The burden that Joel Embiid has to carry is visible in every slow step he takes on the court. Throughout the Philadelphia 76ers’ first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets, the 25-year-old has looked more like a suburban dad than a world-class athlete. Yet his ailing left knee has held up for the most part, and Embiid himself hasn’t buckled under the weight of the moment.
In 31 minutes of the Sixers’ 112-108 victory in Game 4 in Brooklyn on Saturday, Embiid scored 31 points, and finished with 16 rebounds, seven assists, two steals, and six blocks. The Nets controlled most of the game, and seemed well on their way to knotting up the series when Jimmy Butler got tossed for mixing it up with Jared Dudley in the third quarter. But Embiid scored 20 points in the second half, and one-touched a loose ball underneath the basket to Mike Scott for the game-clinching 3 with 20 seconds to play.
Embiid was at the center of everything for the Sixers, but he crucially stepped out of the spotlight when things got chippy. With 7:48 left in the third, Embiid tomahawked Jarrett Allen as the Nets center attacked the basket. Embiid got mostly ball, but it looked worse and a whistle was blown. Then, Jared Dudley got involved
Surprisingly, Embiid walked away as the shoving ensued, and was only given a Flagrant 1 foul (his second of the series); Dudley and Butler were both thrown out for escalating the incident.
“First of all, he’s a nobody,” Embiid said of Dudley in his postgame interview with TNT. “When opponents do stuff like that, they’re trying to get us out of our game. I’m too valuable for that.”
It looked like the Nets had won that faceoff, too, as it cost Philly Butler but Brooklyn lost only a role player in Dudley. But Embiid helped the Sixers keep the Nets’ lead from ballooning, and when he finally had to take a breather, the remaining Sixers kept it close enough. Without Embiid, the Sixers have seemed disorganized—outside of a strong stretch of small ball with Ben Simmons at center to close Game 3, there’s been a lot of feeding Boban Marjanovic and Greg Monroe. Until hitting a clutch 3 in the final minute, JJ Redick had made only two of his 10 shots on the day. (As a team, the Sixers shot 30.8 percent from deep.) With Embiid in, there’s at least a plan, even if it often involves dumping the ball down to him and hoping he can create magic. What makes Embiid great is that he often does just that. He came in with 5:52 left in the fourth quarter, and, through exhaustion and pain, proceeded to score eight straight points. When Embiid was on the court, Philly outscored Brooklyn by 18. That’s MVP-level value.
Brooklyn helped the final result along thanks—or rather, no thanks—to some questionable shots from D’Angelo Russell and a sudden reluctance to go away from Caris LeVert. The latter was moved up to the starting lineup and scored 15 of his 25 points before halftime. After struggling upon his return from an ugly early-season leg injury, LeVert looked like the Nets’ best player again; and with Butler no longer patrolling the perimeter for most of the second half, LeVert and Brooklyn’s other dynamic ball handlers seemed in line for a field day. Instead, the young team fumbled the opportunity—literally in Russell’s case, as the guard turned over an inbound pass on the sideline with about three minutes to go.
Saturday’s game could have gone either way—a made shot here, a turnover there, and the Nets could be even in this series. The difference was Embiid, and to no one’s surprise, he punctuated the performance in postgame interviews:
Even if Philly takes care of business, it won’t come out of this series unscathed. Embiid isn’t 100 percent, and Philly’s rotation keeps getting exposed (the six bench players they used scored 22 points; the Nets’ four bench players scored 23). They are winning because of their top-level talent, and the opposition’s own top-level talent will only get better the longer they march on. It has not been pretty, but this may just be the way they’re going to have to do it if they plan to go deep into the postseason.