Things were not looking too good for the Sixers.
After two mostly uninspiring losses to the Wizards and Knicks, the team dropped to 4-6. James Harden missed his first game of what is likely to be a month-long absence against New York. Joel Embiid had missed three straight games with the flu and was struggling with conditioning after an offseason bout with plantar fasciitis.
The here we go again vibes were prevalent in the Delaware Valley with the West-best Phoenix Suns in town Monday and head coach Doc Rivers in the crosshairs of Sixers fans everywhere.
But then something strange occurred — good stuff actually happened for the Sixers.
Embiid returned to the lineup and showed flashes of his MVP self in an impressive 100-88 win over the Suns. The two-time MVP runner-up finished with 33 points, 10 rebounds and five assists while playing terrific defense.
“I mean, I was OK,” Embiid said postgame. “I didn’t shoot well from the field, under 50 percent. So, I just gotta get back to myself and be aggressive. But as a team, I thought we missed a lot of easy shots and a lot of wide-open shots. But defensively, we were pretty good.”
The biggest question for Embiid — as it always seems to be — is what kind of shape he’d come back in after being out since Oct. 29. It seems reasonable to say that Monday night was the best Embiid has looked physically all season long.
The team had a unique gameplan for deploying Embiid that worked out quite well.
“We literally told him, ‘when you’re tired, signal, come out, when you’re fresh, get up and come in,’” Doc Rivers said. “The only time I put him in was that last stretch, because they were going to make a run and we needed him on the floor. So I thought he was great. You can see early on, I thought he got better as the game went on. But down the stretch he was gassed.”
Will this be the strategy with Embiid while he rounds into optimal shape?
“It’s a good question. I don’t know the answer,” Rivers said. “I don’t know how long. Typically, from flu and stuff, you play the one game, you kind of get it out of your system. We got a little break here because we get a day off and a practice. The good news is that there was no foot anything.”
Indications from Embiid and Rivers make it seem like the plantar fasciitis issue is gone and now it’s a simple matter of the big fella getting his wind. While perhaps being in better shape could’ve made him slightly more efficient (8 of 21), it was encouraging to see Embiid living at the free throw (16 of 16) as he was decisive and got downhill when getting the ball around the nail.
What stood out most with Harden out of the lineup was the way Embiid made plays for others from the middle of the floor. Embiid has comfortably led the league in post-up touches since his debut, but his game has evolved. When Rivers got here, he put Embiid at the elbow, making it more difficult for opponents to double team and empowering Embiid to become one of the best midrange players in the sport.
Things changed a bit last year when Harden, one of the greatest pick-and-roll players in NBA history, arrived. Embiid had to become more comfortable as a screener and roller, including getting more opportunities from the middle of the floor on the short roll.
It seems like that experience has made Embiid more comfortable operating from that area of the court even when Harden isn’t out there.
“The whole thing about styles ... I can adapt to anything,” Embiid said. “Obviously, when you have James he’s got to have the ball and he’s such a good playmaker. So when we had him last year I turned into more of a screener and I excelled in it, so I just adapt. I just do whatever it takes to win, whatever I’m needed.
“He’s not playing so I’m actually doing way more as far as play calling, play making and then also scoring the ball and defensively. I like to take on a challenge but [moving the ball more is] something that we just need to do it, even when we have everybody. That’s something we just need to do and that’s how I think we’re going to win, too.”
Embiid dished out five assists Monday, thanks in large part to Georges Niang tying a career high with seven threes.
But credit to Embiid: he played patiently and under control against a stout defensive opponent. With Cameron Johnson out for the Suns, Embiid recognized that Tobias Harris would have a size advantage against whoever Phoenix threw out there. He made a conscious effort to get Harris, a player that is at his best taking advantage of mismatches, the ball in the post.
“He was in my ear to keep going down there and going to work and try to get to the free throw line and create some easy baskets,” Harris said. “A lot of plays he was calling my number and making sure the ball got there.”
While the offense is what stands out and is what can be seen in the box score, it was Embiid’s impact defensively that felt even bigger. The Sixers had easily their best defensive performance this season, holding the Suns to 88 points and 43.8 percent from the field.
During the first few games of the season, the Sixers were a mess on that end. They’d gone to a more switch-heavy scheme and the results were painful with new personnel and players being asked to do different things. Miscommunications led to bad rotations, poor help and plenty of great looks for the other team.
Embiid is most definitely able to lock up guards on switches:
This was quite the defensive possession from Joel Embiid against Devin Booker on a switch pic.twitter.com/8vi0KSUWBu— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) November 8, 2022
But asking a massive human such as Embiid to do this for 30-plus minutes a game is likely not a prudent strategy. On Monday, Embiid switched the coverages up, perhaps leading to positive schematic results in the process.
“I think previously we have been trying to do a lot of switching, going one through five,” Embiid said. “I can do it, but if you’re going to do it the whole game it can become a challenge chasing guards all over the place and what I’m good at is protecting the rim and making sure no one gets in there. I think tonight we just had a different game plan of not necessarily me playing in drop. At times I was blitzing Book. At times I was dropping back. At times I was at the level of the screen so it’s all really about me just figuring it out on the fly — not making it up but just follow the game plan and just follow my instincts.”
Breaking news: the Sixers are a significantly better team with Joel Embiid. When he has two-way nights like he did Monday, they’re an extremely difficult team to beat. As he gets closer and closer to his MVP form, he should be able to keep them afloat while Harden is out. When The Beard returns, it’s go time.
The good news for the Sixers is that Embiid isn’t planning on missing time in the near future (fingers crossed).
“Keep pushing. Every single day try to do a little more,” Embiid said. “But one of the things with me as I’ve learned [with] my body is that there’s no better way for me to be myself and get back to myself than just playing basketball games. I just need to be playing every single night and I’m gonna get back to that level.”