76ers

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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Sixers' Ime Udoka is ‘biggest name to watch’ in Bulls’ head coaching search

Sixers' Ime Udoka is ‘biggest name to watch’ in Bulls’ head coaching search

Sixers assistant coach Ime Udoka is, according to NBC Sports NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh, “the biggest name to watch” in the Bulls’ search for a new head coach.

Chicago fired Jim Boylen on Friday. NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson reports former Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavs assistant Stephen Silas and Bucks assistant Darvin Ham are also expected to be included in Chicago's search. Bulls GM Marc Eversley used to be the Sixers’ vice president of player personnel. 

Udoka joined the Sixers this season after spending seven years as an assistant with the Spurs. In September, he said that he was responsible for game planning and strategizing against “eight or nine” opponents under Gregg Popovich. Brett Brown assigned him to be in charge of the Sixers’ defense, which is rated eighth in the NBA, and he's looked to install more aggressive defensive concepts. He’s a well-respected former player who, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania is also a candidate for the Nets job.

From the Sixers’ perspective, part of what may complicate this situation is Brown’s status. Here’s what Haberstroh wrote on that subject:  

Over the next few weeks, league insiders are keeping an eye on the situation in Philadelphia as the Sixers have underwhelmed for the second straight season. If the short-handed Sixers lose in the first round, Udoka could be in line for a promotion with the Sixers.

“The Sixers may not want another coach to leave their organization. Brown’s top assistant job has been a springboard to head-coaching positions throughout the NBA. Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, Phoenix’s Monty Williams and Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce’s last stops before their current gigs was the bench in Philly. 

In response to rumors last May that the Sixers’ second-round loss to the Raptors may have put Brown’s job in jeopardy, his players defended him vehemently. The team’s supersized roster has disappointed in this highly unusual, pandemic-affected season, as the presence of Al Horford has boosted the Sixers’ backup center play but generally not helped the team otherwise. Brown’s new-look starting lineup with Shake Milton at point guard and Ben Simmons at power forward only had three games together before Simmons injured his left knee. 

The Sixers’ first-round series against the Celtics begins on Monday night (see series schedule).

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How to watch Sixers at Rockets: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

How to watch Sixers at Rockets: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

For the first time since the 2011-12 lockout year, the Sixers will play fewer than 82 games in a “regular” season. Their 73rd and final game before the postseason is Friday night against the Rockets.

Joel Embiid (left ankle soreness) and Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) are questionable, and Russell Westbrook is out for Houston with a right quad strain. 

Here are the essentials:

When: 9 p.m. with Sixers Pregame Live at 8
Where: AdventHealth Arena
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

All about Monday 

Health and “spirit” are the two things Brett Brown has consistently said he hoped the Sixers would have intact for the postseason. The team’s health is significantly compromised with Ben Simmons out after undergoing surgery on his left knee, which is probably more important than an intangible quality like spirit. That said, the Sixers’ morale doesn’t seem too bad given the circumstances. There’s been a little time for everyone to wrap their head around Simmons’ injury and what it means, and the starting lineup enjoyed cheering on the reserves in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the Raptors.

The Sixers’ first-round series vs. the Celtics begins Monday night (see series schedule). It sounds simple enough … but just get to tip-off of Game 1 with the healthiest version of the current team. 

Is hot outside shooting sustainable? 

Before the NBA’s hiatus, the Sixers were shooting 36.2 percent from three-point range. They’re at 40.6 percent in Disney World, and Joel Embiid and Shake Milton are the only rotation players below their season averages from long range. 

That large of an increase is likely attributable to a small sample size, at least in part, but it does seem that players like Al Horford, Furkan Korkmaz and Alec Burks are comfortable and shooting with confidence. Perhaps it will carry over to the playoffs. 

Small-ball prep 

The Rockets will finish either No. 4 or No. 5 in the Western Conference, a distinction that means very little when there are no true home games. It would therefore be unsurprising if minutes were limited for Houston’s key players. 

One thing that will be interesting to watch regardless is how the Sixers will handle a team without a conventional center. Houston is an extreme practitioner of small ball, but the Sixers’ top lineups will generally be larger than the Celtics’. Horford’s perimeter defense will be tested by Boston.

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