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Joel Embiid, Andre Drummond collide on comeback path

* Recap: Sixers 108, Pistons 103

It’s hard to think of two big men who entered the season saddled with more questions marks than Joel Embiid and Andre Drummond. The former was a victim of bad health, the other a casualty of the pace-and-space era.

Embiid was drafted third overall in 2014, and he only dropped that low because of a stress fracture in his back and a broken right foot. More injuries piled up before he even made his NBA debut. Entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, the seven-foot center had played in just 31 out of a possible 246 career games.

Sixers fans were implored to “Trust the Process,” a mantra Embiid embraced to point of assuming it as his pseudo-nickname. So far this season, he has been worth every second of the wait. The Cameroon-born big man is averaging 22.9 pionts, 11.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per contest, numbers equaled or bettered only by New Orleans twin towers Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.

Embiid’s success might only be matched by his confidence, which already knew no bounds when he was sidelined for nearly three seasons. He is an avid trash-talker, both during games and via social media. He has used both fronts to wage war on another Eastern Conference big man who is surging into relevancy: Andre Drummond.

The Pistons big man is Embiid’s opposite in nearly every way. Detroit fans were able to see him immediately after he was drafted ninth overall in 2012. He has missed just three games total over the last four seasons.

Unlike Embiid, Drummond is not a revolutionary specimen of versatility. He does not shoot 3-pointers, nor does he like to dribble beyond one power move that takes him directly to the rim. He is a traditional center, one who enjoys blocking shots on one end and dunking on the other. In today’s NBA, which punishes teams that lack versatile scoring everywhere on the floor, that type of one-dimensional big man is nearly extinct.

Drummond appeared in danger of that evolution, especially after the Piston’s underwhelming performance last season. He found himself unable to remain on the floor during crunch time given his league-worst 38.6-percent mark from the free throw line. His talent was undeniable. His fit in the modern game was under scrutiny.

Not anymore. The sixth-year center has improved the worst parts of his game (free throw shooting, passing) while maintaining the best. Already a prolific rebounder, Drummond is averaging a career-best 15.2 boards per contest. Meanwhile, his free throw shooting has turned heads, making an absurd jump up to 63.9 percent (entering Friday night). He has also become a prime-time playmaker, averaging the fifth-most assists (3.9 per game) among all NBA centers.

It is impossible to applaud their respective returns to relevance enough … unless each is talking about the other. So far this season, that conversation has produced nothing but insults and challenges between two young big men who have an inside track to Eastern Conference All-Star honors in February.

It began in October, with Embiid dropping 30 points on the Pistons and proclaiming afterwards that Drummond “doesn’t play any defense.”

The Pistons center caught wind of the insult and promptly responded with a Tweet that said “See you Dec 2nd.” He followed up that challenge with further words on NBA TV.

“You’ve gotta respect the man’s game. He’s a hell of a player,” Drummond said, “but he’s gotta see me three or four more times for the rest of the season, so it’s not gonna happen more than once.”

Drummond upped the ante before Friday’s rematch, belittling Embiid’s health-monitored playing time in an interview with Fox Sports Detroit.

“You can’t really have a conversation with a man who can’t play a back-to-back … when he can play a whole season without taking a rest, he can come talk to me.”

Round 2 of Embiid-Drummond arrived, and it did not disappoint. After Embiid led Philadelphia to a 63-47 halftime lead, Drummond spearheaded a Pistons rally, ultimately finishing with 14 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and five steals. The Sixers held on for the win, however, behind Embiid’s 25 points and 10 rebounds. Each enjoyed highlights at the other’s expense.

The scene of the night occurred when Embiid drew Drummond’s sixth personal foul, disqualifying the Pistons big man from a three-point game with 2:35 remaining. The Sixers center added a goodbye wave to his fouled-out foe, inserting yet another barb into what is quickly becoming one of the more visible one-on-one rivalries in the league.

Both parties will have something to crow about. Drummond backers will boast that Embiid needed 21 shots (on which he shot 33 percent) to get his numbers. Embiid supporters will claim the numbers anyway and add two straight victories into the argument for good measure.

If their respective teams were struggling as they have in years past, their tiff would probably receive more of a shoulder shrug. They aren’t. If the season ended today, the Pistons and Sixers would face each other in the first round of the playoffs as the fourth and fifth seeds, respectively. These games matter. The players, especially in a conference diluted of star power, matter. For the first time since the mid-2000s, their teams matter. Further challenges between Embiid and Drummond carry risk and rewards that could come into play come April.

See you Jan. 5.