MILWAUKEE — “In being the best player in the world, I just intend to keep coming out every single night, just play hard. Trying to get wins. Trying to win a championship.”
Joel Embiid said this after playing perhaps the best game of his short career. The Sixers beat the Nets in a wild game Thursday. Without fellow All-Star Ben Simmons, who has a back injury, Embiid scored a season-high 39 points, played a season-high 41 minutes, and was plus-24, his second-best mark in his 40 games.
On Thursday he was, for two hours, the best player in the world.
On Saturday he was just pretty good. Embiid scored 17 points and pulled 11 rebounds in 29 minutes in the 119-98 loss, his playing time curtailed by foul trouble.
Afterward, he acknowledged that he wasn’t exactly the best version of himself, much less the best player in the world — the sort of player who compensates for the loss of another star. Ben Simmons left Saturday’s game after 5 minutes. Embiid played through his own back issues, which have plagued him “the past few days,” and surfaced at the end of the first half, when Embiid grasped his lower left back as the buzzer sounded.
Great players do play hurt. He’s getting there.
“I’ve got to be that guy. The guy I said I was going to change (back into) for the second half of the season. I missed a lot of easy ones. I’ve just got to be myself. Just be dominant. Carry the team,” he said. “I’m going to lead them.”
This is the continuing case with Embiid. He is peerless one night, ordinary the next. The best players are the best every night. Embiid’s conditioning, his inexperience, his immaturity, and his occasional bouts with general ennui keep him from reaching the level where Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James reside.
Still, with three All-Star appearances, and with his status as the only real two-way center in the league, and with a combination of unmatched athleticism and skill — he’s the biggest bully with real long-range touch in NBA history — Embiid’s boast isn’t real, but it isn’t impossible.
“I believe he has a chance to be,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said before they faced the Bucks on Saturday. “I don’t think he’s that far off.”
Brown smiled. He’d been waiting two days for this question, and he was ready.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer was not ready for the question. “Bud” rolled his eyes at the prospect:
Is “The Process” better than everyone else, including his “Greek Freak,” who is the reigning MVP?
“[Embiid is] a great player,” Budenholzer said. “That’s the beauty of our league. To say who is the best, and so on and so forth, is not for me. And I don’t think it’s that important. There’s some really unique talents, and he’s one of them.”
Before the game, the Freak declined comment when told of Embiid’s claim of being the “best player in the world.” After the game, disingenuously, Antetokounmpo claimed ignorance.
Brown embraced the chance to comment. In fact, he seemed pleased that Embiid is, well, back to being Embiid.
Since his two-game suspension for starting a fight and engaging in a vulgar Twitter war with Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game Five, Embiid played with a more measured, less passionate demeanor. There were times when Embiid didn’t play like the best player in the city; Simmons’ charge to the All-Star elevated his status in the eyes of many.
But Embiid has been a monster since Feb. 9. That was the night he shushed and cussed Sixers fans who had booed the team during that night’s win over the Chicago Bulls, then suggested on Instagram that he would like to join former teammate Jimmy Butler in Miami. That was the second of four straight wins the Sixers took into Milwaukee.
Brown has coached Embiid since he exited college six years ago. Brown was there when Embiid dubbed himself “The Process" after sitting out two seasons, and before he’d played a single NBA game. He was there when Embiid won a battle with his own team and trademarked “The Process” last year.
That’s why Brown smiles. He figures a happy Joel might be a more productive Joel.
“Is it is his style,” Brown said. "I have learned that this motivates him. If this is his trigger, if this is what gets Joel going ... "
It could become a coaching tool for Brown.
“I will probably use it myself,” said Brown, envisioning the moment when he says: " ‘The greatest player in the world doesn’t do that.’ Yeah, I can see me maybe using that."
Joking aside, Embiid can completely dominate a game on both ends. He did so early Saturday night against the Bucks.
Simmons, who missed the previous game with back tightness, aggravated the injury and exited early in the first quarter. Embiid kept the Sixers in the game in the first half with 12 points, six rebounds and outstanding defense, his usual indicator of excellence when he is excellent.
The scouting report stressed that Antetokounmpo prefers to spin back to his right. Midway through the second quarter “The Freak” charged down the lane, feinted left, spun right. Right into Embiid’s waiting chest. Antetokounmpo (31 points, 17 rebounds on Saturday) had tried a similar move in the first quarter, with the same result, only that time he bounced off Embiid and hit the floor. He then raised his hand and asked for a substitute.
Late in the second quarter, Embiid blocked a two-handed Brook Lopez dunk ... from behind. It was a defensive play of pure, instinctive genius.
The Sixers needed more of that, but Embiid picked up two fouls in the first 46 seconds of the third quarter, and so he sat, which unleashed Antetokounmpo, and that let the Bucks rampage.
After all, how were the Sixers supposed to compete with the NBA’s best team without the Best Player in the World?
Brown believes Embiid uses outrageous statements as benchmarks.
“What we all should understand and acknowledge is, there’s always been a mischievous side. There’s always been a playful side to Joel Embiid,” Brown said. “And in many ways, he uses that as his own compass. It keeps him on track. He doesn’t hoist out things and not intend on owning it.
“That’s his world. That’s what he chooses to do. And, you know, good luck to him.”
He’s going to need it.