News Flash: Russell Westbrook does not like Joel Embiid. The two have become unlikely rivals with a seething animosity despite playing most of their careers in separate conferences. Westbrook, before being traded to Washington, faced Embiid just twice per season. And yet, those matchups typically have been marked by intensity and chippiness. When asked nearly two years ago if he and Embiid are cool, Westbrook replied, “Fuck No!”
Russell Westbrook on the foul from Joel Embiid, and then asked if they are “cool.” (Warning: language): pic.twitter.com/7i0ahyEFTH— Royce Young (@royceyoung) January 20, 2019
A mild-mannered, somewhat introverted person off the floor, Joel Embiid comes alive when matched with other elite big men. His rivalry with Westbrook is notable for a couple of reasons, both due to their matchups’ relative infrequency and that Westbrook is a guard. Typically Embiid reserves his trash-talking for other big men such as Andre Drummond, who he famously has said he owns real estate in Drummond’s head. Embiid is as compelling as any because of this on-court/ off-court dichotomy in a league of complex personalities.
Russell Westbrook shows up to the arena dressed in high fashion. He seems to walk into most games with a snarl and a personality, just looking for a reason to get motivated. In the Documentary “The Last Dance,” Michael Jordan repeatedly told stories about little slights he would use to enflame his competitive drive. It seems like Westbrook is someone who steps up to a challenge, clearly does not appreciate Embiid’s relationship with fans or his willingness to call out other players.
How it Started
In December 2017, with 2 minutes left in a close contest, Joel Embiid drew a 6th foul on Steven Adams. Embiid waved goodbye, and Westbrook did not like his showmanship whatsoever. The Thunder held on to win that game, like the other 4 games they have played face to face and waved goodbye to Embiid as they left the floor. “I would tell him to go home, He was talking mess to Steve-O after he fouled out, waving to the crowd, but now it’s time for him to go home,” Said Westbrook in post-game that night.
In their previous 5 matchups, Westbrooks Thunder were 5-0 against the 76ers. Westbrook has averaged 40.3 minutes per game against Embiid’s 76ers. But the 6’4″ downhill guard has needed 26 shot attempts to generate his 27.4 points per game, but he has averaged 11 rebounds and 9.6 assists in those games. To say he is ball-dominant does not adequately express how much Brodie puts into these games. Westbrook shot just 40% from the field versus Embiid’s 76ers.
Embiid, for his part, has averaged 26.4 points and 9 rebounds to go with 3.4 assists and 1.6 blocks in those games. He’s also been more efficient, shooting 51% and needing just 17.6 shot attempts. Both players live at the line in these matchups, with Embiid at 8.8 attempts and Westbrook at 9.2. “I give him a lot of credit,” Said Embiid after that rivalry-inducing 2017 game. “I mean, the dude shot 10-33; I wish I shot 33 times”.
“[Russell Westbrook] shot like 10-for-33. I wish I would’ve shot 33 times.” pic.twitter.com/V3JdyiyRFm— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 16, 2017
How it’s Going
On Wednesday night in Philadelphia, a lot has changed. Westbrook is now on his third team, having been traded to Washington for John Wall. Embiid is no longer the young up and comer to the league challenging the power structure. He is a three-time all-star with a new head coach. Embiid has become a father and walks into the 2020/21 season with expectations for team success that go beyond any individual matchup.
In what would normally be another low-energy matchup versus the Wizards, this rivalry has explosive potential for opening night For much of the game the themes of the personal rivalry played out on the floor. The 76ers got dominant and efficient play from Embiid but trailed the less efficient, Westbrook lead Wizards. Westbrook finished the night shooting 9-22 from the field but had a typical 20 point triple-double.
How it Ended
While the two did not engage in any heated direct confrontation, both teams were chippy at times and bodies hit the floor with a regularity you wouldn’t expect on an opening night just before Christmas. Bradley Beal who was very active on both ends of the floor, lead the Wizards scoring attack. Danny Green had gotten the initial assignment in guarding Beal but was ineffective in his debut. Green was a -27 in just 18 minutes played. Beal was more impressive as a double team gambler, stealing the ball four times and harassing Joel Embiid on post touches. Embiid turned the ball over just 3 times despite being consistently double, triple, and even quadruple teamed down low.
Rivers said after the game “It was good to see Joel face double teams. He’s gonna see them every night and we just have to keep getting better.”
Similarly, Ben Simmons was on the receiving end of the physical play by Beal and the Wizards including a hard foul in the third quarter which could have easily been called a flagrant on Davis Bertans. Shake Milton, who was a team-high +33, lead multiple comebacks in the first and second half. Milton came off the bench to score 19 points including a pair of crucial free throws in the final minute to put the Sixers up 4 with 42 seconds to play. Milton earned every one of his 30 minutes on Wednesday night.
After a contested Beal pull-up jumper brought the Wizards within 2, the 76ers called a post feed to Simmons in the Dunkers spot for a two-hand slam after Thomas Bryant mistakenly helped on Milton in the lane. Free throws from Curry and Harris sealed the win 113-107. This was the first win of Joel Embiid’s career against a Russell Westbrook lead team. Embiid finished the game with 29 points and 14 rebounds on 10-17 from the field. Beal and Westbrook combined for 52 points on 20-44 from the field.
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