Safe to say the fun-loving Joel Embiid of years past is back.
He dropped a career-high 49 points on Monday night, then said “fuck it” on live television before apologizing for giving Kevin Huerter a middle finger late in the fourth quarter of a 17-point home win.
No worries, though. You can do whatever you want when you shoot 17-24 from the field, 14-15 from the foul line, and pull down 14 rebounds. Throw in three steals and three assists and that’s a nice way to put a bow on a career night.
The thing I liked the most about Joel’s game was that he committed himself to the post in Ben Simmons’ absence. He only shot three three-pointers, two of which took place in garbage time, and spent the majority of his night on the low block, putting Dewayne Dedmon in foul trouble by ducking in early and often. On certain occasions when the post-up was not there, or he drew early double teams, he was smart in kicking the ball out, re-establishing position, and then posting up again. It was a very cerebral game for him, which Brett Brown pointed to afterward:
“He was dominant. He was dominant making his free throws. He was dominant as an interior presence. Scoring that volume of points at that efficient of a rate is impressive. I thought the thing that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet that he did as well as anything was that he handled the double teams. Whether he passed out of it because there was a crowd, whether he went quick because the double teams were coming and he didn’t get involved in that. I thought he handled the double teams really well.”
With the news of Ben and him not being there, it’s clear to him that he’s gotta come out. He’s gotta play like he did tonight, for the most part. His mentality is what most impressed me. We saw the same thing against Brooklyn. We’re all going to point to the numbers. The bottom line is this: when he comes out with that activity, that energy, that mentality, he makes a statistician work and we will win a lot of games.
On a career night, I think it’s appropriate to focus on Embiid specifically, working from a video clip of every shot he took last night. Keeping in mind specifically that Simmons is out indefinitely, we should take a closer look at what worked last night, how the Sixers got him the ball, and how the offense operated with Embiid flying solo in the superstar department.
- 0:04 – Joel doesn’t shoot a lot of these short hooks, because he oftentimes is denied that inside turn via double team. Here, I like how he recognizes the space and takes it before any help defense can come. It’s also ideal when you have Tobias Harris throw him the entry pass, since De’Andre Hunter has to think twice about leaving a 36% three-point shooter on the perimeter.
- 0:22 – This is the Sixers’ “ear tug” play. They usually run it out of HORNS, but in this case they just spread it out and get Embiid on the back screen for the lob. It’s been a Brett Brown staple for years.
- 1:02 – When teams sit in zone defense, Embiid is big enough to just stand on the nail and receive that entry pass. In this case, he simply shoots right over John Collins.
- 1:12 – With Dedmon off the floor, Embiid can post Collins under the basket with relative ease.
- 2:12 – Bully ball. He actually kicked this ball out to Korkmaz to get away from a double team, then Atlanta tried to double again, so he just drove Dedmon right to the rack instead. Nice job to kick out and reset.
- 3:25 – One versus three, he gets the offensive rebound, putback, and-1. He can do this all day long against smaller teams like Atlanta and Brooklyn.
To my point about Tobias Harris playing on the near side during these post ups, this is a still frame from a Huerter double team that was thrown at Joel, where he was able to pull back and assist Harris instead:
That’s good perimeter spacing.
The Sixers typically fan out on the weak side when Embiid posts, to give him more room to operate. Sometimes that results in him eating those early doubles and then he has to throw tough cross-court passes because he doesn’t have any near side help, but when Harris is hovering right there, he’s wide open for a catch and shoot three. And if you look at the yellow X on the image, that’s where Ben Simmons will typically go when he does not have the ball, so it’s somewhat easier for the Sixers to spread out a little bit more and give Embiid some breathing room on these post ups when Ben is not in the game.
Here’s another example:
Atlanta is showing enough respect there to Harris, Shake Milton, Josh Richardson, and even Al Horford, who are shooting 36%, 37%, 33%, and 32% from three this season. You can’t really replicate this with Ben on the floor, and in this specific scenario you’ve got Hunter in a position to dig/double, which he decides not to do.
Uber performance from Joel Embiid, who is, quite frankly, gonna have to play like this in Simmons’ absence. He’s got good matchups this week, and meets up with his old friend Andre Drummond on Wednesday. New York doesn’t have anybody who can stop him. And when the Sixers go out to Los Angeles on their four-game road swing, Joel has played very well against Anthony Davis in the past and has the advantage over Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell.
Could be a monstrous couple of weeks for Embiid if he can continue to play this style of basketball with the consistency and commitment we saw last night. It’s clear that he’s a much more dominant big when he’s playing free and loose, getting the crowd involved, and being the somewhat cheeky and flippant guy of years past.
He spoke on that last night:
“I said it right before All-Star break that I was going to have a different mindset and it wasn’t just about tonight. Since the Clippers game, I’ve had the mindset of just being aggressive just trying to dominate offensively and defensively. I said I was going to get back to having fun, but having fun comes in different forms. I don’t always have to be smiling or laughing all the time. I can have fun just dominating the game. Obviously, tonight was just one of those nights where I was having fun like the old days, just having fun with the crowd. Some nights, I just want to dominate and stay quiet, but it was cool. Most important thing is that we bounced back and we got the win.”
I’ll leave you with this work of art on a Tuesday morning: