PHILADELPHIA — After putting up 39 points and 16 rebounds to lead the Philadelphia 76ers to a 112-104 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, Joel Embiid declared he is the best player in the world, and that the aggression with which he played against Brooklyn was a carryover from the way he played in Sunday’s All-Star Game in Chicago.
“For sure,” Embiid said. “The All-Star Game was fun. Being there in the fourth quarter, doing my thing at the end of the game, I thought it was great.
“But the All-Star Game, just proving I’m here, I belong, and being the best player in the world, I just intend to keep coming out every single night and just play hard and trying to get wins and just go out and try to win a championship.”
Thursday’s game was a roller coaster of emotions — and, in many ways, a microcosm of Philadelphia’s regular season thus far. The Sixers jumped out to a 22-6 lead over the Nets, who found out before the game that All-Star guard Kyrie Irving will undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, only for Brooklyn to roar back with an absurd 44-8 run from the 5:45 mark of the first quarter until there was just 3:09 left in the second.
At that point, when the Sixers called timeout after a basket by Nets guard Joe Harris made the score 50-30, a cascade of boos rained down upon them, and it looked as if they were well on their way to just their third home loss of the season.
“[I was] really just trying to find answers to some of the problems,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said afterward.
Luckily for him and the Sixers, they had one very large solution: give the ball to Embiid, and get out of the way. Philadelphia eventually managed to climb out of the hole it dug for itself thanks to Embiid’s extremely broad shoulders, as he took just one 3-pointer and instead spent the game mauling whomever the Nets tried to throw his way inside.
Embiid said that was a conscious decision. After he repeatedly bullied defenders Sunday in Chicago, he said he wanted to come out and approach Thursday’s game with exactly the same mindset.
“I’ve got to do it,” he said. “I’ve got to duck in. I’ve got to be aggressive. I had a couple offensive fouls, meaning three seconds and charge because of my duck-ins and how much I was in the paint.
“If I’ve got to get three-second calls and offensive fouls, so what? It’s just about being aggressive.”
Philadelphia needed every bit of that aggression, too, with fellow All-Star Ben Simmons sidelined due to back tightness and Al Horford, who finished with six points and three rebounds and was minus-26 in 18 minutes off the bench, continuing to struggle.
But thanks to 22 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists from Tobias Harris and 19 points from recently acquired Alec Burks — including five of Philadelphia’s nine points in overtime — the Sixers did just enough to win.
“It just really taught us to keep our composure,” Harris said of the wild back-and-forth swings throughout the game. “I said in the beginning, I really like the way that we handled the runs that they made and how they made them. We didn’t hang our head. We kind of looked each other in the eye and said, ‘We know we need to be better, we need to be more physical, we need to be better defensively and get stops.’
“And, once we did, we were able to get out in transition, run and get some easy ones. That just helped us crawl back into the game.”
That included escaping from a six-point deficit late in the fourth quarter, after two DeAndre Jordan free throws made it 101-95 with 2:16 left. The Sixers outscored the Nets 8-2 over the rest of regulation, including Embiid making four free throws in the final 35 seconds and making a brilliant defensive play to force Spencer Dinwiddie to pass on a drive in the final seconds, and then blocking Wilson Chandler’s potential winning layup to force overtime.
“Dinwiddie got a step, and I felt like I had to be smart, just showing myself but not overly commit to him and force him to pass the ball,” Embiid said. “I just had to make him pass the ball and block a shot.”
He did just that, and as a result the Sixers got a win. Now, though, the league’s best home team will go on the road and face the league’s best team — the Milwaukee Bucks — in Wisconsin on Saturday night.
So, after declaring he is the best player in the world, does Embiid see any added significance in facing Giannis Antetokounmpo on national television Saturday night?
“For sure. We beat them pretty bad in the first matchup, they got us the last one, so it’s on us to go out there and try to beat them again.”
For Philadelphia to do that, they’ll need Embiid to keep playing this way. And, if the past few days are any indication, it appears he’s ready to do just that for as long as the Sixers are playing.
“I felt like the first part of the season I was trying to make sure everybody was comfortable, tried to take a step back,” he said. “But if we are going to go somewhere, I’ve got to be one of the guys [doing it].”