Joel Embiid drains the stepback three over Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets

There were six minutes, 28 seconds left in the second quarter. The Sixers trailed by six points. Shake Milton just botched a two-on-one fast break with Georges Niang, wasting an advantage that would’ve given the Sixers two easy points against an elite opponent.

Some words between two of Philadelphia’s bench pillars escalated as the team huddled for a timeout, an animated Niang rising from his chair and stepping towards Milton.

Montrezl Harrell kept Niang at bay, and Joel Embiid sat him down. Embiid looked Niang in the face and delivered a message to the fiery forward.

It wasn’t a scolding. Embiid didn’t assign blame to one teammate or the other. He didn’t make it about himself, drawing on the implications that losing to the Denver Nuggets might have on this season’s individual award races.

Embiid’s message was simple, “I just told both of them to let it go, that we had a fucking game to win.”

Niang looked down to the other end of the court, seemingly in search of a grip. The situation had been defused. One play in the second quarter wasn’t going to decide the whole game.

It was a critical moment of leadership from the player who controls the Sixers’ destiny. No, not the starting point guard who has embraced his role as playmaking extraordinaire next to Embiid as he desperately searches for a championship ring to complete a resume that already includes six All-NBA First Team honors and an MVP. That would be James Harden, of course.

The guy who controls whether the Sixers sink or swim is Embiid, and he’s still waiting for his individual accolades. The youth he has on Harden theoretically makes pursuing a championship a flexible individual priority. But, Embiid has come to learn that winning a championship might be the door he has to walk through in order to earn the individual recognition he feels he’s been robbed of over the past few seasons.

“I think it is more of a motivation to go out and try to win the whole thing. I guess that’s the only way I’m probably going to get that respect, I think we got a pretty good chance,” Embiid said on Saturday when asked if squaring up with Nikola Jokic after not being named an All-Star starter motivated him to deliver one of his best performances of the season.

In order to win the whole thing and obtain that respect, though, the Sixers will need to string together victories against other elite teams in the final 30 games of this season. The first test was Jokic, the center who beat Embiid to the MVP award in each of the past two seasons, and the Denver Nuggets, just 24 hours before the Eagles’ Sunday showdown with the San Francisco 49ers in South Philly for the NFC Championship.

The battle of conference titans began the same way most games have started for the Sixers in recent months. Embiid touched the ball almost every time down the floor in the first few minutes. The purpose is simple: if the best player on the team sets the tone from the jump, everyone else has no choice but to fall in line.

Embiid did just that, needing only a few quick strikes to score eight of the Sixers’ first 11 points of the game.

But, he wasn’t necessarily interested in turning the game into the Embiid show, junking up Philadelphia’s regular offense to score the ball as he saw fit. Embiid didn’t reduce the offense to him simply planting his feet at the nail or elbow and demanding the basketball. Gone were the mindsets of years past, when he would’ve tried to be a hero or a human highlight reel and instead run himself into foul trouble or the Sixers into costly turnovers.

Embiid worked with his teammates. He played up to their tempo instead of forcing them to play to his slowed pace. That compromise of sorts was on display early, Embiid running the floor in transition and making himself available for an easy basket against Jokic inside:


No matter how the game twisted or turned, Embiid didn’t lose his patience. There was no room for pouting if things didn’t go his or the Sixers’ way. In the past, those visible expressions of frustration have often sandwiched moments in which Embiid loses control when his team needs him the most.

After Embiid laced a pull-up jumper in the third quarter, ESPN color analyst Hubie Brown remarked, “He hasn’t rushed a thing today. He just surveyed [the court before hitting the aforementioned jump shot] and allowed the cutters to go by, open up that space.”

Brown was right, Embiid didn’t rush. He waited for the four comrades on the floor with him to settle into the action before making decisions 

There were numerous possessions throughout the game in which Embiid attacked Jokic inside with the perfect balance of force and intelligence. He waited for teammates to cut or flash through to the weak side of the floor, giving himself the space needed to execute powerful moves:

Embiid’s size and strength are perhaps his greatest assets. He used his body to create space inside and get to the rim for easy deposits throughout the game, daring Jokic to pick up a second foul in the first quarter on a drive to the basket.

Embiid didn’t just reserve his best for his star counterpart. He smelled blood at every catch regardless of who was in front of him, applying pressure with physicality:

Still, it felt like the game was slipping away. The Sixers couldn’t compound their own scores with stops on defense.

Embiid loaded up the box score to the tune of 19 points on 8-for-17 shooting and 11 rebounds in 18 minutes of play in the first half. But, the Sixers were outscored by eight points with him on the court. Embiid committed three turnovers. He missed three free throws, and was stripped by Jokic on the same move twice.

Embiid cooled down considerably after a torrid start, and he wasn’t himself on defense in the first half.

There were Denver possessions in which Embiid was too sloppy with positioning, putting the onus on teammates who had proven unreliable in the game to make rotations when the big fella’s miscues allowed Jokic to backcut. He fell asleep when shots went up and allowed Denver to crash the offensive glass for second chance points. There were Nuggets possessions where Embiid was a step too far away from one of Jokic and Murray, lacking urgency to get a hand up when they lifted for jumpers.

As long as you don’t play yourself completely out of the game by halftime, the second half offers an opportunity to regroup. The Sixers trailed by 15 points at intermission. But, that’s nothing in today’s NBA.

Fortunately for Philadelphia, Embiid used up all of his sloppy, overly-aggressive plays in the first half.

But, Embiid knew he couldn’t do it all by himself.

It started on defense, Doc Rivers switching PJ Tucker onto Jokic and using Embiid as the free safety to react to the MVP’s first moves:

As important as anything, Embiid didn’t let Harden go cold. 

Embiid kept his point guard involved, sliding into screens for the crafty playmaker when the ball hit his hands as if the pick-and-roll was a default setting. The ball was almost always going to go to Embiid anyway. But, the big guy knew he needed his star partner to stay engaged if the Sixers were going to win the game. The pick-and-roll is the action that connects the stars to each other and keeps both involved, and they ran it into the ground on Saturday:

Still, Philadelphia trailed by 15 points late in the third quarter after Bruce Brown laced a triple from the right wing. All the work the Sixers had done through the first nine minutes of the quarter was erased. At some point, the deficit is too significant, the opponent too good, or the time too little to mount a comeback. They’d done it before this season, but you eventually run out of comebacks.

As we’ve come to learn this season, though, it’s when you think the Sixers have both feet in the grave that they spring back to life.

There was a bit of a redemptive arc for Niang in this game. When these two teams played in Philadelphia last season, the Sixers blew a 19-point lead in what would amount to a four-point loss. Niang shot 2-for-12 in that affair, missing eight of his 10 three-point looks.

But on Saturday, Niang landed the first punch in the Sixers’ comeback. He laced a pair of triples in consecutive possessions, the second coming off of a pass from none other than Milton in transition.

Then, an Embiid pick-and-roll with Tyrese Maxey yielded an and-1. The Sixers concluded the quarter with Embiid knocking down three free throws after being fouled on a heave from beyond center court before the clock expired.

Only three points from Denver’s 15-point advantage remained heading into the final quarter. It was a swing that Tobias Harris, in his postgame media availability, referred to as the moment that gave the Sixers the energy they needed to stage the comeback.

The Nuggets landed one more punch, pushing the lead back up to eight points with Embiid recharging to start the fourth quarter. But, the Sixers had already discovered their rhythm. By the time Embiid checked back in, the deficit was back to what it was to start the decisive quarter.

Player, coach, executive, or fan — everyone knew this was Embiid’s moment to make his MVP statement. Forget about the perceived snubs of the past. Forget about the debates. None of that mattered. Embiid had a golden opportunity to change the conversation. 

He started by catching the ball higher on the floor, pulling Jokic outside to guard in space and daring helpers to step away from their assignments. The Denver big man might as well have worn roller skates, flailing like a fish as he tried to keep up with Embiid’s dance moves:

He didn’t simply reserve himself for offense down the stretch. Embiid built Philadelphia’s momentum, giving tremendous effort on defense and compounding it with heady decisions on offense:

In seasons past, Embiid would’ve bowled over Jokic for a highlight dunk and instead been called for an offensive foul. That’s a play in which he might even hurt himself or Jokic. But, sensing Jokic’s hands were down as he prepared to take a charge, Embiid pulled up for a short jumper that gave the Sixers their first lead since the first quarter.

Embiid took control of the game, refusing to miss shots with the outcome hanging in the balance, refusing to let Jokic be the story for yet another day.

“He was great, he was dominant. Once the second half came, he was really able to just settle down and be in the zone of the game,” Harris said after the 126-119 victory. “And just understand, get us all going out there, to get in the flow, to make the game easier for him. And for him to just continue to pick his spots, I thought he did a great job of that.”

But perhaps the biggest stride in Embiid’s maturity showed on a play in which he wasn’t even the scorer.

After knocking down the pull-up jumper to give the Sixers the lead and a pick-and-pop three to push the advantage to five, Embiid found himself catching the ball in space. This time, Harden flipped it over to him on the short roll after pulling Denver’s blitz away from Embiid. He could’ve attacked the cup, looking for every chance to push his scoring total to 50 or higher.

Instead, he used his gravity as a shooter to draw Aaron Gordon away from Harris in the strong-side corner:

Harris struggled to score the ball for most of the game and has been on a cold spell from beyond the arc for a few weeks now.

And yet, there was Embiid, understanding the importance of being a leader for his supporting cast. Understanding that winning championships is about building equity with his teammates in the regular season. Understanding that if he trusts them, they’ll trust him; if he makes plays for them, they’ll make plays for him; if he’s happy for them, they’ll be happy for him.

“Our whole group, we fuel off of that. We fuel off of those extra passes because we know it allows every player to really get into their type of rhythm and their type of flow on the floor,” Harris said after the game.

Embiid of a few years ago calls his own number on that play. Maybe he misses a forced shot, maybe he flattens a defender and picks up an offensive foul. Maybe he commits a live-ball turnover and sends Denver out in transition.

Embiid of 2022-23, the one making his third consecutive case for MVP, read the Nuggets’ defense beautifully, executing a pass to a struggling teammate to give the Sixers an eight-point lead.

Harris was scoreless in the first half. He scored 14 points after intermission, including eight points on 3-for-3 shooting in the fourth quarter.

Embiid thoroughly dominated Jokic and the rest of the Nuggets in the second half, scoring 28 of his 47 points after halftime. But, it was points 45, 46, and 47 that might’ve catapulted him to the front of this season’s MVP conversation.

He isolated against Jokic before sticking a stepback three to put the Sixers up by eight points with less than a minute to play.

Embiid made his way over to the far side of the court, yelling into the crowd in celebration. Harden, the guy who has made every effort to be a co-star to Embiid after spending the better part of his career as the top dog, jumped on the big man’s back for a piggyback ride as adrenaline coursed through the building.

To hell with everyone who takes offense to his antics. Embiid spent the better part of two or three seasons trying to be the quiet guy that he thought people wanted him to be. He outgrew the funny tweets and boisterous behavior on the court. And still, not much changed. He was still perceived the same way. The narrative didn’t change.

“I think it’s well-documented that I’m not well-liked. And that’s cool. I don’t know if it’s because I troll a lot or that I guess I’m an asshole. But, it’s cool. I keep being me. I keep being an asshole and I keep trolling,” Embiid said after the game, expressing a lack of surprise that he wasn’t voted into the All-Star game as a starter.

“If people don’t like it, that’s their problem,” he said.

Embiid has played a bit more freely over the past two season. Confidence has never been an issue with him. Yet, he’s honed in on a select couple of shots since Rivers came to town. It’s manifested in his becoming a strong crunch time scorer. Embiid was one of the best clutch scorers in the league last season. He hit his first game-winner in the first round of the 2022 playoffs, giving the Sixers a 3-0 series lead over the Toronto Raptors. He’s knocked down two more game-winning shots this season.

Saturday’s signature stepback three over Jokic wasn’t a game-winning shot. But, it was the culmination of being passed on for awards in each of the past two seasons despite putting in the work to be a truly elite two-way player.

Embiid’s 12 points in the fourth quarter on the biggest regular-season stage of his career represented, on a human level, the surgical release of years of pent-up frustration.

“It’s fun, you know? I’ve always liked to think that I’m a closer, and I am. But, it’s fun, you know, taking the last shots or taking the last-second shots with four, three, two on the clock left. It’s fun for me. I like that challenge. I like getting into the fourth quarter, getting into those type of possessions where you got to go out and make the plays, whether it is offensively or defensively,” Embiid said after the victory.

“That’s where you find out who’s who, who’s made up for those type of moments.”

Embiid had the moment he’d long been waiting for, whether he admits it publicly or not. 


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