Sixers' Joel Embiid healthy but still feels sting of loss to Celtics

Sixers' Joel Embiid healthy but still feels sting of loss to Celtics

CAMDEN, N.J. — Joel Embiid was his usual colorful self during Sixers media day Friday.

The charismatic Cameroonian, sporting a svelter figure, joked about dunking on his new GM (see video) and talked about his goals for this season.

The biggest thing for Embiid: he’s finally healthy and feeling good going into camp.

“I worked on everything,” Embiid said at the team’s practice facility. “This whole summer was more about working on my body and I feel like I’m a complete player. It was always about just perfecting everything because I’m not perfect. I still make a lot of mistakes and I’m still kind of young in basketball.”

While Embiid’s body is healthy, he still feels the sting of last season’s playoff loss to the Celtics. The issues that plagued Embiid during the regular season reared their ugly head. His tendency to force things created turnovers for Boston and his fitness level wasn’t high enough for a physical playoff series.

A slimmed down and more toned Embiid took the podium Friday, supremely confident that he had helped remedy some of his issues with the help of training guru Drew Hanlen. 

“I watched every game from this past season — playoffs included — probably twice,” Embiid said. “Especially that last game, I watched a lot. That game, the layup that I missed to tie the game … I watched it all and it was painful, but I have one goal in mind. Like I said, I was excited to go into the summer finally healthy and we’re going to see what happens this year.”

Embiid was active this summer. From dunking on random dudes on blacktops around the city to participating in the NBA Africa Game to trying to (unsuccessfully) win a fan $25K at a Drake concert, the All-Star center never stopped.

But all along, his focus was on basketball and taking his game to the next level. Sure, he was disappointed the Sixers couldn’t land LeBron James or another star-caliber player, but it’s just served as motivation. 

Embiid has already stated on more than one occasion that he expects to be an MVP candidate. With the goals he has set out for the team, he’ll need to be one.

“An appearance in the NBA Finals and winning it all,” Embiid said when asked of aspirations this season. “I feel like we’ve got the talent to make it happen. Last year was unfortunate, but it’s behind us. I think this year we’ll be much better and we added a couple pieces. It’s going to be exciting.”

Embiid’s huge personality is only outdone by his dominance on the court. He’s always talked a big game, even when he’s been sidelined with injuries. But the big man has always backed it up.

It’s easy to see why fans have fallen in love with Embiid and why he’s returned that admiration. From the time he was drafted out of Kansas and his two subsequent missed seasons because of injury, this fan base has, by and large, had his back.

“I always feel like I have a good connection with the fans,” Embiid said. “It’s not just on the court, it’s also off the court. I appreciate them, definitely, and I think they appreciate me a lot, too, so we both have a mutual respect. I love it. 

“I envisioned myself being in this situation when I got to Philly. That’s the place I want to be for the rest of my career. I’m excited. We’ve got a great connection. I’ve got a lot of love for the city and a great connection with the Sixers.”

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Sixers weekly observations: The case for three All-Stars, improved defense, painful loss to Thunder, more

Sixers weekly observations: The case for three All-Stars, improved defense, painful loss to Thunder, more

The Sixers went 3-1 this week, but their most recent (and most painful) memory is of the one that got away, Saturday’s 117-115 loss to the Thunder (see observations).

In the big picture, the Sixers are 30-17 and 19-9 in games in which Jimmy Butler has played.

Let’s get into a few observations:

• Ben Simmons told reporters he considered pulling up for a three-point shot on the Sixers’ final possession vs. Oklahoma City. Only Simmons can know his thoughts in that moment, but the notion that he deliberated attempting the first non-heave three-pointer of his career in the final seconds of a two-point game is dubious.

Even if he did think about pulling up for a jumper, his track record rendered his intentions irrelevant. The Thunder had no reason to believe Simmons was going to take a jumper and played him accordingly.

If Simmons isn’t going to attempt jumpers in those spots for the time being, faking the dribble handoff and attacking the basket or rolling to the rim after giving the ball to Butler are other viable late-game options off that action. He did what he felt was best in the moment Saturday, but forcing defenses to be wary of him doing something besides handing the ball off would benefit the Sixers’ late-game offense moving forward.

• The Sixers’ defense, a season-long concern, was much improved this week, and Simmons was especially impressive defensively. Victor Oladipo shot just 4 for 11 on Thursday when guarded by Simmons, and Russell Westbrook was 1 for 5

As a team, the Sixers posted a 103.9 defensive rating this week, fourth best in the NBA, and that’s not a difficult number to believe based on the miscommunications that are gradually disappearing and the improved overall effort. As we suggested, using Jonah Bolden as Joel Embiid’s backup appears to be effectively concealing the flaws of the Sixers’ subpar perimeter defense off the bench, though Bolden will at some stage need to eradicate his habit of committing bad fouls. 

• We’ve avoided All-Star voting discussion until now, but with fan voting set to close Monday at 11:59 p.m., it’s an unavoidable topic.

First, the relevant logistics: As of Thursday, Embiid had the third-most fan votes among Eastern Conference frontcourt players. Butler was fifth in that category, while Simmons was fourth among backcourt players in the East. 

Three frontcourt and two backcourt players from each conference will be named starters, with fan votes weighted at 50 percent, and media and player votes at 25 percent each. Head coaches will vote for the reserves of their respective conferences.

The Sixers should have three All-Stars this year for the first time since the 1986-87 season, when Charles Barkley, Maurice Cheeks and Julius Erving were selected. 

Embiid is a self-evident choice, by far the best center in the East. He’s averaging 27 points, 13.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. Defensively, he’s guarding more field goals than any player in the conference, and opponents are shooting just 44.3 percent against him.

Butler may be a divisive personality, depending on who you ask, but he's an excellent basketball player. He’s made two game-winners in his first 28 games with his new team and would have had a third on Saturday if not for Paul George’s heroics. Nineteen points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game with the Sixers isn’t too shabby, especially when you consider how little Butler turns the ball over (his 7.1 turnover percentage is lower than any rotation player besides Landry Shamet’s) and the fact that he usually defends the opponent’s best player.

Simmons should have removed any doubt about his All-Star case over the last month. Since Dec. 22, he’s posted 18.4 points per game on 60 percent shooting, 10.6 rebounds and 8.8 assists. 

Jump shot or not, Simmons has developed this season and is very worthy of an All-Star spot. 

After shooting an abysmal 21 for 70 on 254 post-ups last season, he’s already posted up 207 times this season and shot 39 for 75 on those possessions

Simmons is a unique player whose weaknesses (refusal to shoot jumpers and low efficiency when he does, turnovers, lapses in defensive effort) are easy to identify and criticize. He’s also a special talent who is doing a damn good job harnessing the skills he has.

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Joel Embiid vs. Russell Westbrook has become must-watch television

Joel Embiid vs. Russell Westbrook has become must-watch television

Joel Embiid vs. Russell Westbrook has become must-watch television.

In the national spotlight Saturday, the Sixers and Thunder put on one hell of a show at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations). Paul George’s four-point play with 5.1 seconds remaining sealed a 117-115 win for Oklahoma City.

What happened with 1:46 left in the fourth quarter was at the height of the day’s entertainment. 

Off a Sixers’ turnover, Westbrook took off in transition with Embiid waiting for him at the other end. Westbrook then lost the handle as he went up for the shot. As he was reaching to grab the ball, Embiid, who was attempting to block the shot, fell on top of Westbrook.

Westbrook was less than thrilled at the exchange.

I don’t think he just landed on me. He added a little extra to it. But it’s OK.

So everything is good between the two, right?

F--- no.

Westbrook doesn’t exactly have a warm and fuzzy relationship with the media, later telling a reporter, “Go home, bro,” when pressed further on his relationship with Embiid. Ben Simmons did a pretty good job on Westbrook, holding the perennial All-Star to 8 of 21 from the field.

Embiid, who finished with 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists, didn’t see anything wrong with the play and wasn’t really sure what Westbrook’s problem was. 

I don’t know why he was mad. I have no idea. But he’s always in his feelings, so I have no idea.

These two, of course, have a history dating back to last season.

It started on Dec. 15, 2017, during an epic triple-overtime game at the Wells Fargo Center. Embiid was able to get the better of big man Steven Adams. After Adams fouled out, Embiid waved to him as he was leaving the court — Embiid also waved after Westbrook fouled out Saturday.

After Oklahoma City got the win, Westbrook then waved to Embiid. Embiid went on to roast Westbrook postgame for shooting too much after the point guard went just 10 of 33 from the field.

In their next matchup a month later, Embiid posterized Westbrook and stared him down afterward.

The unfortunate thing for Embiid is that the Sixers just can’t seem to get the better of Westbrook. The team hasn’t beaten the Thunder in 11 years. That’s 19 straight games now.

Embiid was questionable again Saturday afternoon with a sore back. He was pretty clear as to why he wanted to play.

“Because the Sixers haven’t won against them in [11 years],” Embiid said. “That’s just ridiculous. I wanted to get the win. That’s one more reason that it pisses me off that we gave [the game] away and we had it.”

Embiid and the Sixers get another crack at Westbrook in Oklahoma City on Feb. 28. A good suggestion would be to get your popcorn ready.

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