The last time Joel Embiid broke out the airplane celebration it didn’t work out so well.
The Sixers captured Game 3 against the Raptors back in 2019, crushing Toronto at the Wells Fargo Center to take a 2-1 series lead in the second round.
We all know how the rest of that series went. No need to reopen those wounds.
From then on, it became a way for Raptors fans to mock Embiid. They’d do the airplane celebration as the All-Star big man’s struggles at ScotiaBank Arena continued for years.
The airplane celebration Embiid broke out Thursday night in the Sixers’ dominant Game 6 victory over the Raptors had a decidedly different feel.
After so much talk about legacies — Embiid’s, James Harden’s, Doc Rivers’ — following the Sixers’ listless Game 5 loss, it’s only fair that we give the MVP finalist his due.
“Honestly I wasn’t worried about whatever I kept hearing,” Embiid said to NBA TV postgame. “To me, it doesn’t matter. We live in the present. We were trying to close out this series and we did. And the job is not done. It’s only one round. We got a few more to go. We gotta win 12 more games. It’s gonna be tough, but we just gotta stick together, keep going.”
Playing with a torn ligament in his right shooting thumb, Embiid poured in 33 points (12 of 18), grabbed 10 rebounds, and recorded three blocks and two steals in just under 36 minutes in Game 6.
Back in 2019, the Raptors limited Embiid to 17.6 points a game on 53 percent true shooting. Simply put, this version of Embiid is a different animal. Even with the thumb injury and constant double- and triple-teams, Embiid averaged 26.2 points on 62.3 true shooting; all that combined with elite rim protection and an ability to anchor everything the Sixers do defensively.
And let’s not forget one of the biggest postseason moments in Philadelphia sports over the last decade.
The way Rivers used Embiid could be looked at as a big factor. For as much criticism as Rivers receives (some of it warranted), he did actually make adjustments in this series. One of the things he did in Game 6 was switch up his rotation and take Embiid out of the game sooner during his first stint — something Embiid openly criticized during the Brett Brown era.
Embiid had been playing the entire first quarter throughout the series. Rivers and his staff had to convince the big man it was the right move, but Embiid bought in — with results that spoke for themselves.
“We just felt like Joel was doing too much,” Rivers said to reporters in Toronto postgame. “Joel loved it. We had to sell it to him because that is not a rotation he’s ever liked. But he took it. And you could tell when he went back in with two minutes — and our sell to him was ‘when you got back in [Toronto] will be in the penalty’ so he loves that. He was very happy with that.”
The other adjustment Rivers made in the way he deploys Embiid happened when the head coach first arrived in Philadelphia. The recipient of constant doubles and traps, Rivers began last season experimenting with Embiid at the elbow. It led to Embiid being the MVP runner-up and becoming one of the biggest midrange threats in the game.
It seemed to be a great antidote for Nick Nurse’s aggressive defensive schemes, especially in Game 6. It was also a great sign that it appears Embiid is adjusting to playing with an injured shooting thumb.
“It is, especially at the elbows,” Rivers said. “I swear to god I’ve been saying it all year, and it was so nice to see him tonight [say] ‘I’m gonna be an elbow guy and dominate the elbows,’ and he’s passing from there so well as well. I think he sees it now, and that’s so good for our team moving forward.”
Next on the docket is a date with old friend Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat. Much like Nurse, Erik Spoelstra will throw the kitchen sink at Embiid to try to slow him down.
Having exorcised his demons in Toronto, Embiid feels better equipped to handle the challenge he’s about to face.
“I think Toronto actually prepared us extremely well for them because they have basically the same schemes,” Embiid said. “They’re going to switch everything. They got a big fella that can guard one through five. This was a good preparation for us, but we know what we gotta do. As long as we take care of what we can control — and that means just playing hard offensively and defensively, moving the ball, rebounding the ball — we’ll be fine.”
Embiid won’t likely hear “F— Embiid” chants at FTX Arena, but the crowd will be similarly hostile.
At least for one playoff series in the Great White North, Embiid got the last laugh.
running through The 6 with my woes. pic.twitter.com/22d0MOR8oN— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) April 29, 2022
Time will tell how the postseason victory over the team had previously been his kryptonite affects Embiid’s already impressive legacy.