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Joel Embiid Has His Eyes on a Different Prize

Nikola Jokic took home MVP, but the Sixers center is angling for a bigger piece of hardware this postseason. More performances like his one against the Hawks in Game 2 just might get him there.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

There’s an easy story to tell here: “On the same day Nikola Jokic was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, Joel Embiid went out intent on showing why he should’ve finished at the top of the ballot.” Doc Rivers, always a friend to the working press, even went ahead and teed it up.

After Game 2 against Atlanta on Tuesday, the 76ers coach recalled what it was like to be a member of the 1994-95 Spurs, to watch David Robinson accept that season’s MVP trophy before the start of the Western Conference finals against the Rockets ... and then watch Hakeem Olajuwon absolutely destroy “the Admiral,” leading Houston to a six-game victory en route to its second straight NBA championship. What “the Dream” did to Robinson in that series—establishing himself as peerless, even when placed in the context of another all-time great—isn’t the kind of thing you forget, especially when you had a front-row seat.

“Tonight,” Rivers told reporters after watching Embiid pour in 40 points, a new career playoff high, in his team’s 118-102 win, “you felt like that was Joel.”

There are, however, a couple of problems with the easy story. For one thing, Embiid’s opponent in the second round of the 2021 NBA playoffs isn’t Jokic’s Nuggets; it’s the Hawks, led by preternaturally gifted playmaker and shit-stirrer Trae Young. (If we get a Sixers-Nuggets Finals, though, my goodness, will this particular story line be impossible to avoid.) For another … well, Embiid says he’s “disappointed” not to win but doesn’t seem all that interested in granting the premise.

I’m sure Embiid would’ve graciously accepted MVP honors had he won them. But for a player who has missed 295 games since being drafted in 2014, who has experienced two serious knee scares this season, including a meniscus tear less than two weeks ago, and who is operating at the peak of his powers as the linchpin of the East’s top seed, there are bigger prizes to hunt, and no time like the present to hunt them.

We eschew the easy story, then, and shift our focus to one even simpler, but no less profound: Embiid wants to win the whole goddamn thing. To do that, he has to get out of the second round. To do that, he had to get the 76ers out of the 0-1 hole they’d dug on Sunday. So, y’know, he did.

Embiid was brilliant in Game 2, topping the 39 points he scored in Game 1 of this series—to go with 13 rebounds, two steals, two assists, and a block to help Philly knot its series with the Hawks at one game apiece. Game 3 comes Friday in Atlanta, where Hawks supporters at State Farm Arena will surely greet Embiid just as warmly as Philly fans did Young, and where Embiid, ever the showman, will surely respond in kind.

Like almost every other team Philadelphia has played this season, the Hawks have had no answer for Embiid through two games. The 27-year-old has torched Clint Capela, using his combination of bruising physicality and balletic grace to shoot 15-for-27 from the floor against his Atlanta counterpart while also drawing eight shooting fouls on him, according to NBA Advanced Stats’ matchup data. Capela’s the only true center on the Hawks’ roster. Every other option, from upsold power forwards John Collins and Danilo Gallinari to rookie Onyeka Okongwu, is simply too small to hold up against Embiid. And none of them can do much with Embiid’s fully weaponized face-up game, replete with an evil array of upfakes, jab steps, pivots, and rip-throughs, all deployed to catch a defender leaning precisely the wrong way at precisely the wrong time to give Joel precisely the look he wants.

The results have been awfully impressive: 79 points on 46 shot attempts and 31 free throws, good for an absurdly efficient .662 true shooting percentage, in 73 total minutes over two games. Again: Embiid tore his meniscus nine days ago.

Perhaps equally impressive, though, is what Embiid was able to do on the other end of the court in Game 2.

Young carved the Sixers up in Game 1, getting wherever he wanted to go in the pick-and-roll and logging 24 drives to the basket. He scored 19 of his 35 points and dished five of his 10 assists off of those forays into the lane, beating his man—chiefly Danny Green—off the bounce, drawing help, and either lofting a lob to Capela or firing a dart to a waiting shooter beyond the arc, fueling a hot-shooting performance that saw the Hawks drill 20 of their 47 triple tries. The Sixers couldn’t just hang back in their customary drop coverages and allow Young to get everything he wanted: drives for floaters and lobs, kickout passes to the 3-point line, fouls, and his own 3-point tries. They had to take something away.

So Doc switched things up, giving 6-foot-11 Defensive Player of the Year finalist Ben Simmons the primary assignment on the 6-foot-1 Young. When Simmons needed a breather or he wanted to give Young a different look, Doc turned to Matisse Thybulle, giving the young clampdown artist 24 minutes of floor time, his largest workload this postseason, with the express purpose of having him bother the Hawks point guard everywhere he went. Their length, athleticism, and activity—combined with Philly’s bigs committing to coming up much higher on the floor, often at or near the level of the screens Atlanta was setting for Young—helped limit the amount of space he could play in, making it tougher on him to get all the way into the lane, to survey the floor, or to draw an accurate bead on the rim when pulling up:

Lurking behind those point-of-attack defenders, though, was Embiid, who did a masterful job in Game 2 of quarterbacking the coverage. When Young beat his man to reach the lane, Embiid was there to stop the ball, usher him out of the paint, and harass him on the perimeter. When Young got off the ball and deputized one of his teammates to create, Embiid retained his balance, reassessed the threat levels, and deterred a new would-be driver from testing him at the tin. He showed on a screen at the 3-point arc, then recovered all the way back to the rim to break up a lob to Capela. He dropped back and tried to play cat-and-mouse, giving ground as he kept Young from going to his floater while also preventing the alley-oop until Young got deep enough into the paint to get enveloped and prodded into coughing the ball up. He was massive, he was quick, he was everywhere:

The combination of Embiid’s looming menace and the ball pressure of Simmons, Thybulle, and Green helped coerce Young into four turnovers, and Atlanta into 17 as a team, which led to 28 Sixers points. “They’ve just got big, long defenders,” Hawks guard Kevin Huerter told reporters after the game. “They’ve got guys that get in passing lanes, they’ve got guys that reach a lot, and we’ve just got to take better care of the ball. We’ve got to make better decisions.”

That might extend to decisions about whether or not to poke the bear. When Young and Capela did find their timing and range, hooking up for a lob directly on top of Embiid’s head, they let loose some yawps and woofs about it:

On the ensuing possession, Embiid immediately called for the ball in the post, bull-rushed Capela like an All-Pro edge rusher, returned the favor by throwing one down right on Clint’s cruller, and promptly let him hear about it all the way back up the court (possibly in French):

That’s Embiid: irrepressible and unstoppable, unwilling to accept disrespect without dishing more than his fair share back out, extremely willing to accept the challenge of crushing your finely tuned defense into fish-tank gravel, and capable of completely commanding the game on both ends of the court. It’s what made him such a compelling MVP candidate, even as he missed 21 games due to various injuries; it’s what makes him such a breathtaking watch, as he tries to lift Philadelphia to its first conference finals berth in 20 years, and its first championship in nearly 40.

He’ll have his work cut out for him. Even with Embiid going off, the Hawks still leave Philadelphia with a split, and had chances to steal Game 2. Philly’s defense limited Young, but he still totaled 21 points and 11 assists, and had some pretty clean looks and playmaking opportunities that just came up short.

“Obviously Ben was guarding me a little bit more tonight, but I had a lot of shots that I was open and they just didn’t fall,” Young told reporters after the game.

The Hawks fought all the way back from an 18-point first-half deficit to take an 80-79 lead with 2:40 to go in the third quarter. It took an out-of-body experience by now-formerly-scuffling guard Shake Milton—who had scored 17 total points through Philly’s first five playoff games, and scored 14 on 4-for-5 3-point shooting in just 14 minutes after Doc dusted him off late in the third quarter—to kick-start a 31-9 run that put the game away. The Sixers probably can’t count on another hero turn like that as the series shifts and they hit the road.

They’ll be able to count on Embiid, though. He’s the engine behind a starting five that’s scoring a scorching 139.4 points per 100 possessions through two games, and the back-line anchor of a defense good enough to tamp down a talented Hawks team that had been flying high entering Tuesday; I’m not sure any player makes a bigger impact for his team on both ends of the floor every night. This, of course, was the crux of the argument for Embiid winning MVP. It wasn’t enough to earn him that trophy. A few more performances like this, though, could earn him the chance to play for the one he wants even more.