In Review | Embiid Returns, but Margin for Error Still Small
TORONTO, ONT - Having an elite player back helps, but it doesn’t necessarily make a team immune to the fickle nature of momentum.
Such was one of the primary reminders served Saturday at Air Canada Centre. The other, at least in the context of the 76ers, was to stay patient, and maintain perspective, while keeping an eye on the big picture.
Suiting up for the first time in over a week, Joel Embiid managed 14 points (5-13 fg, 1-4 3fg, 3-4 ft), 8 rebounds, and 2 assists in 23 minutes of action against the Toronto Raptors. His efforts, though, weren’t enough, as the Sixers fell, 102-86.
The loss capped a home-and-home series between the Atlantic Division foes, and came at the hands of an opponent boasting established All-Stars, a deep bench, and the lowest loss total in the Eastern Conference.
“I leave mostly thinking that this is a really good team,” Brett Brown said of Toronto. “They’ve won 12 of the past 13 games, and we feel every bit of that.”
Following a first half that was played at a mostly competitive pace, the Sixers found themselves down 14 points early in Saturday’s third quarter, the deficit at that point a game-high. In a matter of moments, the Sixers, fueled by their two young stars, were right back in it.
Embiid and Ben Simmons teamed up in aggressive fashion to spark an 11-1 spurt that trimmed the gap to, 65-61. A driving lay-up from Amir Johnson (12 pts, 4 reb) made it a 68-63 game with four minutes to go in the period, but Toronto proceeded to step on the gas.
The Raptors closed the frame with 13 consecutive points, a blitz that proved decisive. The win was Toronto’s sixth in a row, and improved their home record to an NBA-best 12-1.
“They just made plays, honestly,” said Simmons, who finished with 10 points (5-13 fg), 5 rebounds, and 6 assists.
Right now, with the Sixers undermanned and facing a string of talented teams, Brown realizes their margin for error is minimal, at best.
“It’s something maybe even a lot less than thin,” said Brown. “You blink, and they go whack, whack.”
DeMar DeRozan, unsurprisingly, emerged as a key factor while Toronto was piecing together its game-changing push. Thursday at The Center, the guard set a new career-high with 45 points. Saturday, he connected on two clutch threes amidst the Raps’ unanswered surge, en route to tacking on 29 points (9-20 fg, 4-7 3fg, 7-8 ft) in all.
“The evolution of DeMar is amazing to me,” Brown said, noting the three-time All-Star’s ability to score at all three levels. “It’s a complete package, and he plays with such a smooth, fluid style, and he’s class. From afar, I just respect him.”
While it would easy to tab DeRozan one of the most important members of the Raptors’ roster, the same could be said about Embiid, in context of the Sixers. The big man was sidelined the club’s previous three contests due to back tightness, but enjoyed a productive start to Saturday’s opening period. He took the Sixers’ first six shots, delivered their first eight points, then threw a lob to Simmons that evened the score at 10-10.
“I just wanted to feel comfortable again,” said Embiid. “I missed a couple games. I just wanted to come out and be aggressive, and get my touch back.”
Not long after he connected with Simmons, Embiid was given his first breather of the evening. He returned to the court with four minutes left in the first quarter, and remained out there through the early stages of the second. Embiid came back one last time in the first half with seven minutes to play. The stint lasted two minutes.
At the outset of the third frame, the Sixers made a concerted decision to feed the second-year center the ball, but as the minutes piled up, and Toronto continued rolling a variety of coverages his way, Embiid acknowledged he started to feel the effects of having not played in a while.
“I really wanted to play tonight,” Embiid said. “I just wanted to give it a go.”
“He wants to do so much more, and he can’t,” said Brown. “It’s part of what makes him so unique. He wants it, and he wants it now.”
As unsatisfied as the Sixers have been with recent results, Brown’s not changing his attitude. The focus is forward, always.
By staying committed to putting in work, the Sixers, Brown believes, will eventually see the fruits of their labor, especially once fully healthy (JJ Redick was out Saturday for a second straight game because of right hamstring tightness).
“We feel internally the things we’re doing will add up,” Brown said. “I feel very confident we’re doing what needs to be done.”
“Teams go through it,” said Robert Covington (6 pts, 3 reb, 5 stl), when asked Saturday about the Sixers’ current stretch. “We just got to get our mojo back.”
Dario Saric topped the Sixers Saturday with 17 points (5-12 fg, 3-5 3fg, 4-6 ft), while adding 6 boards and 5 assists. Amir Johnson supplied 12 points off the bench, and a team-best plus-5 rating.
The Sixers committed 23 turnovers at Toronto, which the Raptors converted into 28 points.
Joel Embiid’s impact was immediate Saturday, and not just in respect to his scoring. On the heels of depositing the Sixers’ first 8 points of the evening, the big man then dialed up this sweet dime for Ben Simmons, giving him a say in each point his team tallied en route to reaching double-figures.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) December 23, 2017
When the Sixers complete the East Coast leg of their current five-game road trip Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, the franchise will do something it hasn’t done in more than a decade in a half: play on Christmas Day. December 25th has arguably become the signature date on the NBA’s regular season calendar, and the Sixers’ first pairing of the 2017-2018 campaign against the New York Knicks will begin the day’s quintuple header. The Sixers last appeared on Christmas in 2001, facing the Los Angeles Lakers in a re-match of that year’s Finals.