Joel Embiid scored 32 points in 28 minutes against the Western Conference’s third-seeded Rockets after missing the last week with a left knee contusion. Then he summed up his performance with a self-critique.
“I think I could have done more to help us win,” Embiid said.
He wanted to be more effective on the defensive end as James Harden scored a monster 51 points — along with 13 points and 13 assists (see highlights) — to become the first player ever with two 50-point triple-doubles, per ESPN Stats & Info. The Rockets' centers were Houston's next two leading scorers. Starter Nene dropped 21 points (10 of 13 from the field) and Clint Capela added 17 (7 for 11) off the bench.
Embiid grabbed seven rebounds (just shy of his season average 7.9), dished four assists, swiped three steals and blocked two shots. Still, the Rockets shot 12 of 31 from three (they rank first in the league with 39.5 three-point attempts per game), scored 52 points in the paint and 11 on second-chance baskets.
“The game plan was to make sure they don’t shoot a lot of threes,” Embiid said. “When it’s high pick-and-roll, you can’t really help on the two-man game. It was on us. That’s why I think Nene and Capela had so many easy baskets, because we couldn’t really help off the other guys or they were going to make a lot of threes.”
It is in Embiid’s nature to point to how he could have been better. He set his expectations for his rookie season sky high and doesn’t settle for a noteworthy stat sheet that doesn’t culminate into a win.
Final score aside, scoring 30-plus points for the second time this season after coming off an injury is no simple feat. Embiid sat out the previous three games while he rehabbed from the contusion suffered last Friday against the Trail Blazers. He went through rehab for most of the week and resumed one-on-one activity on Thursday.
“My conditioning was really bad. I didn’t feel in shape at all,” Embiid said. “My knee felt great. It was a little bit sore after, but that’s to be expected. The doctor told me that’s a bone bruise. It’s supposed to take at least two or three weeks to heal and I only missed a week.”
The medical staff did not clear him to play until he went through pregame warmups. He was listed as questionable leading up to tip-off.
“They didn’t want me to push it,” Embiid said. “They didn’t want me to play at all and I had to convince them. There’s a trust between me and them. I can’t lie because they care about my future. So I went through the warmups and shootaround in the morning. ... I felt pretty good and they let me play.”
And he did just that, for all of his allotted 28 minutes. Embiid kicked off the game with a statement dunk. Thirteen seconds into the first quarter, there was no question he was back (see video). Embiid jump-started the fourth with eight straight points (a jumper and consecutive threes) with a steal and rebound mixed in, all under one minute. He scored 14 in the final quarter (see feature highlight).
“We ran the first play to start the game and you're not going to see a more sort of jaw-dropping play in the league really,” Brett Brown said. “That is jaw-dropping for a 7-foot-2 man to pull it going toward his weak hand and finish like he did. I thought throughout the game you always see signs of brilliance. You see signs that he is young and still learning how to play NBA basketball, and nuances that follow that, defensively and offensively. But in general, we all walk away again thinking he could be whatever he wants to be.”
Embiid will not travel with the Sixers when they fly to Chicago on Saturday to play the Bulls Sunday. The decision is for rest; he does not play in both back-to-back games. The Sixers host the Kings on Monday. Embiid is already eyeing how he can improve for the upcoming matchup.
“Usually I’m more all over the place, I’ve got energy,” Embiid said. “But that was my first game back, I didn’t have that type of energy and my body wasn’t moving the way I wanted to, especially on the pick-and-roll. I think that was one of the biggest things. I’m going to get it back and do a better job next time.”