Joel Embiid has taken on a ton of responsibility for the Sixers. He's the "commander in chief" of their defense, as Brett Brown likes to say, their dominant scorer in the post, and the heartbeat of their team.
Embiid wants to add another job to his list. He wants to be clutch.
In Friday night's dramatic 133-132 overtime win over the Hornets (see observations), Embiid was clutch again and again and again. He drew fouls at will, knocked down crucial free throws at the line and buried a three-pointer to tie the game with 33.6 seconds left in regulation.
He scored 21 of his 42 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, grabbed 18 rebounds and blocked four shots.
In short, he saved the Sixers from a catastrophic loss after the team blew a 21-point third-quarter lead.
“Gotta make ‘em," Embiid said of his late-game free throws. "They call me clutch for a reason. Gotta make ‘em. … In practice, they call me clutch. I’ve still yet to show it in a game. Tonight I feel like I did a better job. That’s my job. I gotta step up when there’s an opportunity.”
For Embiid, free throws are an essential part of his "clutch" repertoire. In clutch situations (defined as the last five minutes of a game with a point difference of five or less), Embiid is 16 for 20 from the line, the most attempts and makes of any player in the NBA.
He's shot 7 for 18 from the floor in those situations, but that reliable ability to draw whistles is why he's scored 32 points in 31 clutch minutes this season, per NBA.com/Stats. It's not his prettiest attribute, but his rip-through move when defenders reach or even just place an arm near his air space is absolutely lethal.
Last season, Embiid posted 83 points in 113 clutch minutes. Now, he's unquestionably the man the Sixers turn to time after time down the stretch, and he feels confident in his skills when the game is on the line.
“I can use power," Embiid said. "I can use finesse. Last year in the last-minutes situations I struggled a lot and I feel I’ve been doing a better job. Still got a lot to show and still got a lot to prove on, so I’m excited.”
Fans of every team across the league chant "M-V-P" whenever their team's best player is having a good game. It's just the way it is; Embiid is probably going to hear those chants at most home games for the rest of his career, regardless of whether they're warranted.
But through the first 13 games of the season, all the MVP hype around Embiid is justified. He's averaging 28.8 points (second in the league), 12.8 rebounds (seventh) and 2.4 blocks (fourth). His early case for Defensive Player of the Year is strong — through the Sixers' opening 12 games, Embiid had defended more shots than any player in the league (18.9). Opponents were shooting 43.3 percent against him, the lowest percentage of any player defending at least 15 shots per game.
Embiid also leads the league in one stat that would have been unfathomable two years ago — minutes. After years of (understandable) caution surrounding his health, Embiid doesn't ever want to have to sit and watch his team in crunch time again, like he did when he had a minutes restriction.
"If these guys ever tell me to take a game off, I might kill them," he said.
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