There were moments on Friday night when you looked at the court and you couldn’t help but flash back. You saw the fractured foot and the setbacks. You saw the pull-up threes and the dribbles off the knee. You saw the Shirley Temples, the tweets, the playground dunks on the South Philly randos, the midnight jogs through the Center City streets. You looked at the Man in the Mask and you saw the kid that he used to be.
It’s easy to forget, isn’t it? On nights like this, in situations like this, throughout performances like this, those early years start to feel like they were the prologue to somebody else’s story. You watch Joel Embiid walk into a building and invigorate it like few performers ever have, you watch him step onto a court and impact it like few players ever have, and you have to remind yourself — consciously, almost verbally remind yourself — that there was a point in time when the only thing bigger than his potential was the doubt about whether he would ever grow up enough to reach it. Once upon a time, Embiid seemed destined to drown in his own tantalizing curiosity. That time is no more.
The Wells Fargo Center has seen plenty of scoring efforts that were more electric. It has seen more than a handful of instances of greater individual dominance. It has seen bigger shots, and tighter spots, and taller mountains of adversity overcome. Yet by the end of the 76ers’ 99-79 win over the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Friday night, you had the distinct feeling that the building had just witnessed something it had never before seen. It saw a player change the entire trajectory of a series simply by showing up.
“He’s still young, and he’s still growing up right in front of our eyes,” Sixers coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s a pretty cool thing.”
Crumple up the box score. Set it aflame. This was a legendary performance, whatever the numbers say. Eight days after an elbow left him with a broken face and a concussion, 17 days after tearing a ligament in the thumb on his shooting hand, Embiid logged 36 minutes of basketball that was far more impeccable than it had any right to be.
The stat line was pedestrian by his standards: 18 points, 11 rebounds, 5-of-12 shooting. But anybody who watched what unfolded on the court could see what his presence meant. A Sixers defense that allowed an average of 113 points while losing the series’ first two games was suddenly impenetrable. Heat center Bam Adebayo, who’d scored 47 points in Games 1 and 2, fininished Game 3 with just nine. Miami shot just 27-of-77 from the field, 7-of-30 from three. The Sixers won the rebounding battle by nine. More importantly, they won the battle of the wills.
“We needed him, and he showed up,” Sixers guard James Harden said. “And he delivered. It’s not about him scoring 30, 40 points. It’s his presence.”
The 48 hours leading up to Game 3 had left plenty of doubt about whether Embiid would even be cleared to play. He participated in a light workout on Thursday, but arrived at the arena on Friday still uncertain whether he would feel well enough to play.
“It was a struggle,” said Embiid, who was still in the NBA’s concussion protocol as the Sixers took the court for Game 2 on Wednesday, battling the aftereffects of an elbow from Raptors forward Pascal Siakam at the end of their first-round series. “Really because of the concussion and dealing with a bunch of symptoms, but I’m glad they went away and I’m glad I’m back. They cleared me [Thursday]. Today obviously was about seeing how I feel especially after working out yesterday.”
An hour-and-a-half before the game, Rivers still expressed uncertainty about his superstar’s availability. If he did play, he said, the team’s training staff would be keeping a close eye on him.
“I really didn’t have any expectations, honestly,” Rivers said. “I really didn’t know how it would shake out. I knew his presence would have an impact, so I was positive of that.”
Presence. It’s a funny word to consider with regard to Embiid. For years, he seemed more likely to be a player who was defined by his absence. Two seasons on the sidelines with a broken foot. An orbital fracture that cost him the first two playoff games of his career in 2018. A seemingly annual bout with knee or back soreness that sapped his conditioning at the worst possible time. A playoff loss to the Toronto Raptors that left him in tears.
Even now, after two straight MVP-caliber seasons and a game that seems to mature with every shift, you entered Friday feeling like you couldn’t quite believe. The broken hand, the broken face, the broken brain, the weeklong layoff, the mask. Here we were again. Same old Embiid.
But he wasn’t, and he isn’t, and by the end of a herculean effort that saw him lobby for and win a couple of crucial extra minutes of court time at the start of the fourth, Embiid had proved once and for all that he is now something far greater.
“I’ve lost a lot of time,” Embiid said. “Who knows how good I could have been at this stage of my career if I hadn’t missed those two years? But when I deal with this type of stuff, I just take it as what it is. It happens. I just have to move on. It’s unfortunate — I’ve dealt with a lot of stuff, but my mind is always focused on staying positive and doing whatever is possible. I think it’s more my motivation to try to win, to try to win the whole thing. That’s what motivates me.”
On Friday night, we saw once and for all that the kid has become a man.
» READ MORE: Live blog of the Game 3 Sixers win