Joel Embiid said he was mad at himself, that the finger he raised to his lips after a late-game three-pointer was not intended as a pointed message to the home crowd. Maybe he was telling the truth. Or maybe he later realized what should have been evident at the time. Given what the fans at the Wells Fargo Center witnessed during another lackluster win, they were well within their right to boo.
There seems to be a disconnect between the Sixers’ understanding of themselves and the realities that are apparent to everybody else. This was supposed to be a team that would finish the regular season as one of of the leading title contenders in the east. Even if you looked past the “cakewalk” talk, Embiid himself set the bar at 60 wins. If we were two months away from the playoffs and the Sixers were playing at anywhere close to that pace, it would be easy to shrug our shoulders at a performance like Sunday’s and move on to the next one. But the Sixers are not playing at that pace, nor have they given us any indication that a breakout is imminent. So when an understaffed, overmatched Bulls team opens the second half with a 10-2 run and takes a three-point lead, the tsunami of boos that crashed down upon the court is the sort of thing that should be expected.
Early in the first quarter, Embiid had a possession that should have served as a microcosm of the next 48 minutes. He gathered in an entry pass, stuck his rear end into Luke Kornet’s midsection, and made his way to the rim with the slow, unstoppable force of a glacier creeping south. As Embiid dribbled the ball and leaned the full weight of his massive frame into Kornet, there was little that the Bulls’ undersized five-man could do but give way. A few seconds later, Kornet was buried beneath the rim, and Embiid was rising into the air to to toss an easy four-footer through the net.
It was the sort of play that was supposed to be emblematic of the Sixers this season. Smash-mouth defense and bully-ball offense. You may have heard those phrases a few times back in October. The Sixers’ path to 60 wins was to be blazed by mismatches like the ones the Bulls offered them at virtually every position on the court. Ben Simmons against Tomas Satoransky? Tobias Harris against Chandler Hutchinson? Al Horford against Thaddeus Young? Look at their salaries, and their pedigrees, and the skills they were supposed to bring to the table. This was one of those matchups that should have been an exhibition of the talent and physicality that the Sixers feature at one through five. It should have been a testament to the upside that Elton Brand and Brett Brown saw when the Sixers remade their team this summer.
What we got instead was our latest reason to wonder if this team will ever reach a point where it makes full use of the tools that it has purchased. While it may not be evident from the box score, the Sixers once again did not look anything like the championship contender they were supposed to be.
Embiid finished with 28 points and four blocks and six offensive rebounds and was one of the primary reasons the Sixers were able to pull away down the stretch. But he was also one of the main reasons that there was pulling away to be done. After that early basket against Kornet, he spent much of the next three quarters operating at a distant remove as the Bulls outscored the Sixers, 58-45, in the second and third. As good as he was in the fourth quarter, Kornet nearly outplayed him on the night, scoring 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting, including six buckets within six feet of the rim. By contrast, Embiid finished with only three buckets inside six feet.
At least with Embiid, there is reason to think that he will only get better between now and the postseason. He is still clearly limited by the splint on his surgically-repaired left hand, a mitigating factor that seemed to explain several of the turnovers and misses that he had inside the paint on an 8-for-17 shooting night. The rest of the Sixers is where the bigger concern lies.
Al Horford? He played 30 minutes and did not score a single point, the first time in his 12-year career that he has accomplished that feat. For a team that is built from the inside out, it’s preposterous that both of their big men have now had a game with a goose egg.
Tobias Harris? He scored only 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting while struggling all night to generate himself open looks.
Josh Richardson? He was operating on a minutes restriction, but he played seven more of them than Glenn Robinson III and finished with four fewer shots and eight fewer points, despite the fact that Robinson III was playing after making a cross-country flight to join his new team.
Instead, there were boos, of which the Sixers were more than deserving. When Embiid raised his finger to his lips after that fourth quarter shot, it easily could have been interpreted as a message in response to the earlier jeers. After the game, the big guy denied any backhanded intent, saying the gesture was born out of frustration with himself.
“I was just talking to myself,” Embiid said. “I have not been playing up to my standards. Even tonight, I did not shoot the ball well. I didn’t play well. So, you know, just mad at myself. Just frustrated."