Joel Embiid dominates Blazers on both ends to power Sixers to victory: Likes and dislikes
The Sixers (1-1) hosted the Portland Trail Blazers (0-2) on Sunday. Philadelphia wanted to win its home-opener. Portland wanted to claim its first victory of the season. Joel Embiid went for 35 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, and six blocks to power the Sixers to a 126-98 victory in their home-opener.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Blazers were without the services of Anfernee Simons, who has a torn ligament in his right thumb.
Ish Wainright has a strained right calf and was unavailable. Duop Reath is on a two-way assignment with Portland's G-League affiliate and was out.
Chauncey Billups started Scoot Henderson, Shaedon Sharpe, Matisse Thybulle, Jerami Grant, and Deandre Ayton
The Sixers were without James Harden, who is reconditioning in preparation for a return to competition after being away for more than a week tending to a personal matter.
Nick Nurse started Tyrese Maxey, De'Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Embiid.
The first quarter represented a moment of leadership for Maxey. The Sixers came out uninspired in the first few minutes of the game, perhaps a little sore or fatigued from a late arrival in Philadelphia after Saturday's win in Toronto. Maxey sensed the lack of energy and quickly decided to bring the life to the blue jerseys.
He was extremely aggressive on defense, vacuuming up any space between himself and prized Blazers rookie Henderson, beating him to the spot on a crossover and forcing him to step out of bounds. Maxey was fearless on the other end of the court, putting the ball on the deck and picking up contact when he sensed overzealous hands or general body in his space. Philadelphia has made a point to hammer the belief that Maxey is not getting the whistle he deserves on the contact he takes. Naturally, there Maxey was in the first quarter, getting himself going and putting points on the board for Philadelphia by getting downhill aggressively and forcing contact.
He didn't stop there. When Maxey sensed a narrow gait, he got the defender off balance with a quick move before raining in a triple from the right wing. He followed up quickly, sensing space coming left off a pick and splashing another one from deep.
That adrenaline rush brought the Sixers to life. A 6-0 deficit to open the game was erased within seconds, the Sixers going on a 12-0 run catalyzed by Maxey deciding to call his own number.
For all the talk on Sunday afternoon about Embiid potentially missing the game due to rest, and then that conversation shifting to accusations that he was lazy and came to training camp out of shape, the big man was totally dominant in this game. And as he should be, I might add.
He ate the Blazers alive, taking whichever poor soul was tasked with defending him to the basket. Not every decision was quick. But, when he decided to take that first step and attack, he committed to it. Whether it was a smooth spin move, a shot fake and a step-through, or a simple drive through contact, it was the sort of traditional big man game that elders all over the Delaware Valley long for.
There was almost not settling for jumpers. Embiid simply decided that the Blazers had no one at his position or elsewhere that had any chance of stopping him. Regardless of where he touched the ball - nail, elbow, or closer - he was thinking about getting all the way to the basket.
Embiid even made an effort to do some of the dirty week that stars don't always feel compelled to do. He created a bit of chaos as a screener, and then made himself available on dives to the basket. He also cut to the rim when Portland was preoccupied with what was going on elsewhere on the court.
Embiid's dominance wasn't limited to the offensive side of the court. Nurse made it clear in training camp that he wanted Embiid to be an aggressive shot-blocker. The big guy isn't getting to every ball at the rim, but he's trying to make aggressive plays. When the result isn't a blocked shot, it's something else. Perhaps Embiid is able to jar the ball loose on the way up. Perhaps his mere presence is enough to scare an offensive player. His defense has been quit excellent to start the season, even if there isn't a basic statistic on the box score to quantify it all the time.
The Sixers are doing this thing where they'll have Melton randomly front his man on the weak side at the last second and it's been brilliant. They've created a handful of live turnovers already this season just by Melton deflecting the pass as he lunges out in front of his man at the last possible second.
Philadelphia hasn't exactly faced a gauntlet perimeter defense through the first three games. But, the Sixers are proving to themselves, viewers, and the rest of the league that it doesn't have to be famine if Harden decides to make things ugly to get out of Philadelphia. Sure, they don't have a playmaker of his caliber or anyone close to that level elsewhere on the roster. But, they're also cutting - everyone, regardless of role or spot in the pecking order, is cutting. And beyond that, they're getting out in transition.
Philadelphia is accepting the playmaking deficit and finding other ways to make up for it. It's not as powerful and awe-inspiring as having two dynamic talents. But, the Sixers are rolling their eyes at the idea that they need to have cutting-edge artillery to survive in the regular season. It might not always be pretty, it might take a little dirty work. But, Philadelphia is matching the sexy Harden passes and playmaking leverage with cutting, ball movement, and transition play. Save your eulogies for another day.
An incredible Jaden Springer volleyball spike off the backboard in transition had to be overshadowed by his picking up four fouls in four minutes of play in the first half. I will say, though, tip of the hat to Nurse for letting Springer play through the adversity a little bit. Not sure we would've seen that under the previous regime.
The Sixers (2-1) will host the Toronto Raptors (1-2) on Thursday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBA TV.