76ers

'Unstoppable' Joel Embiid has eventful and dominant night in win vs. Celtics

'Unstoppable' Joel Embiid has eventful and dominant night in win vs. Celtics

It seemed like the psyche of the entire fan base depended upon Wednesday night’s game.

It’s no secret the Celtics have owned the Sixers recently. And when Boston held an 11-point lead at the half, the thought of “here we go again” likely crept into the heads of the Wells Fargo Center crowd. 

Enter Joel Embiid.

The All-Star center was dominant in the Sixers’ 118-115 win over the Celtics (see observations), posting 37 points and 22 rebounds in 41 minutes — the second-most minutes he’s played this season.

“Jo has done that countless amount of times this year so it’s no surprise to you, it’s no surprise to me [or] to anybody else watching this interview,” Jimmy Butler said. “He is a force to be reckoned with, man. He does it all. He’s carried us night in and night out. We’re grateful for it. We need him healthy moving forward.”

As his eight-game absence after the All-Star break showed, as Embiid goes so go the Sixers. After he struggled during the team’s most recent loss to Boston, a lot was made of Al Horford’s effectiveness in guarding him.

Embiid took note and learned from that matchup.

I figured out that when I play low and I’m in attack mode and I want to get to the rim, I’m basically unstoppable and I’m going to get to the free throw line,” Embiid said while wearing a hoodie that read "BBQ CHKN." “Tonight I felt like I was aggressive from the start and I’ve got to have that same mentality every night.

To say Embiid was able “to get to the free throw line” would be a gross understatement. He lived at it, making an absurd 20 of 21 from the line. If that sounds like a rare feat, it’s because it is. Embiid is the first seven-footer in NBA history to take 20 foul shots in a game and shoot at least 95 percent from the foul line, per Basketball Reference.

Two of those free throws were rewarded by virtue of a flagrant foul. Marcus Smart, who was sent to the floor via an Embiid screen, thought it would be a good idea to then shove Embiid while his back was turned. Smart was assessed a Flagrant 2 and ejected. The play seemed to ignite Embiid — who was hit with a technical — and 20,000-plus people that were looking for any reason to go crazy.

But for as special as Embiid was on the offensive end of the floor, it was again his defense that truly propelled the Sixers. The box score shows only one block, but it was arguably the biggest play of the game.

First, you need to go back to the beginning of the game. The Sixers’ switch-heavy defense burned them early as Embiid got matched up on All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, who hit a couple first-quarter threes. There were other plays where Embiid was switched on to Irving that ended in a foul — one of those being questionable enough to provoke a rare technical from Brett Brown. 

With the Sixers clinging to a 116-113 lead with 30.7 seconds left, Embiid found himself on Irving yet again. This time, Embiid allowed Irving to slip to the basket but was able to recover to block the shot without fouling.

It’s a play not many seven-footers could make.

Look, we're asking a lot of Jo,” JJ Redick said. “It's a tough cover because if he switches onto Irving or [Terry] Rozier, that's a tough cover. If they do the throw back to Horford and he's got a long closeout, that's nearly impossible, so we're asking a lot of him. It was a huge defensive play. And really, it was almost two plays — it was the block and then the defensive rebound after that.

Having the best season of his young career and with MVP-type performances like Wednesday, Embiid has shown a touch of humility … just a touch.

He hasn’t been talking as much trash on social media — though he did have a little fun postgame — and he’s been much more complimentary of his opponents.

But after a game like this, his emotions were running high as he declared himself “the best defensive player in the league” during his walk-off interview with ESPN. 

A reporter offered him a chance to walk back the comment. 

He, of course, doubled down.

“I just said it again. I am. I always say it. I say it all the time,” Embiid said. “I try to do the best job I can with my teammates’ help. I really focus on that end and one of my goals is to win the Defensive Player of the Year. I’m going to keep doing my job and try to help us defensively.”

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Tobias Harris delivers, Norvel Pelle brings the energy (and the blocks) as Sixers top Pelicans

Tobias Harris delivers, Norvel Pelle brings the energy (and the blocks) as Sixers top Pelicans

BOX SCORE 

The Sixers’ home record is still unblemished.

They beat the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday night, 116-109, to move to 20-7 on the season and 14-0 at Wells Fargo Center. This was New Orleans’ 11th straight defeat. 

Tobias Harris scored a team-high 31 points on 12 for 20 shooting, helping the Sixers to overcome an uneven effort. 

Here are observations on the win: 

Harris and Simmons strike the right balance 

Yet again, Harris struck the right middle ground between letting the game come to him and forcing the issue offensively.

He scored nine points in the third quarter, including a three from the right corner when the Sixers were searching for something to wake them up. 

For Harris, this was another game in which he seemed to both understand and provide what the Sixers needed. 

Simmons imposed his physical advantages well and finished with 24 points, 11 assists and just one turnover. He missed three of his first four free throws when New Orleans turned to the "Hack-a-Simmons" strategy, then converted his next four.

Norvel Pelle, undeterred 

Two-way player Norvel Pelle initially received the backup center minutes over veteran Kyle O’Quinn.

In his third NBA regular-season game, Pelle quickly picked up two fouls on aggressive challenges at the rim. The 26-year-old was, as usual, undeterred. He blocked former Sixer Jahlil Okafor, leading to a Simmons dunk on the other end, then swatted Brandon Ingram’s dunk attempt and watched from the floor as the Sixers started a fast break that ended in a three by James Ennis.

Pelle earned First Team All-Defense honors last season in the G League with the Delaware Blue Coats. After an unconventional route to the NBA that took him to Taiwan, Lebanon and Italy, he’s flashed some of the same skills that made him a star attraction at his other stops. On Nov. 30, Brett Brown said he thought Pelle was “an NBA player.”

Whether or not his chance comes with the Sixers, Pelle took another step toward showing he has a future in the league Friday night, though his fouls (five in 12 minutes) are a concern. Despite the irregular playing time and uncertainty about when he’ll have opportunities, he was ready to go vs. the Pelicans. 

“Preparation is the main thing, especially being on this level,” he said Nov. 12. “Getting your number called and coming in, doing what you’ve gotta do — that’s the main thing. Focusing on your job and excelling at that job. I’ve learned moving forward, just be ready. Always be ready.”

What the Sixers do with him moving forward will be interesting. Since he’s signed to a one-year, two-way deal, he can spend a maximum of 45 days with the Sixers between the start of Blue Coats training camp and the end of the G League regular season. He’s currently ineligible for the NBA playoffs. 

Pelle had six points, five rebounds, three blocks and two assists.

Redick’s return 

JJ Redick had 19 points on 6 of 15 shooting in his return to Philadelphia. The 35-year-old guard, who signed a two-year, $26.5 million deal with the Pelicans this offseason, shared his thoughts on Joel Embiid, Simmons and the Sixers’ new offensive identity earlier in the day (see story).

The Sixers showed a tribute video for Redick in the first quarter. 

Redick beating Furkan Korkmaz back door and then sprinting around screens to create a small gap for a leaning three a few minutes later was an odd sight, even if the plays themselves were familiar. 

A lousy stretch

The Sixers started the way they were supposed to, taking a 39-23 lead after the first quarter.

Their defensive execution went downhill from there as the Pelicans went on a 48-31 run to take the advantage.    

Redick, Ingram and the Pelicans deserve part of the credit for their shotmaking, but the Sixers’ defensive intensity — fighting over screens, boxing out, closing out — all deteriorated. 

They looked like a team playing the second game of a road-home back-to-back, confident that their superior talent would win out in the end. Their surge to retake the lead was impressive, though the way they finished the game did not inspire confidence.

Embiid not quite as dominant 

The night after his 38-point, 13-rebound performance vs. the Celtics, Joel Embiid did not reach that same elite level again.

He did look to attack favorable matchups in the first half against Derrick Favors and Okafor and yes, he appeared to be having fun. 

Embiid just wasn’t as efficient as he’d been in Boston (24 points on 6 for 16 shooting), though he mostly did well when double teamed. He had 11 assists and four turnovers over the back-to-back. 

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Watch NBC Sports BetCast for live betting analysis during Sixers vs. Pelicans

Watch NBC Sports BetCast for live betting analysis during Sixers vs. Pelicans

Marc Farzetta, Tyrone Johnson and betting expert Brad Feinberg will host NBC Sports BetCast Friday night on NBC Sports Philadelphia+ during the Sixers' game vs. the Pelicans. 

It will be the third of 10 BetCast broadcasts this season on NBCSP+, with Marc Zumoff, Alaa Abdelnaby and Serena Winters calling the game simultaneously on NBCSP.

The BetCast broadcast will focus on real-time sports betting data and provide live analysis on the odds.

Will the total score be over or under 223 points? How many points will JJ Redick score in his return to Philadelphia? After making two three-pointers Thursday night in Boston, how many will Joel Embiid hit tonight?

Farzetta, Feinberg and Johnson will break it all down as the game unfolds Friday night.

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