After Tuesday night’s win over the Nuggets, Joel Embiid had an odd press conference.
The Sixers had just held a pretty good NBA team to 92 points and Embiid outdueled All-NBA First Team center Nikola Jokic. But the All-Star big man wasn’t quite himself. He mentioned that he hadn’t been having fun so far this season.
While that was going on, Hall of Famers Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal were critical of Embiid’s performance and questioning his effort.
Whether it was Embiid deciding to bring the joy back to his game or the comments made about him, the Joel Embiid we’ve all come to know was out in full force in the Sixers’ 115-109 win over the Celtics Thursday at TD Garden (see observations).
“I think all the stuff that he has been through recently, to me, the way he handled it, personally, I'm proud of him,” Brett Brown said to reporters postgame. “He handled it like an adult. He handled it with a humility and owned some of it and then came out and responded in a very dramatic way.
“The numbers speak pretty much for themselves. But there was other stuff internally going on with like leadership and instruction to his teammates and stuff being said at halftime that flipped him over the top to, for me, one of his better games since he has been a Philadelphia 76er. He was dominant and he was a leader.”
Those numbers were 38 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. The only other player to put up those numbers against the Celtics in franchise history is Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes.
Much is often made about Embiid’s body language and energy level. You couldn’t question any of that Thursday. Embiid was engaged on both ends and lifted his team all night.
One of the things Embiid admitted is that he’s had a hard time adjusting to new pieces in the starting five. With the lack of a JJ Redick-type shooter, teams have been more aggressive than ever in doubling Embiid. He’s had to make adjustments and, for the most part, has done well with his decision making.
Against the Celtics, his teammates made his job much easier. Led by Mike Scott (5 of 7), who got the start in place of Al Horford, the Sixers shot 14 of 28 from three. Even with his outstanding effort, Embiid was effusive in his praise for his teammates.
“That performance was because of them,” Embiid said. “I was double teamed all night, I passed it and they knocked down shots. They kept us in the game. Whenever I was guarded with single coverage, I took advantage of it. If they don’t make shots, it’s easier to double team me. If they do, you got to make a decision — do you want to give up a three or just hope that your big man can try and stop me?”
It was certainly a pick-your-poison scenario for head coach Brad Stevens and the Celtics all night.
Early on, Embiid saw doubles. When Enes Kanter was in the game, Stevens allowed to him to go 1-on-1 at times. When they doubled, Scott and the Sixers made them pay. When Embiid had Kanter in single coverage, he punished him on the block.
Embiid was incredibly efficient, taking just 21 shots from the floor to get his 38. So, is there room for more?
“I think I can be more aggressive,” Embiid said. “There were times where I was still floating on the perimeter. Coach is always talking about the amount of post-ups that I get and it’s the most in the league and it’s still not enough. ... I average 10 and he’s always talking about I got to get 20, 25. And it’s also on me. I got to go down there. We’ve got a lot of guys that can post up so it’s about finding that balance and just giving them that space. I just got to be aggressive.”
As for the comments made by Barkley and O’Neal, Embiid took them to heart, but wasn’t offended. For a guy who talked about maturity an awful lot Tuesday, it seems like he showed plenty in this instance.
“I actually called Shaq yesterday,” Embiid said. “He thought I was mad at him, I was like, ‘nah.’ I understood what he was saying. I’ve had a down year so far. I just wanted to talk to him. I’ve been kind of frustrated just because you’re not playing the same way and you’re just trying to fit in with your new teammates and he was just telling me, be aggressive, you’re the guy. Just go out there and dominate.”
Was it the comments from two Hall of Famers that led to this outburst? That makes for a nice story.
Really, it was just Joel Embiid being Joel Embiid.
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