Sixers Fall To Thunder 103-97, But Embiid Worth The Wait

Despite 20 points and 7 rebounds from Joel Embiid, the Sixers fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder 103-97, blowing a late fourth quarter lead. That's okay. The Process has arrived.

Joel Embiid's 20 points and 7 rebounds weren't enough as the Sixers fell to the Thunder 103-97 | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid’s 20 points and 7 rebounds weren’t enough as the Sixers fell to the Thunder 103-97 | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers lost the season opener to the Oklahoma City Thunder by a score of 103-97, blowing a six point fourth quarter lead as they watched Russell Westbrook and friends pull away in the final minute of play.

In some ways the game felt like it was following a script that was all too familiar to Sixers fans over the last few years, building up a relatively big lead only to lose it as Brett Brown‘s young team failed to execute, on both ends of the court, down the stretch.

Some of that was certainly the case, with bad shots and missed defensive rotations in the final three minutes plaguing what had been entertaining and inspiring play during the first forty five.

There was one ingredient to last night’s game that has been missing for quite some time, however: hope.

That hope naturally springs from Joel Embiid, the Sixers gargantuan 7-foot-2 center with the personality of a court jester and the competitiveness of a go-to NBA scorer, with the skill to back it up.

The rookie made his regular season NBA debut last night, the first meaningful game he’s played in over the last 970 days. Embiid was electric, finishing with 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocked shots in just 22 minutes of action, including the last six for the Sixers in a primetime showdown with Russell Westbrook that had Sixers fans in a frenzy.

In many ways, for many people, last night’s Sixers game was less a regular season game of basketball and more a just reward for the last few year’s of faith.

That was most obviously true for Joel Embiid himself. Since a stress fracture in his back ended his only season at Kansas prematurely, Embiid has fractured the navicular bone in his right foot, required two surgeries to try to correct the injury, lost a younger brother to a tragic car accident, and admittedly considered quitting the sport as he tried to cope with his loss, a human aspect to this sport, and to public figures in general, frequently lost in the box score and post game commentary.

“There are times I get emotional,” head coach Brett Brown said before the game when talking about Embiid’s journey to this point. “I lived every second of that journey with him, good times and bad. For him to arrive now where he is playing his first NBA game, knowing the work and the uncertainty and I’m sure the emotional strain that he would have went through just wondering if he is going to play again, to see him arrive now, tonight is a special night. I’m so proud of him.”

With 10:17 left in the game Embiid had Steven Adams of the Thunder posted up deep down low, flashing a gorgeous step-through move that few 10-year veterans are capable of pulling off, much less a rookie playing his first meaningful game in over half of a presidential term, to draw the foul. As Embiid stepped to the line the crowd, at a fever pitch the Wells Fargo Center so rarely sees these days, serenaded him with chants of MVP, a growing tradition in basketball that at times seems borderline absurd, but in the moment felt all too deserved.

Embiid would draw another foul on the Sixers next offensive possession, sinking another two free throws as a large chunk of 20,487 fans in attendance belted out chants of “Trust the Process”, an ode to former general manager Sam Hinkie‘s controversial rebuild, started by an innocuous quote from former guard Tony Wroten and popularized the 76ers podcast The Rights to Ricky Sanchez to express support of Hinkie’s rebuilding strategy. The phrase has since morphed into support for the Sixers’ new franchise player, Joel Embiid, who recently dubbed himself “The Process”.

“The atmosphere was great. Having the fans show up for the first game of the season, it was special,” Embiid said after the game. “That’s my motto, trust the process. That was great.”

It’s a nickname that fits, even if it is one the organization may be hoping to avoid because of its link to a general manager they’re so desperately trying to distance themselves from. It ties the fans to the charismatic Embiid in yet another way as they take joy in the success of a player they waited so long to see, but who represents the aforementioned hope that had been lacking in the organization for more than a decade.

You have to wonder what Sam Hinkie and his former staff were thinking as they watched the fans revel in the reward for the risks that they took, the dogged pursuit of true difference makers that they put their reputations on the line for.

On the one hand, the path they chose to pursue will look better as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons flash their dominant potential. The three years “wasted” on the grand experiment become much easier to stomach when it’s in the rear view mirror and the rewards now much more obvious.

On the other hand, watching the crowd belt out “Trust the Process” as Embiid yells “you can’t guard me!” to Steven Adams — one of the stronger, tougher post defenders Embiid will face — has to have been tough in many ways, as the prize of the rebuild dazzles fans across the nation mere months after the architects of that approach were unceremoniously shown the door, despite being on the precipice of the strategy yielding tangible, exhilarating, and potentially franchise changing return. The two of them, Hinkie and Embiid, will forever be linked, and Embiid adopting The Process as his nickname is perfect because of it.

Last spring, as the Sixers changed management at the top of the basketball operations department and eventually won the NBA’s annual draft lottery for the first time in 20 years, Scott O’Neil, the CEO of the team, adopted the phrase of Process to Progress to signify the distinction, as if there’s any way to separate the progress the team will make over the coming years from the results of The Process, either the player or the philosophy.

In truth, the slogan should be process to Process, as the organizational philosophy that targeted acquiring franchise players at any and all costs finally yields a player capable of being built around, the type of player the organization drafted just once (Allen Iverson, 1996) between the time Charles Barkley was drafted in 1984 and when Hinkie began his rebuild in 2013, an eon of hopelessness in a league with rules that make it more likely for a star like Kevin Durant to sign with the 73-win Warriors than the dozens of have-not NBA franchises.

Last night, for everyone involved, was a celebration of that transition, from process to Process, and the unfamiliar presence of hope that had been absent from the organization for far too long.

Ben Simmons not thinking about sitting out season
Before the game Sixers rookie forward Ben Simmons talked to the media for the first time since he suffered a fracture in his right foot during the Sixers final training camp scrimmage.

Since that time there has been speculation over whether or not Simmons could sit out the entire year recovering from the injury. The rookie was quick to shoot that talk down, saying there’s been no discussion about sitting out the entire season.

“I’m working every day to get back,” Simmons explained. “As soon as they tell me I can play, I’ll be out there.”

In the meantime, Simmons will use the opportunity to rebuild his jump shot, getting stronger physically, study film, and becoming a student of the game.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.