Prediction from season's start: 56-26 record, second seed in East.
In the wake of his first scoreless NBA game, Joel Embiid has changed his mindset since a Nov. 25 loss to the Raptors in Toronto.
Embiid has been more aggressive and tried to initiate more contact after missing all 11 of his field goal attempts and all three of his free throws in 32 minutes against Marc Gasol and the double-teaming Raptors during a 101-96 drubbing. His next-lowest output had been 14 points.
The numbers support Embiid. In the five games prior to Sunday, Embiid had averaged 26.8 points, 15.2 rebounds and 12.8 free throw attempts, hitting 87.5 percent of his foul shots. Those are all increases on his season averages.
On Sunday night at the Wells Fargo Center, Embiid had his first chance to face Gasol and Toronto since Embiid assessed his Nov. 25 performance this way: “I would have never thought that I would be here, talking about zero points in an NBA game.”
Raptors coach Nick Nurse expected Embiid, who rested during Saturday evening’s Sixers blowout victory, to “be super-focused and ready to go” at the outset and that seemed to be the case.
Embiid missed a 19-footer and was fouled by Gasol on a short jumper, hitting one of two from the line. Next, Embiid posted up Gasol only for speedy guard Fred VanVleet to come over and steal the ball.
Gasol picked up his second foul shortly thereafter and went to the bench 5:05 into the contest, but Brett Brown stuck with his regular rotation and removed Embiid despite the smaller Serge Ibaka replacing Gasol.
“It starts with me,” said Embiid afterward. “If I’m aggressive, I know these guys are going to foul.”
When Embiid returned later in the opening period, he found open teammates Raul Neto and Matisse Thybulle for successful 3-pointers. With Gasol still sitting early in the second quarter, Embiid knocked down a pair of short jumpers over Ibaka.
In short, he was far more engaged than two weeks earlier in Toronto.
Embiid finished with 10 points on 3-for-7 shooting from the field. He converted 4 of 6 free throws, grabbed eight rebounds and handed out a season-high six assists in a closer-than-it-should-have been 110-104 victory.
“Just doing my job and attracting attention to help my teammates,” Embiid said afterward. “I did OK, but I didn’t get in any sort of rhythm. I’m happy we got the win.”
Still, Embiid said “it wasn’t even close” to his best outing. “I don’t see any difference from the zero points I had against them.”
He was closer to the normal Embiid, though he committed four of his seven turnovers in the fourth quarter and spent some late-game minutes on the bench as a result.
“I think that his energy, his presence, was good,” Brett Brown said. “At the end, they pressed with a bunch of athletes and he had some rough decisions. It’s unfortunate because he’s one of the reasons we won.”
Before Sunday’s game, Brown claimed Embiid “was actually quite effective when you judge the points generated by going to Joel and he threw it out (of double-teams)” in the previous meeting. Yet Embiid had two assists and four turnovers, two of which came at crunch time.
Gasol, a former NBA Defensive Player of the Year, defends Embiid as well as — if not better than — anybody in the league. Gasol has the size (7-foot-1, 255 pounds), fundamentals and smarts to make Embiid work at the offensive end, but Embiid should still be a factor.
Embiid is good friends with and respects Gasol, who consoled an anguished Embiid at the end of the Sixers’ crushing Game 7 playoff defeat in Toronto last spring. Perhaps Embiid had been playing like he respected Gasol too much.
He was a little less respectful Sunday.
Both teams have changed some key personnel since the Raptors won the NBA championship in June, highlighted by Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard having moved on to the Clippers. But the Sixers and Toronto are still two of the better teams in the Eastern Conference and could meet again in the postseason.
“I think there’s the rivalry here, certainly, with the classic series we had a year ago,” Nurse said. “I think we’re constantly evaluating how they look and they’re probably doing the same and what kind of things we maybe can take into the future if we run into each other. The chances are there that we do play in the playoffs.”
If it should turn out that way, the Sixers are going to need Embiid to be even better than he was Sunday.
Tom Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org; @TomMoorePhilly