Joel Embiid didn't earn Defensive Player of the Year or All-NBA First Team center last season.
He had the chance to go head to head and outperform the big men that took those honors last season. Instead, he had a poor second half in Utah Wednesday and followed it up with a rough performance Friday night in Denver.
Though Rudy Gobert didn't really get the better of Embiid, Nikola Jokic had a monster fourth quarter and made a difficult, clutch shot with 1.2 seconds left to cap the Nuggets' 21-point comeback win (see observations).
In the two games since returning from his suspension, Embiid has shot a combined 11 of 33 and committed 11 turnovers and 11 personal fouls. He's looked lethargic and lackadaisical. He's struggled to get back defensively and is settling for too many outside shots. He's essentially running three-point line to three-point line instead of rim to rim.
"We're growing Joel's fitness base and trying to continually move that forward where he can be Joel Embiid," Brett Brown told reporters postgame. "You know, tonight you can see that we've got some work to do. I think that he fought his heart out. I think that when we needed him, most times he was there. And we're going to continue to just get him as healthy as we can and help put him in a position where he can be Joel Embiid."
The fact that Jokic woke up and put up a 16-point fourth while Embiid continued to struggle wasn't the only reason the Sixers lost Friday.
They somehow only scored 13 points in the fourth quarter after putting up 84 through three. They looked out of sync and were missing the decent looks they were getting. Perhaps fatigue was an issue for the entire team. Al Horford airballing a wide-open three from the top of the key with 15.7 seconds left seemed to encapsulate the horrendous final quarter for the Sixers.
While you certainly can't blame blowing a 21-point lead on officiating, the refs didn't do the Sixers any favors down the stretch. They were on the wrong end of two coach's challenges - one took away an Embiid and-one and the other was a foul call on Embiid that should have been overturned but was not. On the Sixers' ensuing possession after Jokic's big shot, they called Embiid for a push off. The call was questionable as both players appeared to be jockeying for position and Jokic was holding Embiid's jersey.
In any case, if you preserve the huge lead you have, you don't leave the game in the hands of the officials.
"When I watched the replay, I didn't really see any push off," Embiid said. "If you want to call that foul, especially at that time of the game, I think that's kind of BS. Especially because he was hooking me before that foul actually happened.
"But those are things we can't control. We shouldn't have let it get to that situation. We had a lot of turnovers, missed free throws. Our fourth-quarter offense wasn't the same as the third. I thought that the first three quarters was the best that we've played. The ball kept moving and we kept finding each other and everybody stepped up. It was just unfortunate that it had to come down to that."
But the storyline in this one was Embiid's health and fitness level.
It was the storyline for the entire 2019 postseason. Just eight games into the 2019-20 season and this is already a troubling trend. Embiid was forced to sit out the second game of the season with an ankle sprain. After missing just two games because of a suspension, he's looked completely gassed since returning.
Yes, altitude is a factor and Embiid has said many times that it's very easy for him to get out of shape if he misses a game or two, but things have to change.
Embiid is an All-Star and considered by most to be a top-10 player in the NBA. The Sixers are all in and part of that mindset is the idea that they have arguably the best center in the league. It's just two games, but he wasn't even the best center on the floor in Utah or Denver.
The questions about his health and fitness aren't going away until he gets to the point "where he can be Joel Embiid."
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