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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