BROOKLYN — There were 256 players who played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team this season. For only one of the 256 could you say the following: His team was at least five points per 100 possessions better offensively and at least five points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor than they were with him off the floor.
The additions of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris this season have given the Sixers a ridiculously talented starting lineup. And with Embiid missing Game 3 of their first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday, the rest of that lineup took care of business.
But Embiid remains the Sixers' "crown jewel," as head coach Brett Brown has called him. He's a matchup problem for every team in the league and the difference maker for the Sixers on both ends of the floor.
In Game 4 on Saturday, the Nets just couldn't match up, Embiid was the difference, and the Sixers came away with a 112-108 victory to take a 3-1 series lead.
Embiid's line: 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, six blocks and two steals in less than 32 minutes. He was the fulcrum on both ends of the floor.
The Nets were one of five teams that took more than 40 percent of their shots from 3-point range this season. But they also led the league with 30.9 points per game scored on drives. The Nets' biggest offensive weapons in this series have been Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, guards who can attack the rim by exploiting the Sixers' lack of quickness on the perimeter.
Brooklyn was successful at the rim against Embiid on a few occasions, with both LeVert and Dinwiddie scoring over him. He also had a close-up look at a Jarrett Allen dunk when LeVert drove at him and dished off. But while the Philadelphia defense did bend at times, it never broke when Embiid was on the floor. And when Jared Dudley was ejected for shoving Embiid early in the third quarter, Brooklyn lost the only player who could possibly play center and make Embiid pay for hanging near the rim.
"I know these guys are going to go at me, because they want me to retaliate," Embiid said about the skirmish that started when he hit Allen with what was deemed a flagrant foul. "So I got to be the mature one on the court and just stay cool and don't react. I could have reacted, but I felt like my team needed me more than they did Jared Dudley. I just got to stay cool and mature and do my job."
On defense, his job was to help the Sixers get stops. And with Embiid on the floor, Brooklyn scored just 62 points on 71 possessions. With him off the floor, the Nets scored 46 points on just 33 possessions.
On the other end, Brooklyn just couldn't deal with Embiid in the paint. When they tried to front him in the post, the Sixers flashed a man to the foul line and got the ball to Embiid with high-low action. When he was doubled in the post, he found the open man, often Ben Simmons cutting to the rim after the Nets sent help off him.
When Embiid caught the ball on the perimeter, he didn't settle, instead backing down into the post where he could score more easily or draw an extra defender (or two). In this series, Embiid has shot 22-for-35 (63 percent) in the paint and 3-for-14 (21 percent) outside it.
"I'm just trying to live in the paint," he said. "They're going to have to double-team me. I figured that. They're going to have to send two or three guys. If they're going to guard me in single coverage, I'm going to dominate. And then I'm also going to make the right pass. That's my job. We found it."
With the Sixers down one with 25 seconds left in the game, the Sixers looked to Embiid, with Allen fronting him in the post. Joe Harris crashed from the weak side and knocked the ball out of Embiid's hands, but Embiid beat Traveon Graham to the ball and, with one hand, got the ball to an open Mike Scott (Harris' man) in the corner for what turned out to be the game-winning 3-pointer with 18.6 seconds left.
The goal in NBA offense is to find an advantage and use it to exploit the defense and get an open shot. Embiid is that advantage for the Sixers whenever he walks on the floor. And with him on the floor on Saturday, the Sixers scored 80 points on 69 possessions. With him off the floor, they scored just 32 points on 35 possessions.
"He was dominant," Brown said. "There were times you can see that it's still raw, and there are some decisions that he probably would like to have over again. But given the volume of playing time lately that he hasn't had, it's just a dominant performance. What more can you say?"
Embiid remains the most important piece to the Sixers' puzzle. Really, when it comes to competing with the best teams in the league, he is the puzzle.
The question is just how much they're going to have him going forward. For every game in this series, Brown hasn't known until shortly before tip-off whether or not he's going to have his most important player. Embiid was clearly hobbled in Game 1, better in Game 2, absent in Game 3, and dominant in Game 4.
Maybe things are trending in the right direction. And maybe Embiid's status will remain a question from here on out.
The Sixers' ability to compete for an Eastern Conference championship hangs in the balance.
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