joel Embiid. 

At the September unveiling for his statue at the Sixers’ practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, Barkley said the Sixers were his pick to win the NBA title.

His thinking has shifted quickly and, on the NBA on TNT’s postgame show Tuesday night, he targeted Embiid after the Sixers’ 97-92 win over the Denver Nuggets (see observations).

He’s the toughest player in the league to match up with, but we don’t talk about him the way we talk about Luka [Doncic], Giannis [Antetokounmpo], Anthony Davis, James [Harden] — we don’t ever say that about him. It’s frustrating for me, because I picked the Sixers to get to the Finals. They ain’t go no chance. 

Embiid posted 22 points, 10 rebounds and six assists vs. the Nuggets and is averaging 22 points and 12.4 rebounds on the season.The two-time All-Star has a 95.3 defensive rating, the best of any player in the NBA who’s played at least 25 minutes per night.

For Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, the 25-year-old is falling short of his potential.

"We’re telling you, ‘You can be great. You ain’t playing hard enough.’ Twenty-two ain’t enough to get you to the next level,” O’Neal said. “Do you want to be great or do you want to be good? If you want to be good, keep doing 22 points. You want to be great, give me 28, give me 30. You want to be great, watch Giannis — he wants to be great.”

Embiid has admitted that he perhaps hasn’t always played with his highest level of intensity. The Sixers have prioritized managing his minutes and delivering him to the playoffs healthy and in peak physical condition. Sunday, Embiid had an interesting quote about that philosophy.

The whole season it feels like I've been going through the motions and part of it is also making sure I'm healthy for the playoffs,” he told reporters. “Going into the season, the last playoffs that I've been part of I've not been healthy, so for me going into this season, my main goal was to make sure that I get to the playoffs healthy and so far I've been doing a good job of that —taking care of my body and also, on the court when I'm needed, I'm gonna bring it. But then again, I'm also lucky that we got so many guys that can make a lot of things happen. But if I'm needed, I'll be there.

The NBA on TNT crew is clearly not aligned with Embiid’s outlook. They don't seem impressed with Embiid's defense, the fact that he's been an efficient, high-volume post player on offense, or much about the Sixers overall.

Barkley is almost ready to abandon his preseason prediction. 

“When the season started we were like, OK, Milwaukee is in that conversation, Philadelphia — that was it,” Barkley said. “There were two teams. But right now Boston has really played better, Toronto has played better, and that shouldn’t be. … I don’t want to jump totally off, but I’m in the air.”

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