Joel Embiid is fond of saying his life is like a movie. Tuesday night might’ve given the future script writer(s) great material.
With under six minutes to go in Game 5, the Sixers were in unfamiliar territory with a double-digit lead in a crucial road playoff game. Boston made runs here and there, but the Sixers were able to answer all night.
After an Embiid turnover, Jaylen Brown looked to have an easy transition opportunity. A made layup would’ve made the score 104-91 and possibly given the Celtics momentum with plenty of time to make a comeback. Instead, Embiid hustled down the other end, erasing Brown’s finger roll and sending the ball into Tyrese Maxey’s hands.
The block displayed equal parts championship-caliber effort and superstar-level talent. The league’s MVP exhibited both all night as the Sixers convincingly beat the Celtics, 115-103, to take a 3-2 series lead.
“The fourth quarter, you’ve got to make the little plays,” Embiid told reporters in Boston. “A play like that, it kind of drains the energy from the crowd, from themselves.”
And you could feel it. The TD Garden crowd was looking for any excuse to get back into the game — and Embiid denied them of that.
It wasn’t the most efficient night. Embiid scored a team-high 33 points, shooting 10 of 23 from the field. Still, it was Embiid’s assertiveness that set the tone. He shot 10 of 11 from the line and looked to punish Al Horford on the block. (You have to wonder if wrestling with Embiid all night is having an effect on Horford’s legs. The former Sixer hit 44.6 percent of his threes in the regular season, but is making below 30 percent in the series.)
But it didn’t matter if it was Horford or Grant Williams or Marcus Smart or Robert Williams III — Embiid was ready to attack.
“I just wanted to be as aggressive as I could,” Embiid said. “I started off the game taking a bunch of shots. We all understand that for us to win, I have to be aggressive. And that doesn’t mean shooting every shot. It means attacking, creating for others, involving my teammates, doing everything it takes.”
But it wasn’t just his offense or his block of Brown — Embiid’s defense at the rim has changed this series. After having what felt like a layup line to start Game 1 without Embiid, multiple Celtics players are actively avoiding the rim during his minutes. The few that are trying Embiid are routinely coming up empty.
Embiid turned away four Boston shots at the rim while affecting numerous others. He’s blocked at least four shots in three games this series. The last Sixer to do that was Dikembe Mutombo, who won Defensive Player of the Year back in 2001.
Embiid didn’t make an All-Defensive Team this season, but he’s having a special series on that end.
“They had, what, 65 points in the paint that first game?” Embiid said. “Since I’ve come back, we’ve limited those opportunities. A lot of times, they don’t actually want to take any shots at the rim. So you try to do the best job possible to interfere with what they want to do.”
We’ve seen Embiid have huge scoring nights. We’ve seen him dominate as a rim protector.
But perhaps the last piece to the puzzle for the 29-year-old Cameroonian was becoming a leader. It’s not a role that’s always suited him or one that he’s always been the most comfortable in.
His teammates have noticed his effort in becoming their leader this season.
“The last three years … he’s been in the MVP conversation — he’s been dominant,” Tyrese Maxey said. “But this year, as soon as we got to Charleston for training camp, I noticed his leadership grow. When your best player is a great leader — and Tuck has been on him about leading, of course, and it’s great to have P.J. Tucker as well — but when your best player is adamant about winning and he’s on his teammates, calling his teammates out, and leading by example, you have to raise your level and intensity.
“If your best player is working his tail off, being aggressive, and going out there and performing every single night, you have to fall in line. I think this team, we know that and we’ve done that pretty well.”
Tobias Harris has been playing alongside Embiid longer than any current rotation player. He’s seen and experienced the ups and downs Embiid has gone through. He’s seen Embiid’s hunger to win grow.
“He wants to win so bad and he’s going to do everything he can to lead us,” Harris said. “He’s just always out there trying to make plays to help us win. That’s why he’s the MVP. Obviously, through the years you could see that passion and that excitement for winning come out more and more every game. I thought tonight, he was just so happy for everybody else doing well, and that’s huge for the whole group.”
It’s easy to forget while Embiid is out there demonstrating the two-way dominance that led to him winning an MVP trophy that he’s still nursing an LCL sprain in his right knee. Though he played without the bulky brace Tuesday, make no mistake — that injury is still lingering.
And he’s doing everything he can to gut his way through it.
“I need to do a lot, but that’s my job and I love the grind of it,” Embiid said. “There’s not much to say. Got to keep doing whatever I can to protect myself. But at the end of the day, when I get on the floor, I don’t think about the injury, no matter how painful it is and how much it hurts. I just want to compete every single possession and put myself and the team in the best positions to succeed.”
The main character always has to go through adversity. Embiid is simply making his movie more compelling with each game.