Cameron Johnson went nuts in the first half against the Sixers in Game 2. The young forward, acquired by Brooklyn as part of the Kevin Durant blockbuster with Phoenix, scored 22 points before halftime.
He also posterized Joel Embiid — and stared the big man down the entire way back down the floor. Luckily for the Sixers, Embiid is a goldfish.
“I don’t know. I don’t remember getting dunked on,” Embiid said.
It was Embiid and the Sixers laughing postgame as they used a dominant second half to beat the Nets 96-84 to take a 2-0 series lead Monday. The series heads to Brooklyn for Game 3 Thursday night.
After two games where the Nets were hellbent on limiting Embiid’s ability to score, he’s looked his most valuable, showing growth and trusting his teammates to help the Sixers win.
What stands out is the score: the Nets had 84 points for the game and just 34 in the second half. It was an effort the Sixers needed to produce after an abysmal first half. Brooklyn continued to swarm Embiid and live with the results. Early on, those results were positive for the Nets. They held the Sixers to 19 points in the second quarter to take a 49-44 halftime lead.
The Sixers switched to a zone, which flummoxed Brooklyn, but more importantly, Embiid took his defense to another level. He quarterbacked the zone and protected the rim impressively. The Nets scored just 10 points in the paint and shot 35.1 percent from the field after halftime.
As we’ve seen with Embiid countless times, when the stakes are high, his defensive focus is elite.
“It’s the playoffs. That’s usually where I take my defense to another level,” Embiid said. “I thought tonight as a team, we were really good. And then myself, I felt like as I said, it’s the playoffs and it’s been like that over my career, every single time. ... It’s hard to play 100 percent of the time in the regular season with that many games, but it’s the playoffs — every possession matters.”
Given Embiid’s size, injury history and the fact that he has to anchor the Sixers’ offense and defense, it’s understandable that he can’t exude this kind of effort on a nightly basis during the regular season.
But when he does ... phew.
On the offensive end it was about Embiid being selfless as he scored only 20 points. He had seven assists and several “hockey assists” by navigating doubles, triples ... really, it’s all five Nets trying to defend him at this point. It was by no means a perfect night as the eight turnovers will tell you (albeit two of those were in super garbage time), but his 68.9 true shooting percentage shows how efficient he was when he looked to score.
In the second half, Embiid was happy to let Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris reap the benefits of Brooklyn’s hyper aggressive defensive strategy.
“I was really proud of Jo,” Doc Rivers said. “You look at his numbers, those are dominating numbers — rebounding, blocked shots, assists — but especially in the second half, he just let the game come to him. This is the happiest I’ve ever seen him since I’ve been here with other guys making shots. He was really celebrating his teammates tonight because of what (the Nets) were trying to do to him. I think that’s a great statement for our team.”
It’s to a point now where the Sixers rarely have a non-shooting threat on the floor. Backup center Paul Reed might be the exception, but he obviously doesn’t share the court with Embiid.
Credit to Daryl Morey. His plan when he arrived was to immediately surround Embiid and, at the time, Ben Simmons with shooters. Now, it’s Embiid (or Reed for 10ish minutes) and nothing but shooters at all times.
It took time for Embiid to trust ... well ... you know ...
But here we are in maybe Embiid’s most important playoff push and he’s fully bought in.
“They didn’t change their strategy from what didn’t work in the first game,” Embiid said. “They came back firing — double, triple teams all over the place. And once again, we did take advantage of it. Pretty cold in the first half and then in the second half, you’re not going to give the best three-point shooting team that many looks without my guys making those shots. So I hope they keep doing it, and we’re going to keep making the right plays and knocking down those shots.”
One of the ways people have disparaged Embiid in the incredibly toxic MVP discourse is to label him as simply a volume scorer. As Monday’s win proved, that is far from the case. He took over the game defensively and showed patience offensively.
In years past, Embiid likely would’ve been frustrated by what Brooklyn was doing to him. Instead, he’s making the right plays and finding a different way to help his team win.
“That’s probably why I get double teamed and triple teamed a lot,” Embiid said. “A lot of people think I just love scoring the basketball. I don’t think it’s true. I enjoy winning and doing whatever it takes to win. Some nights I might shoot a lot and score a lot. Some nights I’m going to get double teamed and have to make the passes.
“But I believe in playing the right way, which is getting your teammates involved against double, triple teams, making sure everybody touches the ball. That’s what I believe in. It’s fun playing that way; everybody’s happy. Doesn’t matter if I have four points. As long as we score and guys are doing their jobs and making shots, that makes me happy.”
Johnson had just six points in the second half — two of which came on a lame late-game steal and bucket in the waning seconds with the contest out of reach.
Embiid got Johnson back with a two-hand volleyball spike block with a little under four minutes left and as the Sixers began creating separation. Embiid had 19 rebounds and three blocks, but still felt like he was shortchanged.
“So I had … three blocks. Only three blocks?” Embiid said. “I probably need the Memphis scorekeeper. ... I thought I had more. But that’s the level that I’ve got to get to. I’m going to do it every game.”
He’s growing and maturing, but he’s still Joel Embiid.