76ers' Joel Embiid dominates Nets in imperfect circumstances: 'They're going to have to send 2 or 3 guys'
Philadelphia took a 3-1 series lead thanks to its franchise player playing through pain
NEW YORK -- Joel Embiid is a "trolling son of a gun," according to Philadelphia 76ers wing Jimmy Butler. On Saturday, Butler said he accompanied Embiid to the postgame podium after Game 4 of their first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets "so he don't do nothing stupid when he's up there." Minutes later, the NBA's premier troll said it feels great to be up 3-1, but those particular numbers couldn't leave his mouth without making a joke.
"We definitely don't want to be in a situation like the Warriors [three] years ago," Embiid said.
Embiid and Butler laughed, and the latter left the podium. "That's my f---ing cue," Butler said as he walked out of the interview room at Barclays Center.
"Nah, I was kidding," Embiid said, as if such clarification was necessary. Given that he'd just led his team to a 112-108 win with 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, six blocks and two steals in 32 minutes, he had more than earned the right to goof around.
"Given the volume of playing time lately that he hasn't had, it's just a dominant performance," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "What more can you say?"
About that playing time: Embiid hadn't played since Monday, as he'd missed Game 3 due to left knee tendinitis. He was a game-time decision, as he has been throughout this series, and logged more than 30 minutes for the first time since April 4. He will be playing through pain every time he steps on the court in the playoffs, but he did not let that -- or any other imperfect circumstances -- stop him from taking over.
Embiid had 20 points, 12 rebounds and five assists in the second half alone, and much of that came after Butler was ejected. (A melee of sorts ensued after Embiid committed a flagrant foul on Jarrett Allen -- Embiid said he saw the replay and felt like he got all ball -- and Nets forward Jared Dudley charged at him.) Again and again, Brooklyn used his man as a screener. Again and again, guards attacked him at the rim. Embiid challenged whoever came his way, and then ran down the court to assert himself on the other end. He is the reason Philadelphia won the points-in-the-paint battle 62-44.
The peculiarities of the Nets make this a fascinating environment for Embiid, a massive anomaly in a league that is getting smaller and faster every year. Brooklyn's offense is built around spacing the floor for Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and D'Angelo Russell, who do their damage shooting 3s off the dribble and driving to the rim with the intention of creating layups or 3s. This makes it a challenge for Embiid to cover ground and protect the paint. On the other end, however, the Nets are even less equipped than most teams to deal with Embiid's physicality. You can watch the Sixers play against anybody and see how Embiid's presence changes games, but Brooklyn makes this more extreme.
Philadelphia guard J.J. Redick said that nothing Embiid does surprises him anymore, adding that he's "he's a top-five player in the NBA." Regardless of where you would rank him, you must acknowledge there are not many players capable of doing what Embiid did directly after the Dudley brouhaha. He cut off a Russell drive, recovered to block Joe Harris' layup and got a quick bucket in transition:
You cannot question the effort of Allen, the second-year center matched up with him. Embiid is too strong and too agile, even if he's nowhere near fully healthy:
"I'm just trying to live in the paint," Embiid said. "They're going to have to double-team me. I figure that they're going to have to send two or three guys. In that type of situation, if they're going to guard me in single-coverage, I'm going to dominate. And I'm also going to make the right pass."
Passing has not always been a strength for Embiid, who is still working on cutting down his turnovers and reading the court. He has come a long way, though, when it comes to anticipating where double-teams are coming from and finding open teammates. Several times, he made Brooklyn pay for sending help his way:
Brown acknowledged that it is a challenge to use "the unique gift" of Embiid in the halfcourt without the offense becoming stagnant. If the Sixers advance, that will be a going concern. Their likely opponent is the Toronto Raptors, whose starting center, Marc Gasol, has historically defended Embiid better than most. Gasol also has 3-point range, which presents a problem on the other end. It is encouraging, however, that Philadelphia is a win away from the second round after its worst fears came to life in its playoff opener. As messy as this series has been, as dramatic as Game 4 was, Embiid and the Sixers have overcome all sorts of issues with immense talent. Their hope is that this will not stop anytime soon.
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