It needs to be Joel Embiid’s night. The big fella’s gotta ball. He says he still wants to be MVP? Well, here is his chance to do it. One night won’t necessarily make up for all of the nights he’s missed, but he has it in his power to make it go a long way. Maybe he can’t win the award with one dominant performance, but he can certainly make the voters remember his name.
This is it. For Embiid, for the Sixers, for the legions of fans who have spent this regular season wondering what to make of this team. It won’t be a dress rehearsal, but it might be the closest approximation that we get.
Can anybody stop the Nets?
Can the Nets stop Embiid?
Those are the two questions that will be hanging above midcourt on Wednesday night when the top two teams in the Eastern Conference tip things off at the Wells Fargo Center. The first of them is the one that has garnered plenty of attention since the mid-January trade that brought James Harden to Brooklyn alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. This holy trinity of isolation scorers was supposed to combine to form the NBA’s latest superteam. Instead, it has mostly been an article of faith.
The story of the Nets’ season is best told by the lineup they ran out the first two times these teams played. Neither Durant nor Irving played in either contest. Harden played in one. Of the Nets’ 44 games, their superstar trio has been active for just seven. Wednesday night will not be the eighth.
With Harden expected to miss another handful of games with a balky hamstring that has sidelined him for a week, the Sixers probably do not have a chance to establish themselves as the conference’s team to beat. That being said, they have more of a chance than they’ve gotten all season, thanks to the peculiarities of scheduling in the time of COVID-19. Look back at the games that were supposed to be the big ones and all you see is asterisks. When the Sixers faced the Bucks, they were playing without Embiid. When they faced the Heat, Miami was playing without Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. They are better than the Celtics. That’s all we’ve really got.
Within that context, Wednesday night is an opportunity. Assuming Durant and Irving are both in the lineup, we’ll at least have a chance to see how the Sixers match up against the Nets in their original form. More importantly, we’ll get a chance to see if they are actually the ones with the biggest postseason X-factor of them all.
“They’ve been playing well, we’ve been playing well,” Embiid said. “We’ve been winning games, they’ve been winning games. No one seems to want to lose any game, so you never know. We might have the same record at the end of the season, so having that tiebreaker is important for us. We want the No. 1 seed.”
If they have it at the end of the season, it will be because they had Embiid. He has played in 36 games this season. The Sixers have won 28 of them. That’s a 63-win pace over an 82-game season.
Two nights ago, you saw the impact of that presence in the Sixers’ 113-95 win over the Mavericks. What was billed as a showdown between two MVP candidates in Embiid and Luka Doncic left little doubt about who was more deserving. Embiid finished with 36 points on 10-of-17 shooting from the field and 14-of-15 from the foul line, in just 26 minutes of court time. The Mavericks simply could not guard him.
Forget whether the Sixers can guard Harden or Durant or Irving. The big question we’ll find out on Wednesday night is whether the Nets can guard Embiid. Like the rest of the Eastern Conference contenders, Brooklyn has been preparing its roster for the task.
The challenge of guarding Embiid will likely fall to some combination of DeAndre Jordan and LaMarcus Aldridge, the latter of whom landed with the Nets after buying out his contract with the Spurs. The former San Antonio star has had some success in his career matching up against Embiid. In five games between them, Embiid has averaged a modest 21.2 points while shooting 47.1% from the field. At the same time, the most recent one of those matchups came in November of 2019, and Embiid finished that game with 21 points on 9-for-13 shooting in 28 minutes.
The more you think about the rosters of these two teams, the more you wonder about the mismatches. If Joe Harris guards Seth Curry, and Durant marks Ben Simmons, that leaves Irving and Jeff Green for Danny Green and Tobias Harris. Harris against either of the Nets’ offerings will be an interesting thing to watch, especially as you project what it might look like when Harden is in the lineup.
“Obviously, Brooklyn has a lot of talent,” Simmons said on Monday night, “but at the end of the day, there’s only one ball and you’ve got to play defense, too.”
That little broadside notwithstanding, Wednesday night will fall on Embiid to show how much he has grown. Aldridge is not the same player that he was even a year-and-a-half ago, but he is still a physical veteran who knows the secret to stopping Embiid is making him uncomfortable.