HOUSTON — It was just over a minute into the game when the hope of the 76ers took an unscheduled trip into space.
Joel Embiid lost the handle on the basketball and then launched himself clear over the visitors bench to try to make a save. By the time he crashed landed in the third row of fans at the Toyota Center, there might have been thousands of tongues swallowed back in Philadelphia.
This is how what’s left of the erstwhile “Process” bumps along in Year Four, looking a lot like the just-released science fiction movie “Arrival,” where the past, present and future keep smacking right into each other going in opposite directions down the same highway.
The Sixers fell to 1-9 after a 115-88 thumping by the Rockets on Monday night and yet came out of the other side with one more brick on which to build.
Buried beneath the wreckage was the line in the box score that showed Embiid with 13 points and 10 rebounds, becoming the first rookie in the league this season to record his second double-double. More significantly was the column that showed him as the only one on his team to have a positive effect.
“It is true,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown. “I think when you look at the box score and just look at the plus/minus in a game that was lopsided, Joel still comes out with a plus-3. And that’s with six turnovers. It’s hard to do that in a game that was that much of a one-way fight. You’re seeing something very unique in Joel Embiid. I look forward to the day when you can play him a lot more minutes than we’re able to right now.”
After two years of foot operations and two seasons of chafing at his own physical inability to get on the court, Embiid is wasting no chance to get something out of each game he has the chance to play. He is still tethered to a roughly 24-minutes-per-game regimen, but the 7-foot — or 7-2 or 7-3 — center, and that just might be one more reason why the big man is willing to leave his surgically-repaired feet.
When he wasn’t taking a dive into the stands, Embiid was turning and facing up on Houston’s Clint Capela to drop in a 19-foot jumper, taking a feed from point guard Sergio Rodriguez and smoothly dropping in a layup and completing a three-point play. Then he got down the floor early in a possession to set up in the low box to get another pass from Rodriquez that he slammed home over Capela.
It’s the future that might someday be fulfilled in Philly if the Sixers can ever get over their injury-filled past — Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and Ben Simmons — that makes this ugly present so difficult to bear.
This was the Sixers’ 22 consecutive road loss in October and November since 2013 and on nights like it one can easily wonder if there will ever be an exit ramp from the misery.
“We’ve learned over all these years you have to stay on top of things in regards to just putting in real work,” Brown said. “A good day’s work. Just doing the right thing. Work on your defense. Work on whatever you’re doing with your offense. Just put in good days.
“You start drowning in the relentless schedule or wallowing in misery or pity, that’s not who I am and that’s not who we are. So we’ll come back, we’ll look at the film and we’ll move on. Just like we’ve done for the past three years.”
For each time Embiid makes a slick move that looks wise beyond his years or makes a play filled with a 22-year-old rookie’s joy and hustle, there are the others when he reaches to commit a foul while going for a rebound or has no clue what to do when the relentless points machine James Harden is barreling straight at him like a runaway locomotive.
“Just keep playing. Just keep working hard,” Embiid said. “It’s gonna be OK. Just keep playing.”
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni spent part of last season next to Brown as assistant head coach in Philly and watched Embiid up close.
“I was with him enough to know the mentality that he had was going to be good,” D’Antoni said. “Then you see skills and you know he’s going to be good. He needs the time in the league. He needs to stay healthy and he’s going to be a star.”
If Embiid can stay healthy, can stay on the court. If all of the young Sixers ever get on the same court and the same page together.
“It comes in dribs and drabs,” Brown said. “It’s hard for me to say much of anything on the whole. I think at times the ball moves and I’m proud of our structure. I’m proud of our guys playing with each other. At other times I think we’re ball-stoppers and we take quick, poor shots.
“At times we’re on point with our defensive assignments and at other times we’re looking around and there’s no communication with who somebody helps. It’s part of being 20 years old. It’s part of playing eight games, nine games with each other. It’s part of all that. So as painful as it is, it’s part of their growth and I see good stuff all over the place. We just want to see it more frequently.”
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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