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Fatherhood inspires Joel Embiid as NBA playoffs get set to begin

Regular-season awards and accolades are great. But Embiid’s legacy will be defined by what he does in the postseason.

Sixers center Joel Embiid raised his arms after beating the Los Angeles Clippers on April 16 in Philadelphia.
Sixers center Joel Embiid raised his arms after beating the Los Angeles Clippers on April 16 in Philadelphia.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Fatherhood has changed Joel Embiid.

It changed the way the 76ers center takes care of his body, what he eats, the way he approaches basketball.

Embiid and his partner, Anne de Paula, welcomed their son, Arthur Elijah de Paula Embiid, into the world in September.

He was named in memory of Embiid’s brother Arthur, who was struck by a truck and died at the age of 13 in 2014.

The four-time All-Star has said watching his son grow every day makes him better. He wants Arthur to grow up and see him at the top of his game. Embiid specificially wants Arthur to see his father as a Hall of Famer who won multiple championships. And he wants his son to be better than him.

Embiid is determined to set a good example for Arthur.

Being a father, along with last season’s All-NBA snub, has definitely helped in the evolution of the Sixers’ big man. He was motivated to prove wrong the voters who excluded him from their ballots.

These days, folks are talking more about his improved work ethic, clutch play, and ability to coexist with Ben Simmons. Once considered a poor pairing, the duo is a main reason for the Sixers’ success. Embiid has also shown maturity. Gone is the frequent social media trolling of opponents.

Embiid’s focus and drive catapulted him into an MVP candidate who helped the Sixers clinch the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed. They will find out Thursday night who they’ll face in the first round of the playoffs.

» READ MORE: Everything broke right for the Sixers. Now, they’re the smart pick for the NBA Finals. | David Murphy

The Sixers will face the winner of the Thursday’s second-round play-in game -- the Indiana Pacers vs. Washington Wizards -- in a best-of-seven series. Game 1 will be Sunday.

“It means a lot to have a No. 1 seed,” Embiid said. “And as far as being in the MVP conversation, as good as you guys think I am, I should be in there every single year whether it’s MVP or defensive player of the year. So I got to play up to that potential.”

Regular-season awards and accolades are great. But Embiid’s legacy will be defined by what he does in the postseason.

The Sixers have failed to get beyond the second round during his first three postseason appearances. It didn’t help matters that Embiid dealt with injuries in each of those appearances.

An orbital bone fracture near his left eye sidelined him for the final eight games of the 2017-18 regular season and in Games 1 and 2 of the Sixers’ opening-round playoff series with the Miami Heat. He was less than 100% in the 2019 postseason due to knee tendinitis. And last season, Embiid twisted his left ankle with four games left in the regular season. So he has never been fully healthy heading into the playoffs.

This is perhaps the healthiest Embiid has been heading into the playoffs even though he has missed 21 games due to injuries, illness and rest. He was sidelined 11 of those games with a bone bruise in his left knee.

» READ MORE: Sixers complete ‘good’ and ‘solid’ regular season with victory over Magic in game minus starters

That injury and those in the past are why the big question surrounding the Sixers this postseason is whether his body will be able to hold up through four rounds to win a title.

It will definitely need to, for the Sixers to have any chance of winning their first title since 1983.

Despite finishing second in the East, the Brooklyn Nets (48-24) are favored over the Sixers to win the conference title. A lot of that has to do with Brooklyn’s Big Three of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving.

Even though they’ve only played eight games together, there’s a belief the Big Three’s superior offensive talents will prevail.

However, the Nets struggle on the defensive end and don’t have anyone capable of stopping Embiid.

He finished fourth in the league in scoring (28.5 points per game) and 10th in rebounds (10.6). Embiid also averaged 30.7 points on 46.8% shooting and 11.3 rebounds during this season’s three games against the Nets.

So running their offense through Embiid would give the Sixers their best chance to beat Brooklyn if both teams advance to the conference finals.

Defensively, the Sixers might have to give him some help if they end up facing the Bucks in the conference finals.

Embiid had 24 points on 9-for-21 shooting to go with a three rebounds in the Sixers’ 124-117 road loss to Milwaukee on April 22. Embiid, who didn’t play in the fourth quarter, was a minus-19 in his lone appearance against the third-seeded Bucks (46-26).

Embiid didn’t appear to exert a lot of energy on defense. Either that, or someone kept blowing his assignment. Milwaukee center Brook Lopez, whom Embiid guarded, was often left alone. Taking advantage, he buried four wide-open three-pointers in the first half.

Looking tired, Embiid also took a lot of jumpers instead of posting up Lopez. He also appeared to hurt his right shoulder in the third quarter and missed the team’s April 24 game due to shoulder soreness. Embiid was sidelined with his bone bruise during the Sixers’ 109-105 overtime loss to Milwaukee on March 17 at the Wells Fargo Center.

So one has to imagine that he’ll be motivated to improve on his poor showing if the Sixers meet up with the Bucks.

But as part of Embiid’s maturation, he realizes he can’t win a title by himself. He’ll look to get teammates involved and take over when needed.

“We know what we have to do,” he said. “When the playoffs start, every play counts. As good as we were in the regular season, I think we are going to be even better in the playoffs.”

If so, this postseason will be another means of his setting a good example for Arthur.