ORLANDO, Fla. — When asked last week about Dan Burke’s first victory as an NBA head coach, Joel Embiid could not resist another playful jab.
“I always go back to before he was part of our coaching staff, the way he used to hate me,” Embiid said Thursday following the 76ers’ 110-102 win at Brooklyn.
The All-Star center was referring to the public swipes Burke took at him when he was an Indiana Pacers assistant coach, telling the Pacers’ television affiliate in 2019 that “Embiid gets away with a bunch of crap the league ignores.” The two men have long moved past any detestation and chuckle about it today. Yet it’s interesting to view Embiid’s current tear through the lens of Burke, who has now been on Embiid’s side for about a season-and-a-half after years of trying to stop the dominant big man as a defensive assistant.
Another dazzling Embiid season has hit a new gear in recent weeks, culminating with him being named Eastern Conference Player of the Month for December. He has scored at least 30 points in four consecutive games to tie a career best for such a streak, and on Monday notched his third-career triple-double with 31 points, 15 rebounds, and 10 assists in a comfortable victory over Houston. Since a horrid 3-of-17 shooting performance at Boston on Dec. 1, Embiid is averaging 30.6 points, 10.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.2 blocks over his past 13 games while shooting 52.6% from the floor on 19 attempts per game and 40% from three-point range.
Burke, the Sixers’ acting head coach while Doc Rivers is in health and safety protocols, acknowledges that, when he began scouting Embiid, he “just always thought [Embiid] was a post player [who] would shoot an occasional three [and] flop all the time.” Now, Burke marvels at Embiid’s blend of size, skills, and basketball IQ, with a versatility to move around the floor to score and make plays that manifested itself in Monday’s triple-double.
Embiid’s emphasis on pushing the ball in transition made him particularly dangerous on Monday, Burke said. During last week’s emotionally and competitively charged game against the Nets, meanwhile, Burke was pleased with how Embiid put more trust in his teammates in the second half and resisted the urge that, “when you want to win it so badly, you kind of do it by yourself.” Embiid called in-the-moment plays for his team throughout the game, Burke said, with a good mix of sets designed for him to take the shot and open up opportunities for others while the ball went through him.
“As long as it’s not always for you,” Burke quipped to Embiid in the locker room after the game. “But we have to play through you, OK? We get that.”
Embiid’s desire — and ability — to stay on the floor for long stretches is another positive step on display the past two games.
When Burke subbed in backup center Andre Drummond late in the first quarter of the Nets game, Embiid hinted that he would have liked to have stayed on the floor. But he understood his coach’s thought process to get Drummond an early run in his first game back from health and safety protocols. When Embiid started rolling again as the first quarter unfolded against Houston, however, Burke said, “You got to ride the horse.” Embiid played the entire period, but only 18 minutes after that as the Sixers pulled away in the second half.
“In Indiana, we never felt like we had to double him,” Burke said. “He was going to wear down in the fourth quarter. He’s in much better shape now than I remember him being, as far as just the early work to get the post. You see him just hitting guys and sealing.
“Maybe it’s because [the Rockets were] smaller, so he feels more confident. But it looked like they didn’t want any part of him. He’s got to savor that and just abuse it.”
Like Rivers and Embiid’s teammates have said, Burke also noted, unprompted, that he has noticed an evolution in Embiid’s everyday approach, shifting his mentality and interactions with teammates and staff.
“It’s like going to a family reunion,” Burke said. “You complain about going there. Then when you’re there, it’s a great time and you’re glad you did it. He’s been a joy at practice. He’s got to lead that way, in my mind.”
While shifting the tone of Thursday’s postgame comments from joking to sincere, Embiid said he appreciates Burke’s defensive aptitude and NBA experience of more than 30 years. He added he was “very happy” Burke accomplished the personal milestone that the Sixers’ victory over the Nets represented. That was evident in the locker-room celebration captured on video, which included Embiid extending his arm for an emphatic handshake after players drenched Burke in water.
That would have been an unlikely scene nearly three years ago, when Burke hated Embiid and his team. Now, the coach has spent about a season-and-a-half watching an MVP contender continue to sharpen his game.
And Burke wanted to make sure to clarify this about the current version of Embiid:
“He doesn’t flop anymore, by the way,” Burke said.
Sixers add more players to injury, COVID-19 list
Sixers reserve guard Shake Milton is listed as out for Wednesday’s game at Orlando after sustaining a lower back contusion late in Monday’s win over the Rockets. Reserve forward Paul Reed has also entered health and safety protocols and will not be available to play against the Magic.
The Sixers were already shorthanded at point guard, with starter Tyrese Maxey entering health and safety protocols Monday. Milton also recently missed four games in protocols before returning for last Thursday’s victory at Brooklyn.
Milton is averaging 10.5 points, three rebounds and 2.8 assists per game this season while shooting 42.9% from the floor and 31.6% from three-point distance. Reed is averaging 2.3 points and 2.4 rebounds in 19 appearances for the Sixers this season. Top perimeter defender Matisse Thybulle and rookie guard Jaden Springer also remain in protocols and are listed as out for Wednesday’s game.
Two-way rookie guard Myles Powell has also been in protocols but is listed as questionable to be available for Wednesday. The other player on the Sixers’ injury report is Ben Simmons, who has not taken the floor this season because he is mentally unfit to play after requesting a trade.