When last Joel Embiid was seen exiting the playing surface in Toronto in the wake of the Raptors’ blowout win in Game 5, the Philadelphia centre glanced at the hip-hop star standing courtside and offered a promise.
“I’ll be back,” Embiid said to Drake on Tuesday night.
So give the Sixers’ seven-footer his due. He may be a walking soap opera who has spent this series nursing a bad knee, a wobbly stomach, a high fever, a stuffy nose and a chronic case of sleep deprivation, and certainly his team has been handicapped by his seemingly ever-questionable status. But with a season on the line he backed up his boast with a monstrously effective performance in Philadelphia’s Game 6 win. Embiid’s 36 minutes of playing time saw the Sixers outscore the Raptors by a margin of 100-60; he’s one of just a dozen players who have posted an individual net-points differential of plus-40 or better since 2001, according to Basketball-Reference.com. And it wasn’t simply a one-off. After six games, Embiid is leading the series with a net rating of 20.9 — meaning the Sixers have outscored the Raptors by an average of 20.9 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. Considering that number documents Embiid’s journey through his flu game (Game 2), his unable-to-sleep-with-a-fever game (Game 4), and Toronto’s 36-point blowout win in Game 5 in which Embiid was a minus-15 — well, it’s undeniably impressive stuff.
So as much as the storyline heading into Sunday’s Game 7 will revolve around Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard and his team’s series-long struggle to find him more help, you can make the case the outcome might come down to something out of the home team’s control. The Raptors, in allowing this battle for a berth to face the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference final to come to this, have gifted Embiid the option to determine their fate. If he chooses to show up to Sunday night’s big game — if he chooses to play like the all-star with the seven-foot-five wingspan and the ballet-ready feet and abandons his penchant for occasional cameos as a sickly, sulking nonfactor — Toronto might not have an answer for his skill set.
“He’s an all-NBA player, an all-NBA defensive player, he’s smart,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said after Thursday’s loss. “You’re conscious of where he’s at on the floor … When he’s out there he’s a big body, he’s a force on both ends. So yes, we notice him when he’s out there and when he’s not.”
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And as much as plus-minus is a highly imperfect stat, Embiid’s number, to this eye, matched up with a kind of dominance that went beyond his 17 points and 12 rebounds. He set screens that were as gigantic as they were problematic, which helped key big nights from Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler. And though he was credited with just two blocked shots, he was an undeniable deterrent whose presence led to aborted drives and broken plays.
“He’s got an incredible defensive impact on a game,” Brett Brown, the Sixers coach, told reporters after Game 6. “Pick ’em, Kawhi (Leonard), Kyle Lowry, whatever — if you see (Embiid) you’re probably going to think a little bit more about what you want to do, what’s your plan. His importance to our team is obvious. (In Game 6) you saw a healthier Joel Embiid and for that example, situation, him and his health, he comes out and has a plus-40. It’s a huge number. It’s a huge plus-minus number in a playoff game. His significance is felt all over the place.”
Don’t get it wrong. Three-point shooting is undoubtedly the bellwether of today’s game; if a team’s making them in substantial quantity, it’s usually winning going away. Toronto has made 36% from behind the arc in their victories and just 26% in their losses in this series. So the percentages from deep will be a considerable factor. If they shoot the lights out — if they finally rediscover the formula that made them the league’s most accurate three-point shooting team after the trade deadline — it might be the determining factor.
Still, how this game plays out on the interior will go a long way toward determining who advances. And that, in large part, will be determined by which version of Embiid arrives at Scotiabank Arena. In three losses to the Sixers so far, the Raptors have been trounced in the trenches. They’ve been outrebounded by an average margin of about 49-35. They’ve been outscored in the paint by an average margin of 49-40.
“For whatever reason, I’m not sure, but it seems like we weren’t again as much in the paint as much as we would have liked to (be),” Nick Nurse, the Toronto coach, said after Game 6. “And I imagine (Embiid) had something to do with that, right?”
Right. Levelling out those in-the-paint deficiencies, which the Raptors have managed to do in their three wins, will fall in no small part under the purview of starting centre Marc Gasol and backup Serge Ibaka. At times in this series — like when Embiid shot 28% from the field in Games 1 and 2 combined — Gasol’s defensive savvy has neutralized Embiid.
At other times, the 34-year-old Gasol and 29-year-old Ibaka have looked older than their birth certificates might indicate. In Toronto’s three losses they’ve shot a combined 29% from the field. In three wins, they’ve upped that to 49%. Some of that, mind you, has come down to Embiid’s whim — or, if you’re taking his various illnesses and ailments at face value, his health. In letting this series come to this, the Raptors have suddenly given Embiid a tantalizing option: If he chooses to show up, he has the unique tools to make the first Game 7 of his career his own. And there might not be much the Raptors can do about it.
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk
Published at Fri, 10 May 2019 22:54:46 +0000