PHILADELPHIA - Joel Embiid had a message for the parochial crowd in attendance at the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday afternoon.
Following a field goal midway through the fourth quarter of the Philadelphia 76ers 106-89 victory over the Indiana Pacers, Embiid strutted towards the courtsides seats and unleashed all of the swag that makes him one of the most affable superstars in the NBA. Arms waving, fingers pointing and jaw moving, he reclaimed his territory as the Sixers leading man.
“I’m back,” Embiid screamed to the fans in attendance.
With those two words, Embiid punctuated his return to the Sixers lineup, and it was an insanely impressive one at that. Despite not playing organised basketball since the All-Star game on February 17th, Embiid dominated his re-emergence to the NBA stage.
“I just kept getting better,” Embiid said of his comeback game. “The game started slowing down for me, but my focus was really defensively, just by the way we’ve been playing and the way we were playing, so I felt like I had to —I don’t think I had a blocked shot today, but just being all over the place helping my teammates. I’m glad we got the win.”
Statistically, Embiid’s 33 points and 15 rebounds, in a restricted 28 minutes no less, speak to his supremacy. But personal quantifiable metrics don’t tell the full story. The Sixers predicably looked like a completely different team with their All-Star five man back. That is an obvious statement, although the power of such a simple thought cannot be understated. For all their precocious talent, Brett Brown’s charges had struggled mightily without Embiid over the past 10 days. Especially at the defensive end.
Wednesday’s game in Chicago was highlighted by a lacklustre defensive showing and ultimately lost because of a last minute defensive gaffe, while Philadelphia’s trip to Houston on Friday night presented the Rockets with an opportunity to pick-and-roll the Sixers to death and they gleefully took advantage. The Sixers defence was a difference story on Sunday afternoon.
When James Ennis hit a corner three to give the Sixers a 90-77 lead with 5:59 remaining, the competitive portion of the game ended, as did one of the most impressive defensive streaks of Philadelphia’s season. At the time of Ennis’ bucket, the Pacers had scored just 18 points in 18 second half minutes of basketball. With Embiid back in his familiar role of defensive anchor, the Sixers backline stiffened and offered a glimpse of the potential that has the franchise dreaming of a sustained postseason push.
“We locked in defensively and when we do that, we are a heck of a team to go against,” Tobias Harris said of the third quarter.
Through all the theatrics, Embiid’s message is one to be heard. Not just locally here in Philadelphia but all around the NBA. The Sixers have an incredibly talented roster, but when viewing their season through the prism of the lofty expectations placed upon this team, the surrounding talent counts for nought without Embiid.
Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler are NBA All-Stars, while offensive mavens J.J. Redick and Tobias Harris round out a starting five that is very likely the most talented group in the Eastern Conference, but Embiid is simply the best. He is a necessary ingredient.
“He is a difference maker in all ways, shapes and forms,” Brown said of Embiid. “The first thing you talk about is stuff at the rim, that’s what I felt the most pain when we didn’t have him, was just the rim protection”.
Simmons finished with 15 points, six assists and four rebounds in 35 minutes. Countryman Jonah Bolden was outside of Brown’s rotation and only entered during the game’s final minute to see out the dying seconds.
With the victory, Philadelphia now sits third in the Eastern Conference and have secured the season series over the Pacers. It ensures they will receive the playoff-seeding tiebreaker should both teams finish with identical records. With just five weeks remaining before the postseason, Brown admits there is now a sense of urgency that his team cannot ignore.
“We’re on the clock and I think that the sense of urgency and awareness of what we are getting close to, having to perform at the level that we have to perform at is real for these players and I can feel that there’s an excitement having Joel back and Boban is not that far away, and it’s getting close to April, whatever it’s going to be and I can feel it more than I can see it. I thought our guys responded well tonight as a starting point.”