PHILADELPHIA — As Joel Embiid has emerged from two seasons wiped out by injuries to begin his professional career, he has become one of the faces of the modernization and evolution of the center position. By pairing his massive 7-foot frame with the ability to space the floor beyond the 3-point arc, Embiid is one of several star big men around the league capable of scoring from anywhere on the court.
Recently, though, Embiid has publicly chafed at having to spend too much time on the perimeter, spacing the floor. Yes, he understands Philadelphia needs every ounce of shooting it can get to make its shooting-challenged trio of Embiid, Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons as effective as it can be offensively.
But it doesn’t change the fact that, if given the option between camping out beyond the arc or in the paint, his choice is clear: Let him go to work down low.
Embiid did so Saturday night. And his performance — a dominant 27-point, 11-rebound effort — not only led to an easy 126-101 win for the Sixers over the undermanned Toronto Raptors but showed why his desire to be on the block more often might also be the right way for Philadelphia to operate moving forward.
“I don’t like shooting 3s,” Embiid said. “I only do it because of the spacing that we have, and sometimes I have to take them. I have to be on the perimeter, just getting guys open, because of all the attention that sometimes it seems are presented to me.
“I don’t like shooting 3s. I only do it because I got to make it work, but the last couple games, mainly the last two games, my mindset has been, if I’m on the perimeter, it doesn’t mean that I have to shoot 3s. Even if I’m wide open, I think I had a couple of opportunities tonight and last game against the [New York] Knicks where I could’ve shot it, but I took one dribble and I took a midway shot.
“That’s what I’m comfortable with and it’s working.”
Embiid is right: it is working. After taking at least one 3-pointer in his first 31 games this season — including going 0-for-6 from deep in a blowout loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Monday — he didn’t take a single one against either the Knicks on Wednesday or the Raptors on Saturday. As a result, he went a combined 20-for-32 from the field and 11-for-13 from the foul line, scoring 24 points against the Knicks to go with his 27 against the Raptors while obliterating everything, and everyone, that stands in his way.
Some of his success — and Philadelphia’s emphasis on getting him the ball inside — was reflective of something obvious: the Raptors being without both starting center Serge Ibaka and backup Jonas Valanciunas, both of whom were sidelined for Saturday night’s game because of injuries. But if Embiid had adjusted to the Raptors being forced to play small by being out on the perimeter more often, it might have played to Toronto’s advantage.
Instead, when faced with a size mismatch during the game — which, let’s be honest, is just about anytime Embiid is on the court — he made a point of turning Toronto’s defenders into rag dolls as he repeatedly steamrollered his way to the hoop.
“Well, I think they probably made a point obviously for him and Simmons to spend time at the front of the rim with our lack of size,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “He did a good job. I thought he got down there and he really got physical, too.
“I mean, he was throwing our guys around pretty good there early. I think he was making a point that you little guys can try to guard me if you want, but it’s going to be physical down there.
“He was great tonight.”
For Philadelphia to be a team that can threaten a deep playoff run, it needs to have this version of Embiid show up on a regular basis. When he’s tearing through the opposing defenses, forcing them to collapse on themselves to prevent him from going off, that opens up other lanes for his teammates to attack.
And, for a team that so clearly revolves around Embiid’s enormous personality, when he’s feeling good, his teammates — and the raucous home crowd in the City of Brotherly Love — feeds off it, as well.
“When he plays that way all the time,” Simmons said, “I think he is unstoppable.”
Playing this way — as in, not shooting from deep — allows Embiid to do something, else, too: be efficient. Although Embiid shot 36.7 percent from 3-point range two seasons ago, he shot 30.8 percent from beyond the arc last season — and is down to 27.6 percent this time around.
If he’s hitting 35 percent or more of his shots from deep, it becomes a devastating weapon in his arsenal. When he’s shooting 5-10 percent lower than that, though, things start to look a little different.
His cold shooting from the perimeter is also preventing Embiid from doing something he says he should be doing every single game: shooting over 50 percent from the field. The past two games, he’s shooting 62.5 percent.
“I feel like my efficiency is getting back to where it should be,” Embiid said. “Part of the problem that I see with myself is, I should never shoot under 50 percent and I do it a lot.
“It’s all about getting my efficiency back and I feel like shooting 3s had a lot to do with me shooting under 50 percent.”
That said, this is Joel Embiid we are talking about. So when the man who can never help himself was asked about seeming to enjoy shooting from deep in the past — namely when he was making more of them — he admitted it isn’t going to go away forever.
But, for now, as he has been struggling to make them, he has changed his tactics.
“I mean, I wouldn’t say I don’t totally like [shooting them],” Embiid said. “I mean, it’s cool and all that. But when you look at yourself and see how dominant you can be inside … it doesn’t matter.
“I can score in so many ways. [But] it’s also about just feeling comfortable. Right now, I’m not feeling comfortable being in that situation. I’m sure I’m gonna take some. I’m sure some games I’m going to take 10, some games I’m going to take 15 … you’ll see.”
Embiid had put an added emphasis on this game after struggling against Toronto earlier this month, and was disappointed he didn’t get the chance to face Ibaka and Valanciunas in this one because of it.
Tuesday, Embiid and the Sixers will travel to Boston to face the Celtics in a Christmas Day showdown, where he’ll get another crack against a player — Al Horford — who has given him fits in the past. Unlike Ibaka and Valanciunas, Horford, who has missed the past seven games because of patellofemoral pain syndrome, is now probable for Sunday’s game in Boston against the Charlotte Hornets, and — assuming he has no setbacks — will be on the court against Embiid on Christmas.
“I love playing against those guys,” Embiid said. “They’re physical. I like it. I like the physicality, I like the toughness. It’s fun. It makes basketball fun.
“Al is another one … he’s always had his way against us. He’s such a great guy, a veteran, knows how to play the game.
“I’m excited to go out there, and on Christmas Day, too. That’s special. It’s going to be exciting, and we’re going to have a blast.”
If Embiid plays this way against Boston, the only ones who won’t be having fun will be Horford and the other Celtics tasked with trying to slow him down.