BROOKLYN — When the Philadelphia 76ers embarked on The Process a billion years ago — OK, the informal start was the night of the 2013 NBA Draft, although six years might as well be a billion — Sam Hinkie and Co. had a clear goal in mind: acquire superstars, or pieces that can be turned into a superstar, and compete for championships. Joel Embiid is at the center of this. A potentially transcendent talent, Embiid is, more than anyone, the manifestation of The Process, and not just because he adopted it as a nickname.
Basically, as Embiid goes, so do the Sixers. He is the heart and soul of the organization, its best player, and the rock upon which Philly hopes it can build a dynasty. Questions about his ability to stay healthy will always plague Embiid but, when he’s at his best, the All-Star center is capable of things other people just cannot do.
For proof, look at the stat line Embiid threw down on Saturday afternoon, when the 76ers came from behind to beat the Nets in Brooklyn during Game 4 of their first round series. Embiid went for 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, six blocks, and two steals in a 112-108 win to put Philadelphia one game away from making the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the second straight season. Here, now, is the company Embiid joined with that performance.
Joel Embiid was doubtful for Game 4.
He played and became the 5th player in the last 35 years with 30 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 blocks in a playoff game.
The others? Tim Duncan (2x), Elton Brand, Patrick Ewing and Ralph Sampson pic.twitter.com/7Ypfo3No1b
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 20, 2019
“It’s just a dominant performance,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said on Saturday. “What more can you say?”
“He’s a player,” Sixers guard Ben Simmons said. “He’s ready to play, ready to come in and do his job. It’s just his mindset, I think, just knowing his size and his ability to put the ball in the rim, make plays, I think he’s always just ready. He works a lot.”
All of this came on a day where Embiid was considered doubtful to suit up due to left knee soreness. He sat out Philly’s Game 3 win due to the ailment, then warmed up on Saturday before making a final decision, which has been par for the course through four games this postseason.
After just five field goal attempts in the first half, Embiid came alive over the game’s final 24 minutes, particularly following the scuffle that saw Jimmy Butler get ejected.
“He’s our closer, so in that type of situation, when we get down to the fourth quarter, he’s the first option as a shooter,” Embiid told the press after the game. “In that type of situation, if he’s not on the floor, that’s my job to take games under control and try to get us where we want to and that’s to get a win.”
Embiid very much embraced taking on the role of closing the game on Saturday. Caris LeVert was outstanding for the Nets in Game 4, dropping 25 points in his first career playoff start and looking like a potential All-Star for the second game in a row. He earned his own effusive praise from Butler after the game and hit a free throw with 5:20 remaining to push Brooklyn’s lead to seven. It was there that Embiid took his game to the next level. Here is, in order, all the ways that the Sixers scored their next 16 points:
- Joel Embiid layup (Tobias Harris assist)
- Joel Embiid layup
- Joel Embiid dunk (Ben Simmons assist)
- Joel Embiid layup (Tobias Harris assist)
- Tobias Harris layup (Joel Embiid assist)
- J.J. Redick three (Ben Simmons assist)
- Mike Scott three (Joel Embiid assist)
“It was great,” Brown said of Embiid’s closing stretch. “We fed him down on the block. We knew that was the biggest mismatch on the court and he’s our best player, the most dominant big in the game. We just had to let him go eat out there. We made some great plays on the high-low when Brooklyn tried to front and he was able to be super productive for us and a big reason for our win.”
Perhaps his biggest impact, though, was on the defensive end of the floor. While Embiid got put on a poster or two by Nets big men, his six blocks only begin to tell the story of how he protected the paint. His defensive rating of 87.3 was comfortably the best mark of any Sixer, while Brooklyn connected on 40.7 percent of their shots in the paint, a touch below their average this season.
Embiid also found himself at the center of some controversy. During the third quarter, he blocked Nets big man Jarrett Allen, who hit the deck hard though Embiid made it a point during his postgame press conference to mention on multiple occasions that he got all ball. The aforementioned scuffle that saw Butler and Jared Dudley, who shoved Embiid, occurred, all while the Sixers star made it a point to walk away with his hands in the air.
the way jimmy butler protects embiid by shoving dudley after the initial shove>>> pic.twitter.com/h16g8FBcAw
— Drew Corrigan (@Dcorrigan50) April 20, 2019
“That’s also a mind game,” Embiid said. “I know these guys are gonna go at me because they want me to retaliate, so I gotta be the mature one on the court and just stay cool and don’t react. Today, I know I could have reacted but I felt like my team needed me more than they did Jared Dudley.”
All of this, plus the requisite prodding that he put on display after everything ended, made this the comprehensive Embiid game, and now, the Sixers take a commanding 3-1 series lead back to Philly on Tuesday night. Brooklyn is a good basketball team, though, and D’Angelo Russell does not expect his squad to go down without a fight.
“You see two teams out there hungry, trying to compete,” Russell said. “They sure as hell don’t want to lose to the Brooklyn Nets, and I think we’ve got a chance to beat the Sixers, so it’s just a high-intensity game and that’s what it’s going to look like. It’s going to be hard for all. Bodies are going to be flying. Give each other what we want.”
The Nets are going to bring it. Their backs are against the wall, they’re a team that has scratched and clawed to win games all season, and you can bet your bottom dollar they want one more shot at the 76ers at Barclays Center more than anything. While Embiid flippantly said his squad doesn’t “want to be in a situation like the Warriors three years ago” and blow a 3-1 series lead, it’s not hard to see a path for Brooklyn to get back into this series. It’d be a big boost if Joe Harris, the league’s best three-point shooter, broke his recent cold streak of three games in a row without a triple, for example.
The issue is that the Nets don’t have anyone like Embiid, and that’s because no other team does. His ability to dominate on both ends of the floor makes him stick out as we get into an era where players are getting more and more unique by the season — players with his size should not have his all-around skill set, and yet he does. Perhaps it won’t lead Philadelphia to a championship this year, but with Embiid on the floor, the sky really is the limit for the future of the franchise.
We’ll see in a few days whether his knee is up to playing in Game 5. It stands to reason that he’ll warm up, see how it feels, and make a judgement then. While it’s a bit of a nuisance to not know for sure until a few minutes before the game if the best player on the floor will get to play, this process has worked for Philadelphia so far this postseason. And if there’s one thing that Sixers fans are happy to remind everyone, it’s that at the end of the day, all you can do is trust the process.