Following a double OT loss to the lowly Houston Rockets on Dec. 5, the Philadelphia 76ers were a .500 ball club. Doc Rivers, Joel Embiid, and James Harden all had that sad, whiny look on their faces as if you just told a 3-year-old no. Skip ahead nearly two months and 24 games, and they’re 32-16 and a game back of Boston in the loss column for first place in the East. Those distressed expressions are still there, but that’s just how Doc, James, and Joel look.
The Sixers are 20-4 in the past couple dozen outings, and now have our full attention after beating the best team in the West: Nikola Jokić and the Denver Nuggets. Philly rallied back from first-half deficit and outscored the Nuggets 68-46 in the final two quarters to pull out a 126-119 win.
Embiid approached the matchup with the reigning back-to-back MVP as you’d expect. While the Joker’s final line was good by most standards, 24, 9, and 8 is child’s play when the competition goes for 47, 18, and 6. Embiid is once again leading the league NBA in points per game, and you’d think more people would notice considering he’s 7-feet, 280-pounds.
I was pro-Embiid for MVP a season ago even after Daryl Morey was reunited with his No. 1 boy, because the big man is unstoppable. If Harden had shown up in point Harden mode from the get-go, Embiid might have taken home the award he shilled so shamelessly for. (More on that later.)
Embiid is every bit as unique as Jokić
I understand that Jokić can make a meal worthy of a 3-star Michelin restaurant out of squirrels and bark. It’s cool. The passing is infectious, all that. It’s just… I’ve never seen a center score in as many ways as Embiid.
JoJo has everything in his offensive repertoire short of a sky hook and a Dream Shake — which are other guys’ signature moves. Every big man has something. Shaq O’Neal savaged anyone who stepped in the paint. Timmy Duncan would kill you with bank shots and fundamentals. Even Jokić has a little one-legged fadeaway and those low-post touch shots that he relies on.
Embiid doesn’t rely on anything but his teammates feeding him the ball. Think about it. He never really repeats the same move. The 120-pack of Crayola colors is his thing. It’s reached a point offensively where he goes through his bag like there’s an XP bonus for combo variations completed in a game.
The scouting report on Embiid is to hope he shoots threes and long twos. Well, he’s only attempting three shots from deep per night, and is hitting 56 percent of everything he puts up inside the arc. Jokić is such an anomaly that analytics folks obsess over him, and overlook the other precious metal in the room.
Adamantium may not have as many uses as vibranium, but it’s still fucking sharp as shit. Plus, adamantium might be able to cut through vibranium, according to a cursory Google search I just did, but it was unclear, and I don’t have time to go down that rabbit hole. I also don’t have time to explain why I compared Embiid to adamantium and not vibranium even though the latter and the center are both from Africa so I’m going to move on.
Let’s show some restraint, Philly
The Sixers over-campaigned a year ago and it turned off voters. Clearly the route is to let the organization do the promotion and have the player give team-first quotes to the media. Act like you don’t care about anything but the team. Or anything. During the Nuggets-76ers broadcast Saturday, the ABC crew said Jokić was at the track when he was announced as an all-star starter — an honor Embiid did not get this year.
Morey came to his big man’s defense, and of course he just overdid it. I don’t understand how the “shameless Boston media” prevented Embiid from being voted in as a starter, but that was the line argued by the Philly GM. We’re looking for more “sympathetic underdog” than “petty child.”
Basketball fans also are on a “I have to see it” basis with Harden, and nobody wants to hear a word out of him until after a few series wins in May and June.
Keep the banners and hashtags in a drawer and continue to go to work. If Embiid wants to win it, go out there and grab the No. 1 overall seed. Win another 20 of 24. Keep quietly dominating because it will get noticed. Some Denver fans can’t even watch Jokić because he’s buried behind a local TV deal dispute and a cloud of weed smoke, and he still won — twice.
Every single person in here is already staring at you, Joel. You don’t have to eye fuck everybody who catches your gaze.