You can start adding 'clutch' to Joel Embiid's long list of superlatives

You can start adding 'clutch' to Joel Embiid's long list of superlatives

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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How will all the pieces fit? More ‘fair questions’ face Brett Brown, Sixers’ offense

How will all the pieces fit? More ‘fair questions’ face Brett Brown, Sixers’ offense

There are a good number of “Brett Brown-isms” — phrases distinct to the Sixers’ head coach or terms he’ll turn to often in talking with the media. Out of them all, “It’s a fair question” might best encapsulate the second half of the 2018-19 season.

Brown faced a lot of fair questions about Jimmy Butler’s role in the offense, his efforts to add more pick-and-roll and isolation, where Tobias Harris fit and much more.

Some games, it all made sense. Butler ran the show at the point with a heavy emphasis on ball screens, Ben Simmons did damage in transition and Joel Embiid was a weapon in the post. But often, the pieces didn’t quite work together. The half-court offense was nightmarish in the final few minutes of that devastating Game 7 in Toronto, when the shot clock seemed to always be ticking down the last couple of seconds.

Not as well as they should’ve,” Harris said Friday when asked whether all the pieces ever connected. “We had good little spurts of it, but they weren’t really consistent for us. I felt like we got out of it as much as we could’ve in that timeframe with the different types of games, different types of personalities or whatnot. We needed more time. We needed more time, we needed more cohesiveness. That’s something that we have now, so we have to really maximize that fully.

The Sixers do indeed have time now, with their new starting five all under contract through at least the next two seasons, and they have some different questions to answer.

“I look forward to training camp, figure all that out,” Elton Brand said Friday. “Defensively, of course that’s where we’re going to hang our hat. We should be one of the top defensive teams in the league, in my opinion. But we’ll figure out the spacing. We have a lot of versatility. Al Horford can space, Joel Embiid can space, Ben’s working on his game, Josh is a high-level scorer and Tobias is a high-level shooter and scorer also, so we’re looking forward to making that work in training camp. But it’s going to take some time. It should take some time.”

Brand is probably right that a lot of “figuring it out” will happen in training camp, when his new team will be together for the first time. Still, you’d think Brown and his staff have already started to think about offensive schemes and fit.

Simmons and Harris will likely spend more time with the ball in their hands as a byproduct of Butler’s departure. Harris had occasional opportunities to run late-game, middle pick-and-rolls, but those were mostly a Butler staple. Harris only averaged 3.7 fourth-quarter points per game in the regular season with the Sixers, 2.5 in the playoffs. And, in the rare moments when he was in the spotlight, his pick-and-roll partner was often Boban Marjanovic. Out of all the things that will likely “take some time,” Harris’ pick-and-roll chemistry with Embiid is among the most important. 

For Harris, it will also be key to prove his subpar three-point shooting numbers with the Sixers last season (32.6 percent in the regular season, 34.9 percent in the playoffs) were just a blip. Richardson shot a tick over league average from three at a high volume last year, while Horford should have no problem sliding into a stretch-four role. Embiid’s soft touch and good free throw shooting (80.4 percent in 2018-19) have not translated to efficiency from the outside. Simmons has yet to show — in a game setting — that he should be part of the conversation about the team’s three-point shooting. 

Some of the strategy for Brown won't be too difficult to figure out. His team is huge and has multiple post-up threats, so we should see the Sixers play more “inside-out,” with the offense revolving around Simmons, Embiid or Horford down low. Brown already has post offense principles and spacing in place that aim to play to Embiid and Simmons’ respective strengths (see film review). 

Many elements of the Sixers’ offense will be “organic,” another favorite Brown term. The Sixers should force more than the 12.7 turnovers per game they did last season — 27th in the NBA — and their transition offense should prosper as a result. Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle are two young players who could make a unique impact in that area. 

Other questions for Brown and the Sixers will remain open well into the season. This time around, there’s much greater freedom to explore what does and doesn’t work, and much less pressure to hit on answers immediately.

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Sixers Talk: Ben Simmons not playing in the World Cup; Mike Scott living his best life

NBC Sports Philadelphia

Sixers Talk: Ben Simmons not playing in the World Cup; Mike Scott living his best life

Ben Simmons will not be playing for Team Australia in the World Cup while Mike Scott is living his best life on his 31st birthday. Danny Pommells and Paul Hudrick talk that and sneaky teams in the East on this edition of Sixers Talk.

Simmons is choosing to work on his game for the upcoming NBA season instead of playing in the FIBA World Cup. What are the pros and cons?

Scott and the hive are having a great time on Twitter. Plus, we found out that the Sixers' forward didn't do so hot in French class at UVA.

The Sixers and Bucks appear to be the two top teams in the East. Which team could sneak up on them?

That and more below on this edition of Sixers Talk.