It seems safe to say that Joel Embiid’s scoreless night in Toronto was one of the lowest points of his career.
Since that game, Embiid has taken on a different mentality. Through the early part of the season, he was attempting to find his teammates more and navigate double teams. To his credit, he has improved in that regard.
But in the three games since that goose egg, Embiid has been a force. He’s averaged 30.7 points a night and is imposing his will on the opposition.
“Since the Toronto game I kind of changed my mindset,” Embiid said postgame Saturday. “The whole season I had not been as aggressive as I was last year, attempting 10 free throws a game. So the last couple games I’ve just been aggressive. Being more physical, creating contact, causing whoever’s guarding me to react to it. That’s how they fouled me.”
The free throws are a huge part of what’s helped Embiid turn things around. He puts so much pressure on opposing big men that often their only hope is to foul. In the last three games, Embiid is attempting 14.7 free throws a contest.
While the free points certainly help a team still searching for offensive consistency, it’s just as much about what Embiid’s attempts say.
“It's a mentality. That is a disposition. That is a mentality to me more than a stat,” Brett Brown said. “And you sure like them a lot more when you make them. But Joel Embiid, that is a statement. It is a mentality. None of us can underestimate the hurt he felt after the Toronto game where he felt like he let us down and we have seen him respond.”
Embiid is also hitting free throws at an elite clip, making over 90 percent in his last three.
But that’s not a huge surprise. Embiid has always down well from the charity stripe. What stood out more is Ben Simmons’ 7-for-7 performance from the line Saturday. It represented the most free throws Simmons has made without a miss in his career.
Like with Embiid, it’s just as much about what that means. It means Simmons was attacking the basket and looking to shoot. He struggled from the field (4 of 13) and finishing is something Brown talked about postgame as being part of Simmons’ evolution.
But that mindset is what’s most important. And it’s been Embiid who’s been at the center of it.
“It’s really been Jo and guys like that, making sure I’m being aggressive and getting to the rim,” Simmons said. “Once I’m doing that I’m able to make plays and find my guys in the corners, or Jo rolling.”
Simmons also had 13 assists Saturday night and is now third in the NBA in assists per game at 8.4. Generally, Simmons puts up gaudy assists numbers when he’s pushing the pace and putting pressure on defenses — looking to get to the rim first and pass second.
The finishing aspect is something Simmons knows he needs to improve upon.
“I’m happy with [the attacking style I played],” Simmons said. “I got to the rim, I just didn’t finish. I’ve just gotta get back and work on my touch.”
It’s also been a positive sign for the Sixers to see Tobias Harris display more of that “scorer’s mentality” Brown has been yearning for. Since Harris’ horrendous slump in which he missed 23 straight threes, he’s shot 45.4 percent from distance and 52.9 percent overall.
More importantly, he’s taking the shots the Sixers need him to. If there’s been a fair knock on Harris, it’s that he’s been too selfless at times. On Saturday, he scored 14 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter. It’s a welcome sign as the Sixers look for answers outside of Embiid late in games.
Has Embiid’s mentality rubbed off on Harris as well?
“Yeah, I think we’re best when Joel is that aggressive,” Harris said. “Joel draws so much attention, double teams. He’s been a willing passer to make plays. It overall helps everybody just because he’s such a focal point. So if you’re coming off pick-and-rolls, they’re going back to him or whatnot. I mean, he’s a beast. They can’t guard him down there. Either you foul or hope he misses, and that’s about it.”
Marc Gasol and the Raptors come to the Wells Fargo Center on Dec. 8. We’ll see if Embiid’s new mindset and the mindset he’s passing along to his teammates can help him beat his boogeyman.
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