There’s an easy story to tell here: “On the same day, Nikola Jokic was named the NBA’s most valuable player, Joel Embiid went out to show why he should have finished at the top of the vote. “Doc Rivers, always a friend of the work press, even went through and teed it up.
After Game 2 against Atlanta on Tuesday, the 76ers coach remembered what it was like to be a member of the Spurs 1994-95 to see David Robinson accept that season’s MVP trophy before the start of the Western Conference final against the Rockets … and then see Hakeem Olajuwon absolutely ruined the “Admiral,”
“Tonight,” River’s reporters told after watching Embiid pour 40 points, a new career playoff high, into his team’s 118-102 victory, “you felt it was Joel.”
However, there are a few issues with the easy story. First, Embiid’s opponent in the second round of the 2021 NBA Finals is not the Jokics Nuggets; it’s the Hawks, led by early gifted playmaker and shit-stirrer Trae Young. (If we get a Sixers-Nuggets final, though, min goodness, this particular story will be impossible to avoid.) For another … yes, Embiid says he is “disappointed” not to win, but does not seem so interested in giving the premise.
Embiid (continued): “I’m not worried about these awards. If I hold the (Larry O’Brien) trophy, nothing else matters.” https://t.co/HJYyCzZo9O
– Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) June 9, 2021
I’m sure Embiid would have graciously accepted MVP honors if he had won them. But for a player who has missed 295 games since the draft in 2014, who has experienced two serious knee fractures this season, including a meniscus injury less than two weeks ago, and who acts at the peak of his powers as a linchpin for the East top seeds, there are bigger prizes to hunt, and no time like the present to hunt them.
We then avoid the easy story and shift our focus to an even simpler, but no less deep one: Embiid will win the whole damn thing. To do so, he must come out of the second round. To do to, he had to get the 76s out of the 0-1 hole they had dug on Sunday. So you know, he did.
Embiid was brilliant in Game 2 and topped the 39 points he scored in Game 1 in this series – going with 13 rebounds, two steals, two assists and a block to help Philly tie his series with the Hawks in a game piece . Game 3 comes Friday in Atlanta, where Hawks fans at State Farm Arena will certainly greet Embiid as warmly as Philly fans did Young, and where Embiid, the ever showman, will certainly respond naturally.
Joel Embiid about playing on the road in front of opposing fans:
“I like to shut them down.”
– Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) June 9, 2021
Like almost every other team Philadelphia has played this season, the Hawks have had no response for Embiid through two games. The 27-year-old has fired Clint Capela by using his combination of bruises physical and ballet grace to shoot 15-for-27 from the floor toward his counterpart in Atlanta while also drawing eight shots on him, according to NBA Advanced Stats’ matchup data. Capela is the only true center on the Hawks’ list. Every other option, from forward power forward John Collins and Danilo Gallinari to rookie Onyeka Okongwu, is simply too small to hold up against Embiid. And none of them can do much with Embiid’s fully-armed face-up game, filled with an evil array of upfakes, jab-steps, twists and rip-throughs, all set to catch a defender leaning accurately the wrong way at exactly the wrong time to give Joel exactly the look he wants.
The results have been terribly impressive: 79 points on 46 shots and 31 free throws, good for an absurdly effective .662 real shooting percentage in 73 minutes in total over two games. Again: Embiid tore his meniscus nine days ago.
Perhaps just as impressive, though, is what Embiid was able to do at the other end of the field in Game 2.
Young chopped up the Sixers in Game 1, where he got where he wanted, in pick-and-roll, logging 24 drives to the basket. He scored 19 of his 35 points and handed out five of his 10 assists out of those strikes on the pitch, knocking his husband – mostly Danny Green – off the jump, pulling help and either letting a lob to Capela or firing an arrow for a waiting shooter over the arc that burned a performance that saw hot-shooting that saw the Hawks drill 20 of their 47 triple attempts. The Sixers couldn’t just hang back in their usual drop covers and let Young get everything he would: running for floaters and lobs, kickout passes to the 3-point line, free kicks and his own 3-point attempts. They had to take something away.
So Doc changed things up and gave 6-foot-11 Defensive Player Finalist of the Year Ben Simmons the primary task at 6-foot-1 Young. When Simmons needed a breather, or he wanted to give Young a different look, Doc turned to Matisse Thybulle and gave the young clampdown artist 24 minutes of floor time, his biggest workload this post season with the express purpose of making him annoy Hawks point guard wherever he went. Their length, athleticism, and activity – combined with Philly’s great things that commit to getting much higher up on the floor, often at or near the level of the screens that Atlanta set for Young, helped limit the amount of space , he could play in, which made it harder on him to get all the way into the court, to monitor the floor, or to draw an exact pearl on the edge as you pull up:
However, Embiid lurked behind these attacking point defenders who did a masterful job in Game 2 with quarterbacking of the cover. When Young hit her husband to reach the pitch, Embiid was there to stop the ball, herald him out of the paint and harass him in the perimeter. When Young got off the ball and replaced one of his teammates to create, Embiid kept his balance, reassessed the threat levels and deterred a new permanent driver from testing him in the can. He showed up on a screen at the 3-point arc and then got all the way back to the edge to break a lob up to Capela. He fell back and tried to play cat-and-mouse, giving the ground as he prevented Young from going to his float, while at the same time preventing the alley-oop until Young got deep enough in the paint to be enveloped and stung to cough the ball up. He was massive, he was fast, he was everywhere:
The combination of Embiid’s menacing threat and the ball pressure from Simmons, Thybulle and Green helped force Young to four turnovers and Atlanta to 17 as a team, leading to 28 Sixers points. “They just got big, long defenders,” Hawks guard Kevin Huerter told reporters after the game. “They have guys who come in passing lanes, they have guys who reach a lot and we just have to take better care of the ball. We need to make better decisions. ”
This may include decisions about whether or not to sting the bear. When Young and Capela did find their timing and range, connect a lob directly on top of Embiid’s head, they loosen some yawps and woofs about it:
On subsequent possession, Embiid immediately called on the ball in the post, bull-rushed Capela like an All-Pro edge rusher, returned by throwing one down right on Clint’s curler, and immediately let him know about it all the way back up the field (possibly in French):
It is Embiid: irresistible and unstoppable, unwilling to accept disrespect without giving back more than his fair share, extremely willing to accept the challenge of crushing your fine-tuned defense in fish tank gravel and able to completely command the game at both ends of the field. That’s what made him such a convincing MVP candidate, even though he missed 21 games due to various injuries; that’s what makes him such a breathtaking watch as he tries to lift Philadelphia to its first conference final spot in 20 years and its first championship in nearly 40.
He gets his work cut out for him. Even with Embiid going out, the Hawks still left Philadelphia with a split and had chances to steal Game 2. Philly’s defense limited Young, but he still accounted for 21 points and 11 assists and had some pretty clean looks and playmaking options that just came in short.
“Ben obviously protected me a little more tonight, but I had a lot of shots that I was open and they just didn’t fall,” Young told reporters after the match.
The Hawks fought all the way back from an 18-point deficit in the first half to take an 80-79 lead with 2:40 to go in the third quarter. It required a non-body experience of former confusing guard Shake Milton – who had scored 17 points in total through Philly’s first five playoff games and scored 14 on 4-for-5 3-point shooting in just 14 minutes after Doc dusted him off late in the third quarter – to start a 31-9 race that made the match go away. The Sixers probably can’t trust another hero to be like that when the series shifts and they hit the road.
However, they can trust Embiid. He is the engine behind a start-five that scores a burning 139.4 points per game. 100 possessions through two games, and the back-line anchor in a defense good enough to knock down a talented Hawks team that had flown high into Tuesday I’m not sure any player has more influence on his team at both ends of the floor every night. This, of course, was at the heart of the argument that Embiid should win the MVP. It was not enough to earn him that trophy. However, a few more performances like this could give him the chance to play for the one he wants even more.