Joel Embiid hasn’t been the same since his scoreless night in Toronto only a week ago.
It’s apparent on paper, summed up by double-digit stats in three straight games and in flashy Jumbotron highlight reels met by the roar of a jam-packed Wells Fargo Center.
But for a Sixers squad that spent much of November falling short of expectations, the star center’s change in mentality has signified a collective flip of a switch, a reminder that championship contention requires unmatched intensity.
The 119-116 win over the Indiana Pacers on Saturday showed the critical role the imposing 7-foot-2, 260-pound big man can play for his team, coach Brett Brown said, and it’s an invaluable one.
“That is a disposition, a mentality to me, more than a stat,” Brown said. “Joel Embiid has a distinctive mentality. None of us can underestimate the hurt he felt after the Toronto game. He felt like he let us down, and we have seen him respond.”
That response on Saturday: 32 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists in 33 minutes. From the line he was 15-for-15, including a pair of foul shots in the final seconds that, thanks to the clutch Ben Simmons steal that followed, accounted for the game’s final points.
Asked about the free-throw stat after the game, Embiid credited the new mentality his coach referenced, and indicated he hopes to carry that perspective into the heart of the season.
“You know, since the Toronto game, I kind of changed my mindset about the whole season,” Embiid said. “I had not been as aggressive as I was last year.
“The last couple games, it was just being aggressive, being more physical, creating the contact, causing whoever is guarding me to react to it.”
Embiid’s struggles with conditioning and discipline are well-known and widely discussed by a rabid fan base that is known to feed off Embiid’s swagger, and vice versa. After Friday’s ugly 101-95 win in New York over the Knicks, there was speculation that Embiid might get Saturday off to rest, like he did earlier this month when the Sixers played the Orlando Magic in the second of back-to-back games.
But that wasn’t the case Saturday, and the decision, at least at the moment, paid dividends in a close matchup.
Back in friendly, fired-up territory, Embiid recorded his third straight game with 20 or more points and double-digit rebounds, and his 12th double-double of the season.
His night, of course, was not without flaws. He was called for three fouls, including a Flagrant 1 early when he hit Pacers power forward Domantas Sabonis hard in the head with his arm as he went for the ball.
He and Sabonis were battling all night, but Embiid secured the upper hand when he drew a fourth-quarter foul that took the Pacer out of the game, much to the enjoyment of Sixers fans belting out “Hit the Road, Jack” and vigorously waving goodbye.
Tobias Harris, who had 22 points overall and 14 in the fourth quarter alone, said Embiid’s intensity rubs off not only on fans but on teammates, too.
“We’re best when Joel is that aggressive,” Harris said. “He’s a beast. You can’t guard him down there. You either foul or hope he misses it, and that’s about it.”