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Forget 2019 — Joel Embiid is a different animal

The Raptors have had success against Joel Embiid in the past, but this version of the All-Star big is quite different.

Philadelphia 76ers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

Joel Embiid’s MVP campaign actually didn’t get off to the greatest start.

On opening night, he banged knees with the Pelicans’ Jonas Valanciunas. He was listed as questionable for the Sixers’ home opener against Brooklyn a couple days later. Given Embiid’s injury history, there was a feeling of “here we go again” with the All-Star big man.

For as dominant as Embiid was throughout the regular season, he actually didn’t hit the ground running. In the nine games before his battle with COVID, Embiid averaged just 21.4 points and shot just 43.5 percent from the field.

Through the early struggles, with the Ben Simmons saga ongoing, Embiid never lost faith in himself.

“It was tough, the first game of the season,” Embiid said after practice Thursday. “The thing with me, I’ve always believed in myself, especially through injuries. … I’ve always felt like I’ve never lost a beat. I always felt like I always came back to myself and I’ve never lost anything. When these things happen, I’m just like, whatever. Got to get stronger, got to do whatever I’ve got to do to make sure that I stay healthy. Besides the first three years, I’ve been pretty healthy, which is a good thing. I’ve come a long way, so I’m happy about that.”

Well, the game where Embiid returned certainly showed he was no worse for wear. He scored 42 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a double-overtime loss to the Timberwolves.

From there, his MVP candidacy took shape. Now, his focus is on taking down the one team that’s been his kryptonite in the Toronto Raptors, starting with Game 1 Saturday night.

We all know the accolades by now. Embiid took home the scoring title, making him the first center to do so since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000. He was the first center to average over 30 points a game since the merger. He was the first international player to lead the league in scoring. All this while posting the third-best defensive rating on a team that lost the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.

And speaking of Simmons, Embiid did all of his damage without the three-time All-Star. While we (rightfully) credit Nikola Jokic for doing what he’s done without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., Embiid nearly single-handedly dragged this Sixers team to the top of Eastern Conference — playing only 21 games with James Harden.

All the while, his new-found leadership was somewhat molded by navigating the Simmons situation.

“He’s intense, and he demands greatness out of himself,” Georges Niang said Wednesday, “so when he steps on the court, he wants greatness out of all of us — and he demands that. Maybe not in a way that everyone can recognize, but he expects us to be on top of our stuff as much as he’s on top of his stuff. And I think it’s a joy to play alongside him, because [he doesn’t always show] emotion, but when he does, it’s something that rallies all of us, and I think going into the playoffs, you can expect a lot of emotion from Joel Embiid. This stuff means a lot to him.”

Perhaps a little bit of former teammate and good friend Jimmy Butler has rubbed off on Embiid.

“I don’t think I have a certain way to approach my guys,” Embiid said. “I’m still going to be myself. I’m going to challenge guys, I’m going to get on them, I’m going to push them. That’s the way I want people to treat me. … And these guys, they understand it. They understand that it’s not personal.

“Like today, we had a pretty good practice. … If Tobias talks, he’ll tell you I was locking his ass up. And I was talking to him. I was letting him know and he was getting mad. But he knows that it’s not personal because I want him to be better and I want all of them to be better. That’s the only way I know. Like I’ve always said, I’m not here to worry about people’s feelings. I want to win. And to be able to win, I need everybody and I need to challenge them.”

While competitive practices are one thing, the NBA playoffs are certainly another.

Embiid is embarking on a matchup against the team that’s arguably given him more trouble than any in the league. Nick Nurse’s defensive schemes have stymied Embiid, most notably during the 2019 series that the Raptors won in seven games.

But to Embiid’s credit, his improvement as a playmaker saw him have success against Toronto this season. Embiid averaged 29.2 points in three games while shooting 46.6 percent from the field. One unfortunate theme that repeated from 2019 — Embiid was a +7 and +8, respectively, in the two games the Sixers lost when he played.

As Fred VanVleet shared with the Toronto media, Embiid is simply not the same player he was back in 2019. He’s not even the same player he was last season when he finished second in MVP voting.

And he actually credits the challenges the Raptors have presented to him for his improvement over the years.

“They just play recklessly,” Embiid said, “sending three guys at me as soon as the ball is in the air. That made me better, honestly, over the years — just playing against them and watching them. That definitely made me a better playmaker, so I enjoy playing them. But there’s still a lot of ways I can attack them. … I can just get deep position on them, use my size and my weight and try to take advantage of that. I think I know what I have to do. I’ve just got to execute.”

Sorry to bring up 2019 again, but there’s one super important thing Embiid has focused on since that Kawhi Leonard shot bounced on the rim for an hour — his health.

Injury scare on opening night and bout with COVID be damned, Embiid played in a career-high 68 games and averaged a career-high 33.8 minutes a game. It’s part of what made him the MVP favorite for most of the season.

However, it appears more and more like Jokic will secure his second straight MVP.

For Embiid it’ll just add a little more gas to the fire that’s been building all season long.

“I think you will see an unreal Joel Embiid in the playoffs if [he doesn’t win MVP],” Niang said. “So I mean, pick your poison. I think he deserves it. I’m not going to do any more advocating because the numbers speak for themselves and I know who my MVP is. But if he doesn’t win it, he’s going to show you why we should’ve won it. Not to say that even if he does then he’s not, but ... don’t challenge Joel. That’s one thing, I’ll leave that at that.”

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