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Sixer of the Week: Joel Embiid shows how dominant he can be

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Episode 5, covering the Sixers’ 2-2 stretch from December 23 to 29.

Milwaukee Bucks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

This is a weekly series where we’ll look back at one player’s performance to see who stood out and why. Whether it’s the best player on the team, someone at the bottom of the bench who stepped up, or anyone in between.

Last week’s results: 125-109 W @ Detroit, 121-109 W vs. Milwaukee, 97-98 L @ Orlando, 116-117 L @ Miami.

Joel Embiid ended his week with a couple of rough mistakes (which I’ll get onto shortly) and I wouldn't normally feature the same player in back-to-back episodes of this series. But Embiid’s overall play and signature performance on Christmas Day was simply too much for him not to earn Sixer of the Week honors again.

As the Philadelphia 76ers went 2-2, ending their week with a wild 1-point loss to the Miami Heat, Embiid averaged 27 points (shooting 55.2 percent from the floor, 45.5 percent from three, and 92.9 percent from the free throw line), 10.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.8 blocks.

He started with an efficient 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal and 3 blocks against the Detroit Pistons. It’s a matchup he typically excels in. There isn’t anything Andre Drummond can do to prevent Embiid from getting where he wants or drawing fouls. The Sixers didn’t need too much from Embiid with Tobias Harris dropping a team-high 35 points, Furkan Korkmaz scoring 21 points off the bench, and Ben Simmons recording a triple-double with 16 points, 13 rebounds and 17 assists. Instead, Embiid had his way in the post, made a few nice passes to cutters, and got to rest for most of the fourth quarter.

The real highlight of Embiid’s week (and season overall) was what must be one of the top few games of his career. Embiid put on a masterclass against the Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas Day to lead the Sixers to a 121-109 win. He tallied 31 points on 11-of-21 shooting, 11 rebounds, 3 assists to 1 turnover and 2 blocks. Philly’s star was an absolute force in all areas.

Offensively, Embiid scored effectively from all over the floor. He shot 3-of-6 from three, continued to operate well with his face-up game through jumpers and drives, and finished a couple of easy buckets inside with lobs and put-backs:

At the other end of the floor, Embiid’s interior defense — particularly against Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was held to just 18 points on 8-of-27 shooting — was phenomenal. While matchup numbers can be questionable due to how defensive responsibility is assigned on any given play, Giannis shooting a mere 3-of-11 against Embiid certainly lines up with the game film.

Embiid consistently stuck with Giannis on drives, stayed grounded to avoid fouling and keep Giannis off the line (he only had 4 free throw attempts), and used his agility, anticipation and length brilliantly to prevent layups and force a bunch of tough misses in the paint:

Of course, there are many factors to consider when thinking about a potential matchup against the Bucks in the playoffs, but the Sixers have to feel about as good as anyone can when it comes to the issue of defending Giannis. Hardly anyone can match up with the reigning MVP as well as Embiid.

Embiid’s only real down game came against the Orlando Magic on Friday. The Sixers as a whole looked rather flat and their offense struggled against Orlando’s long, physical defense. Embiid was quiet for a lot of the night. He still finished with 24 points, 11 rebounds and a pair of assists, but shot just 8-of-21 from the floor and committed 4 turnovers — the most he’s had in a game since December 10. And, like most of his teammates, he lacked the kind of maximum defensive energy he needed at times, too.

Embiid’s performance to close the week against Miami is marred somewhat by his two ugly turnovers in the final 15 seconds of the fourth quarter. There’s no excuse for not being secure with the ball in those situations, especially the first turnover when Jimmy Butler poked the ball away as Embiid waited for a foul. Embiid simply needed to keep the ball closer to his body or raised above his head, away from the disruptive hands of Butler, or pass to an open teammate.

However, it’s important to remember that apart from those miscues, Embiid was excellent. He scored a highly efficient 35 points (his third-highest output of the season) on 11-of-16 shooting including 2-of-4 from three, adding 11 rebounds and a pair of assists. Yet again, he had his way as a scorer inside and out. He frequently established perfect positioning under the basket for quick finishes, forcing his way past Miami’s bigs to seal his way inside. Some of Embiid’s most impressive buckets came in the form of difficult jumpers late in the fourth quarter to keep Philly in the game:

It may get overlooked now, given the turnovers and eventual result that followed, but Embiid’s step-back three in the final 80 seconds in the face of Jimmy Butler — essentially Butler’s own side-step, step-back jumper that he used to win games for the Sixers last season — was a stunning shot for anyone, let alone a 7-footer:

Embiid made some sharp passes, too. He generally reacted quickly when double teams came, whipping the ball out to teammates to keep the ball moving and the offense humming:

There’s no doubt that Embiid needs to clean up his lapses of ball control. The Sixers in general need to polish their execution late in games, although that’s a topic for another article.

Embiid’s recent play has still been exceptional overall. Over his last nine games, he’s averaged 27.6 points with a 63.9 True Shooting Percentage, 12.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists to only 2.2 turnovers, and 1.6 blocks. This stretch has also featured two of the best games of his career against Boston on December 12 and Milwaukee on Christmas.

After some of the unfair criticism he faced earlier in the season, this run has been a reminder of just how dominant Embiid can be at both ends of the floor.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.