Playing short-handed for the third game in a row and on the second night of a back-to-back — and that was before Philadelphia’s two available point guards, Ben Simmons and Tyrese Maxey, fouled out — it would have been easy for the Sixers to pack it in.
Embiid, however, had other ideas.
Thanks to a dominant second half — in which he scored 35 of his season-high 45 points to go along with 16 rebounds, four assists and five steals for a final stat line only Charles Barkley has matched in a Sixers uniform in nearly half a century — Embiid was able to drag the Sixers over the finish line, as they eked out a 137-134 overtime victory at the Wells Fargo Center.
“It was needed,” Embiid said of his performance, which included a stretch of 11 straight points for the Sixers, from the game-tying basket with 3.3 seconds to go in regulation until he hit a midrange jumper with 2:03 to go in overtime. “We needed it tonight.”
“We lost three games in a row. Our mentality should always be we should never lose two games in a row, and we lost three in a row,” he explained, “so there was no chance we were going down losing four in a row. So whatever I had to do and whatever my teammates had to do, we did it and we got the win.”
That Philadelphia snapped that losing streak and got back in the win column was largely Embiid’s doing — something that didn’t look like it was on the verge of happening at halftime. Embiid had 10 points and seven rebounds at the break, but he wasn’t exactly involved — though he did more than Simmons, who struggled mightily after missing the previous two games with left knee swelling. Simmons committed five turnovers in the first half and eventually fouled out with five points and 12 assists to go with six turnovers in 32 minutes.
But while Simmons was struggling, Embiid came out of the break a man possessed. Embiid scored 20 points in the third quarter alone to begin to swing the game back in Philadelphia’s direction, putting the team on his back thanks to, in part, a slight adjustment by Sixers coach Doc Rivers to get him the ball in different spots on the floor.
“We put him in the middle of the floor,” Rivers said, “because whenever we put him below the free throw line, as far as throwing it to him, that’s where they were coming from.
“I thought [Miami] really struggled, finding where to trap or who to trap off of, and it also allowed Joel to see when people were trapping him where to throw the ball so it’s a good adjustment.”
“[But] he willed this game for us tonight,” the coach said of Embiid.
That was especially true once Simmons and Maxey fouled out of the game. Embiid had the ball in his hands virtually every trip down the court after that, with Rivers essentially deploying him as a point center.
Rivers said the Sixers ran essentially the same play — called “Delay,” one the Sixers had only installed Tuesday morning at shootaround by chance — out of necessity for most of the fourth quarter and overtime because the point guards fouled out.
“Sometimes, life is luck,” Rivers said with a laugh. “We were laughing on the bench. … It’s amazing. We work on it today, and then it ends up being a savior for us.”
Embiid, meanwhile, was quite happy with the chance to have the ball in his hands.
“Playing point center, point guard or whatever you want to call it, I’m enjoying it,” he said. “It’s been working well.”
For Embiid, who has never been shy about making his feelings known, perhaps some of that second-half surge came from a place of frustration with the NBA for having the Sixers continue to play short-handed. This was the third game in a row the Sixers were down several key components after having a slew of players enter the league’s health and safety protocols in the wake of Seth Curry testing positive last week in Brooklyn.
After the NBA postponed the Heat’s game against the Boston Celtics on Sunday — a day after the Sixers had only seven healthy players available for a loss at home against the Denver Nuggets — Embiid tweeted, “THEY HATE THE PROCESS,” in what could be perceived as a shot at the NBA for not doing the same for his team the day before.
Asked after Tuesday’s game whether Philly should have been playing, Embiid didn’t hesitate in his answer.
“No,” he said. “It just seems like every other game keeps getting canceled. But us, I guess the league just keeps making us play. There’s really no other explanation behind it, especially that Denver game, when we had to dress an injured player just to make sure we had enough players to be able to compete — while other teams that haven’t had that many players and the league hasn’t made any of them dress an injured player, just to make sure there’s a game going on.
“So that’s unfortunate, but it’s the next man up. You can’t complain about it. Wins still count, losses still count; we need to get all these wins. We need to keep fighting until those guys are back, and that’s our job.”
Another point of motivation for Embiid this season has been being left off last year’s All-NBA teams. Embiid was vocal that he felt he deserved to be named one of the three best centers in the league, and he was motivated to prove that people were wrong to leave him off this season.
After Tuesday’s game, Embiid is now averaging over 26 points and 12 rebounds per game so far this campaign. And when asked if he is still garnering motivation from last season’s awards snub, he said he was — while adding that will take care of itself, provided the Sixers keep getting wins this season.
“It is, but that’s not what I’m focused on,” he said. “The main goal is to win a championship. When it comes to individual awards, it can’t happen unless you’re winning games. So the main thing I’m worried about is winning.
“Because at the end of the day, if I win, if we win, and we get the first seed, there’s no reason why you know I shouldn’t be in MVP, Defensive Player of the Year conversations, All-NBA first team and all that stuff.”
“It all goes back to the same thing: winning,” he added. “But the main goal is winning the championship; we’re trying to get ready for what’s to come, the playoffs and [getting] to that level. So like I said, it all goes back to winning.”