The Atlanta Hawks’ doubles have come early and often, with defensemen behind them on the prowl. That’s the attention that Philadelphia 76ers center and MVP runner-up Joel Embiid demands when working low.
With less room to operate in Game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, Embiid was limited to 14 field goal attempts, along with six shots that resulted in a move to the free throw line – a reduction drastic compared to his 21 shots in Game 1 and 25 in Game 2. Despite the smaller diet, Embiid maintained his dominance and efficiency in the Sixers’ 127-111 win.
Embiid’s production was vital for the Philadelphia offense on Friday night, but his versatility as an offensive player allowed the Sixers to achieve their most impressive performance in the playoffs. One main reason why Embiid failed to match his number of attempts in Game 3? He was looking for teammates among the Hawks’ doubles teams. Three times, he hit the Sixers perimeter players for a net 3 points. Embiid had eight assists, his record since an April 19 regular-season loss to the Golden State Warriors.
“I have come a long way,” Embiid said. “But, I feel like this year the game has just slowed down for me. The way I see the ground is completely different than in previous years… I’m just trying to make the best game I can. I have to get a shot myself, there are so many ways I can do it. “
As the bigger body on the floor, Embiid provided the screens and friction that fueled the Sixers’ aggressive attack. All night long, the Hawks found themselves groomed by Embiid’s pickaxes. As a result, the Atlanta defense spent much of the night scrambling.
Joel Embiid denies Onyeka Okongwu on one side, then comes back and grabs the offensive rebound for the dunk on the other.
“It was like a downhill game tonight for us, where they were turning the corner on these screens with Embiid and [Ben] Simmons, and basically play in our paint, ”Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “We have to do a better job of helping, being on the screens – but the guards have to get through those screens. “
Remarkably, Embiid did it all with a torn meniscus in his right knee, an injury he sustained in Game 4 of the Philadelphia First Round Series against the Washington Wizards. Embiid receives regular knee treatment as he advances to the playoffs.
“Playing with a torn meniscus is not easy,” Embiid said. “The pain is going to be there. You just have to deal with it. Tonight, rolling on my ankle and falling on my back is hard. But, it’s the playoffs, I can’t complain. I’m here to. play. I have said in the past, whatever I can do, I will give my best. Even if I play injured, I still have to do my job. That’s why they pay me, and I want to win the championship. “
As heavy as Embiid wears for the Sixers, he received some welcome help from the supporting cast on Friday night.
The Sixers’ starting lineup posted a stunning net score of 39 per 100 possessions, better than the competition. Outside of that unit, Philadelphia struggled – a minus-1.9 in 231 minutes, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. In Game 3, the Sixers’ reserves shone. Backup Shooting Guard Furkan Korkmaz drained a trio of 3 points – two of them thanks to Embiid kickouts. Korkmaz finished with 14 points in 27 minutes and a plus-24 record.
“Tonight Furk was playing ball,” Sixers forward Tobias Harris said. “That’s the problem with the playoffs and the beauty of the playoffs, being on a team like ours – it could be a different guy every night that goes that extra mile. You saw in the first half that Furk got hot there, got his swag and his confidence by shooting the 3 there and had a big 3 in the fourth quarter. You love to see it. “
Korkmaz was not alone. The Sixers traveled 11 depths in Game 3, with each bench member contributing key minutes. In his second season only, Matisse Thybulle became the first defensive back and took on the task of guarding Trae Young for important periods. Shake Milton, who just as the opening game fell off coach Doc Rivers’ rotation, reappeared like a microwave on the bench. Dwight Howard manages the interior and patrols the glass for the Sixers when Embiid is off the ground, while George Hill offers a stable veteran hand to the Second Unit.
It’s a welcome development, as depth hasn’t been a strong point for the Sixers in recent seasons. The shots from their bench were erratic, the defense a measurable drop in the starting unit’s transition and transition efforts, and the flow was often gummy. The consequence has been additional pressure on Embiid.
The further the Sixers go into the summer, the more essential it will be to reliably produce reserves. With Danny Green’s prognosis uncertain, the Sixers will have to exploit the second unit for a replacement.
This incarnation of the Sixers is one of the more unorthodox contenders remaining. In an NBA dominated by high pick-and-roll and 3-pointers, they lean on the league’s most dominant post player and a non-shooting 6-foot-10 point guard unicorn. Their supporting cast is an assortment of imperfect players who have a specialty or two, but are far from complete.
Yet here are the Sixers, working their strengths and fulfilling their roles. As Embiid says, they’ve come a long way – which is encouraging because they still have a long way to go.