PHILADELPHIA — Perhaps it was with his fourth and final crotch chop that Joel Embiid put his exclamation point on the Philadelphia 76ers home opener. That it came late in the third quarter didn’t quite matter. The game was already decided. This was Embiid putting together his statement of intent on a new season.
As the 76ers turn to another year in search of an elusive NBA Finals appearance, let alone a title, they still have Embiid. As long as he has been in Philadelphia, he has been the heartbeat of the franchise and a weather vane for its direction. In his 10th season, he remains its alpha and omega. Despite the tumultuous few months the Sixers have endured, Embiid seems unaffected.
Sunday night, he was more than dominant during a 126-98 blowout of the Portland Trail Blazers. He dropped 35 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and six blocks so casually that it was staggering.
But after a decade with the franchise that could have aged him by eons, Embiid let out a sign of a more unreserved self. As he played to the crowd following a layup and foul late in the third quarter, after casting off a helpless Malcolm Brogdon who tried to stop him in transition, Embiid let out the D-Generation X impression he has been known for but been too restrained to use recently. Though it may have seemed like nothing more than a jaunty taunt — and it still might be — there was also a layered meaning for Embiid.
“I used to have a lot more attitude when it came to getting into the crowd, and I feel like the last three years I’ve been focused on taking care of business and not getting into it too much,” Embiid said. “Here and there I kind of lose myself, but that’s just a different me. Sometimes I think a lot of people see it as like I might not be as interested because I’m not the young Joel that I used to be and getting into it with the crowd and raising my hands all the time. But that doesn’t mean I’m not as focused or I’m not interested or I don’t have the same passion. The passion is just different. It’s about settling of business and taking care of business and trying to win the game and doing it differently.”
35 points for the big fella. 🚀 pic.twitter.com/SSTxttoX71
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) October 30, 2023
The evolution to a more businesslike approach is understandable. Gone are the pressure-free early days of The Process, gone is the benefit of the doubt that envelops newly developing contenders, and new is the star’s burden. The 76ers, and Embiid, have seen that evolution warped for them more than most.
Sunday, at least, was a release valve. This is another new era, a pivot from Doc Rivers to Nick Nurse and, maybe soon, from James Harden. Their mercurial star guard returned to the team last week, though he was unable to make the first road trip and still has not dressed for them three games into the season. He sat courtside in a lime green hoodie, unmistakable and unmissable, after going through a film session and walk-through with the club for the first time, and as Nurse hopes to have him back in practice Tuesday as part of the ramp-up to game play. The sight of Harden on the bench, here but hoping for an exit, was not awkward, Embiid said.
At some point, that will settle itself. While that awaits, the Sixers continue to ease into their latest iteration, now 2-1 after back-to-back wins following an opening-night loss in Milwaukee. There were signs against Portland. Tyrese Maxey continued his ascent, with 26 points and 10 rebounds, and he is one of just six players averaging 30-plus points this season. Tobias Harris dropped 24 points as Nurse has made an emphasis of keeping him more involved in the offense.
There is work to be done, of course, and Embiid is quick to point that out. The defense, despite 17 blocks, can still get better, he believes. The offense, he says, can improve, too.
But he has been buoyed by the form the 76ers have taken. He noticed that the last two champions were teams centered on ball movement and sharing. In his first conversation with Nurse after the coach took the job, Embiid told him he just wanted to play good basketball regardless of his personal stats — he said this, of course, after winning two consecutive scoring titles — and believes that’s how teams win.
“Good basketball to me means cutting, moving, guys getting off the ball, the ball is moving, the ball is not sticking, we’re playing together, we’re playing as a team,” he said.
Embiid has embraced it. He is averaging 7.0 assists per game and directing traffic on the ball.
“I’m a point guard,” he said with a smile.
Embiid, of course, can be whatever he wants. In Philadelphia, he is not just the reigning MVP; he is the franchise and talented enough to warrant it.
If that was not clear, he hinted at it after the game. The 76ers had put his availability for the game in question Sunday afternoon, weighing whether to rest him on the second night of a back-to-back. Embiid went through a workout on the court early in the evening, but he never had much interest in sitting out the home opener, passing on the rest accorded to stars in that situation.
“At the end of the day, you gotta trust,” he said, “but sometimes you gotta go over the top and make your own decisions.”
The Sixers have four days off to regroup and reload. They continue their lurch into a new team under Nurse, who has installed his own systems and is reorienting the team in his image.
Maxey continues to take a larger role in the offense — his 26.2 percent usage rate is the largest of his four-year career — and has emerged as the No. 2 option, fitting into not only a capable Harden replacement but a fitting wingman alongside Embiid. A cunning playmaker from the backcourt who gives the team pace and shooting.
If Harden returns soon, the 76ers will have to assimilate him again into the team after his time away. How quickly and smoothly that occurs remains to be seen, even with a team that won 54 games together last season.
But as long as Embiid remains, the Sixers will continue to threaten in the East, and he must hope the 76ers move the right pieces in and around him as the East continues to build up at the top and the Celtics and Bucks stockpile top talent.
Sunday, playing at home for the first time during the 2023-24 season, Embiid showed again how good it all can seem.
“He was,” Nurse said, “super dominating.”
(Photo: Bill Streicher / USA Today)