TORONTO — Joel Embiid put up a plus-40 rating in a do-or-die playoff win. He thinks he played poorly.
Joel Embiid got mocked by Raptors fans when he left Game 5 here Monday. He doesn’t give a damn.
What has happened to Joel Embiid?
Jimmy Butler. That’s what.
It took almost five full seasons, and it began six months ago, and it took 10 playoff games, but, as he faces his first career Game 7, in the Eastern Conference semifinal on Sunday, Embiid finally has become what a franchise player must be: present and accountable.
“Yeah, for sure. I know how to become a better leader,” Embiid said. "Got to watch and learn. Give a better example, I guess. Him being here has taught me that he’s always on top of everything, basketball-wise."
From the moment since the Sixers drafted him in 2014, Embiid chose style over substance. Injury cost him his first two seasons, and then, before he’d played a single game, he hijacked “The Process” as his personal nickname. His first three seasons actually playing all have been interrupted by other injuries, and he’s never been in peak condition. Nevertheless, Embiid choreographed singular on-court celebrations. He courted social-media beefs, and he threw news-conference shade at other players.
These shenanigans delighted a fan base desperate for relevance, but that immaturity detracted from his breathtaking combination of skill, size, and athleticism. He was a clown prince.
In the past five days, he’s turned into NBA royalty.
Why? Because he was humiliated by former players and a seasoned press corps over his indifferent play and defeatist demeanor in Games 4 and 5, when he had ... a cold. Prodded by pride and Butler, Embiid responded with a masterful performance in Game 6 that saved the Sixers’ season.
It’s been a process.
“He’s helped me a lot to become a better man. Being on time. Showing up every game. Having a better relationship as a leader with my teammates,” Embiid said. Butler’s message? “He doesn’t have to say anything. You just have to watch.”
Watch, and listen.
“Good game, bad game whatever it may be, it is always good, that happy-go-lucky human being that he is and knows he is fortunate to be playing basketball, same as myself,” Butler said. “I just think I try to remind him to always be himself, always be in a good mood, always smile.”
For the sake of accuracy, Butler does not always smile. In fact, he almost never smiles; at least, not on the court, when the win and his money are in question.
We saw less ebullience from Embiid in Game 6, too. He’d been mocked by fans in Toronto as he sat on the bench at the end of a blowout loss in Game 5. Remarkably, as the Sixers ran away with Game 6, Embiid didn’t mimic an airplane, as he did in Game 3.
He didn’t perform his goofy Euro-step dance.
He just acted like an NBA player instead of an NBA halftime show.
He acted like Jimmy Butler.
“You know he’s going to show up. He’s going to play hard. He’s going to do everything in his power to make sure that we get that win,” Embiid said. “You want that type of guy on your side.”
“That type of guy” routinely shows up at the gym an hour before the first bus arrives for practices on the road, and that type of guy is in full lather by the time his teammates are lacing up their sneakers. That type of guy routinely misses the last bus back to the hotel because he’s sweating through a 30-minute three-point make-or-miss game against player development coach Remy Ndiaye.
“That type of guy” routinely is seen honing his chiseled physique at 6 a.m. the gym in his neighborhood in suburban Philadelphia — on game days.
Will Embiid ever become “that type of guy”? Probably not.
But he’s getting closer.
“I think [Butler] has had a significant impact on Joel,” said coach Brett Brown. “It’s hard to watch somebody be in a gym before the bus comes to the gym, sweating and getting shots; it’s hard to look at somebody’s attention to his health, his body; it’s hard to watch somebody perform at this level, on this stage, at a level that he has, and not be impressed.”
Embiid is impressed.
“We’ve been really close since he got to Philly. We’ve built a friendship off the court. I think that’s helped us a lot on the court, too,” Embiid said. “We always have the discussions — I mean, if he’s not feeling well, he comes to me [and says], ‘Take over.’ If I’m not feeling well, I do the same thing. We always talk to each other, figure out how best to help our teammates.”
That sort of synergy should be cultivated, even if Butler’s motives might not be pure. Butler has been critical of teammates in the past, which resulted in his trade to Philadelphia from Minnesota in November. In Philly, he began a campaign to sanitize his image, likely with an eye on signing the maximum five-year, $188 million contract only the Sixers can offer.
If Butler drags Embiid to an elite level of play over the next five years, $188 million would be a bargain.
“I think the connection between Jimmy and Joel is growing and trending in an incredibly positive way, where it, to me, is helping Joel," Brown said. “Those two share candid conversations. You need that. We need that. I appreciate Jimmy helping our young player.”
Regardless of Butler’s motives, the effect on Embiid in Game 6 was astounding. It lingers. Consider Embiid’s reflection on his performance.
“Me, personally, I didn’t have a good game,” he said. He’s half right. He grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked two shots, but he missed nine of 14 shots and turned the ball over five times.
″Offensively, I felt like I took a lot of jump shots. Just being aggressive, depending on how they’re guarding me. When the paint is not that crowded, live in the paint."
Surely, though, mustn’t he relish the chance exact revenge on Raptors fans?
“I don’t care about the fans," he claimed. “I’m just trying to win the game.”
But it’s not just any game. It’s a Game 7; a chance for a two-time All-Star such as Embiid to become an MVP candidate in voters’ minds. Right?
“I don’t care. I just want to win. Whatever I’m needed to do, I’ve got to show up and produce offensively and defensively,” Embiid said. “I don’t really care about how I’m remembered."