It took 924 days, but Philadelphia 76ers fans finally saw the violence at the rim that they were promised when former general manager Sam Hinkie selected Joel Embiid 3rd overall in the 2014 draft, joining Nerlens Noel (6th overall in 2013) as the core of his young frontcourt.
But injuries got in the way. The expected recovery time for Embiid’s fractured navicular bone wiped away the 2014-15 season, then the 2015-16 season was lost to the unexpected second surgery Embiid required on the same injury. The pairing was further delayed by Noel’s surgery during training camp to address an inflamed plica, then delayed once more due to Brett Brown‘s desire to experiment with lineups that included Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together.
That’s not to say last night was necessarily a first, technically, as Embiid and Noel did play 5 minutes together, spread across two different games, prior to Friday night’s 110-106 loss to the Boston Celtics. Even last night Brown only deployed the frontcourt for a grand total of 3 minutes, with the Sixers outscoring the Celtics by a whopping 6-5 in that run. Franchise altering it was not.
But what Sixers fans were treated to for the first time since that fateful June day, which feels like a lifetime ago, was 48 minutes of elite interior defense. With Jahlil Okafor receiving the first DNP-CD of his NBA (and college) career, Embiid and Noel both eclipsed the 20 minute plateau in the same game for the first time.
The results, on first glance, weren’t anything special, with the Celtics scoring 110 points on the night.
Yet when you dig deeper, there were some encouraging signs. The Celtics, by and large, made their living from the three-point line, connecting on 19 of their 40 three-point attempts on the night, a franchise record. Some of that was related to Embiid and Noel directly, as they (Embiid specifically) struggled to adapt to playing an elite pick-and-pop center like Al Horford. Chalk that up to a learning experience.
Yet some of the expected benefits to having two such shot blocking talents in your lineup were evident as well. The Celtics shot just 34 percent inside of the three-point line, and shot just 7-20 on field goal attempts within 5′ of the basket. Turns out, having big men make timely rotations has value.
The Celtics average 17.2 made field goals within 5′ of the basket per game, connecting at a 58.1 percent rate on the season.
The Sixers jumped the Celtics in the first half, building up a 62-51 halftime lead behind 17 points from rookie Joel Embiid, playing one of their more exciting, complete halves of basketball, against a quality opponent, that the team has put together in recent memory.
Embiid kicked off the contest with the game’s first two points, a powerful dunk in transition off a nice feed from T.J. McConnell, starting once again for the injured Sergio Rodriguez (left ankle sprain).
It was McConnell’s fourth start of the season, and he gave them yet another quality effort, making him four-for-four in that regard. The second year guard out of Arizona finished with a career-high 17 assists on the night, while also chipping in with 9 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and just 2 turnovers for the game.
McConnell became just the 4th 76ers player since 1983-84 to record at least 17 assists in a game, and the first since Andre Miller in 2008. Maurice Cheeks, who recorded 19 in a game against Washington back in 1987 and 18 against the Spurs in 1986, is the only player in the basketball-reference database to have accomplished the feat twice for the 76ers.
In the first half, the 76ers overcame the Celtics hot perimeter shooting by making 42.9 percent of their own three-point attempts, with superb ball movement, dominant play from Embiid, a good job defending the paint, and active hands on the perimeter, forcing the Celtics into 11 first-half turnovers.
The Sixers weren’t able to sustain that momentum in the second half, as they’re frequently apt to do. The Celtics strong defensive backcourt eventually gave the Sixers’ perimeter players fits, especially when forced to go with Nik Stauskas as the backup point guard. Embiid got into foul trouble, which limited him to just 11 second-half minutes. The proverbial wheels fell off.
Still, for a time it looked as if the Sixers might be able to win that game they never win. Joel Embiid frolicked down the lane and threw down his second thundering dunk of the game, his only made field goal in the second half, to pull the Sixers to within 2, 103-101, with 2 minutes left to play. Moments later, after a defensive stand highlighted by Embiid spiking the ball to the ground in an emphatic block, Embiid went to the line to calmly sink two free throws and give the Sixers a fleeting 106-104 lead with 28 seconds remaining, holding his fingers up to whisper to a suddenly-silent TD Garden crowd, playing the villain role perfectly. It was a sequence of events lost in time because of yet another example of the Sixers’ struggles to close out a game.
Embiid was part of those struggles, too. He was the primary defender on 3 of the 4 three-point attempts Al Horford sank in the 4th quarter, all of which felt like back-breakers at the time, none more-so than the game winner with 17 seconds remaining. Embiid struggled to chase Horford through screens, got burned on an almost impossible to stop pick-and-pop game between Isaiah Thomas and Horford, and left Horford wide open for the game winner to over-help on the driving Kelly Olynyk for the game-winner.
“I think that’s a challenge for Joel Embiid, guarding a stretch 5. You have a 7-foot-2 rookie that’s having to figure out Al Horford picking and popping, and it’s one of the dilemma’s,” Brown told reporters after the game. “I think it’s a tremendous learning situation for Joel guarding a very unusual type of 5-man.”
Not to mention the bad pass Embiid made on the Sixers’ own game-winning attempt on the next possession, a possession which was further done in by Ersan Ilyasova‘s over-happy trigger finger, sensing a foul which wasn’t there as he clanged a lean-in baseline shot with 8.6 seconds remaining.
Sixers fans are probably sick of hearing about “good” losses, but when you divorce yourself from the last 30 seconds worth of a bungling mess, this was a good game of basketball. Coming off wins in consecutive games against the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Denver Nuggets, with a 5-6 record in games in which Joel Embiid and Ersan Ilyasova start together, and with the potential shown in 48 minutes of violence at the rim, the Sixers finally seem like they’re starting to find an identity.
Ben Simmons Traveled with the Team
Ben Simmons, the 1st overall pick in last year’s draft, traveled with the team to Boston. It was the first time Simmons joined the team for a road game.
Prior to the game, Simmons ran through some pick and roll drills with the Sixers big men. Videos of that are below.
Brett Brown on Jahlil Okafor’s DNP-CD
Sixers head coach Brett Brown has struggled to find a way to get all of his big men minutes, and his strategy in doing so has changed considerably as the season has progressed.
When Nerlens Noel first returned to the lineup, Brown was in the midst of the Joel Embiid / Jahlil Okafor experiment. That, combined with Noel’s need to return to game shape, led to very inconsistent minutes for Noel, who played 10 or fewer minutes in his first 5 games of the season, with a couple of DNP-CD’s sprinkled in for good measure.
Now it appears as if it’s Jahlil Okafor’s turn to ride the pine, with Brown saying earlier in the week that he was going to force feed the Noel/Embiid pairing. That hasn’t happened as of yet — the two have still only played 8 minutes together on the season — but it does appear that it is Noel’s turn to receive (relatively) heavy minutes, at Okafor’s expense.
Noel finished the night with 13 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 assists, and 2 steals in 25 minutes off the bench as he threw down lobs, sprinted out in transition, jumped passing lanes, and cut off rollers to the basket. It was a vintage Noel performance.
The flip side, of course, is that playing Noel 25 minutes left none for Jahlil Okafor, especially against a Boston team that spreads the floor so well, and Okafor received his first DNP-CD of his NBA, and likely basketball playing, career.
“We’re learning. It’s difficult to play three bigs in a 48 minute window. Sometimes it’s difficult to pair up two bigs,” Brown said after the game. “We decided to rotate the group because of that.”
This could very well just be a switch in evaluation, with Okafor getting his chance to play with the current personnel (Embiid included) earlier, and now shifting their focus to evaluating Noel. Or it could be a change in what Brown’s looking for out of his backup 5-man. Only time will tell, which sets up an interesting six weeks between now and the trade deadline.
With Joel Embiid’s 23-point performance, his fifth consecutive 23+ point outing, his scoring average is now at 19.3 points in 25.1 minutes per game.
Considering how well he’s playing of late (20.5 points per game since his playing time restriction was bumped up to 28 minutes per game in late November, 23.9 points per game over his last 7 games), there’s a very real chance Embiid could finish the season averaging 20+ points per game, despite playing less than 30 minutes per game.
If that happens, it would make Embiid just the 9th player in NBA history to score more than 20 points in less than 30 minutes per game, and the first since the 1990-91 season.
Quote of the Night
Before the game, Embiid embraced the challenge of switching on to Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics’ speedy point guard.
“I hope I get switched on to him. He’s fast and he’s kind of short, so it’s harder, but it would be a great test for me,” Embiid told reporters.
Thomas heard, and he had some words of his own for Embiid, which he delivered during an exchange caught on camera.
“Nobody can stop me on a switch, especially not your big ass,” Thomas told ESPN’s Chris Forsberg after the game. “[Embiid] started laughing so I said, ‘I seen what you said earlier,’ because I got him on one.”
The Sixers next game is Sunday afternoon against the Brooklyn Nets, finishing off a road-heavy portion of their schedule where they played 6 out of 7 games away from the Wells Fargo Center.
The Nets have struggled this season, posting an 8-27 record and losing 10 of their last 11 games.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.