It was a strange night at the Wells Fargo Center. Then again, everything has felt strange since we found out that Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others tragically died in a helicopter crash Sunday.
But on Tuesday, it was time for Joel Embiid and the Sixers to play basketball again. The team honored Bryant, the NBA great and Philadelphia native, in a touching pregame tribute.
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Embiid did it by returning to the floor after missing nine games and scoring 24 points in a 115-104 win over the Warriors (see observations), drawing upon the way Bryant played his decorated 20-year career.
"It was tough," Embiid said. "Like I keep saying, Kobe meant something different than anybody else. It was tough, but I know just looking at his career and what he was about, that 'Mamba Mentality.' It was about outworking your opponent, outworking everybody else and I know he would want everybody to go out and compete hard and play the game and try to win. That's what he was about. It was tough but that's how you honor him."
Beyond his play on the floor, Embiid reached out to another Hall of Famer for help to honor Kobe.
Bobby Jones' No. 24 was retired by the Sixers in 1986. Known as "The Secretary of Defense," Jones was a five-time All-Star and an 11-time All-Defensive Team pick. Sixers equipment manager Scotty Rego, who's been with the team for over 32 years, had a hand in helping arrange everything. A phone call was arranged for Embiid and Jones earlier in the day.
Jones' only caveat was that Embiid have a strong defensive effort - like Jones and Bryant, a 12-time All-Defensive Team pick himself.
"Bobby, he's a legend," Embiid said. "He's got his number retired. He's a Hall of Famer. It's always tough to be in that situation, but he was incredible. He was forthcoming. I'm really grateful that he let me have this opportunity to wear that number. It's a tough decision, but he was all for it and I'm really thankful."
Will he continue to wear it?
"No, I'm not keeping it. It was just for one game. You can't disrespect the greatness of Bobby Jones. He was a great player at his time. His number is retired. Like I said, I'm extremely grateful that he let me have that opportunity to wear that. I'm back to my number."
Embiid getting the opportunity to play and wear the number wasn't a forgone conclusion. Embiid was listed as questionable pregame and had to be cleared by a hand surgeon. He'd missed the past two and a half weeks after tearing a ligament in the ring finger of his left hand.
When he spoke to reporters last week for the first time since his surgery, he mentioned the team's spot in the standings has fueled him to want to get back in the lineup faster. With their win tonight, the Sixers are a half game ahead of the Pacers for the fifth seed and just 2 ½ games behind the Raptors for No. 2.
They also have a difficult stretch of games upcoming. After traveling to Atlanta to take on the lowly Hawks, they finish the road trip with games against the Celtics, Heat and Bucks - all teams ahead of them in the conference.
Embiid is gearing up for that slate but didn't look all that rusty Tuesday aside from his five turnovers. Most importantly, he said his finger wasn't in any pain.
"No, it's not," Embiid said. "I'm fine. I'm wearning a lot of straps on it. I will probably blame that on the amount of turnovers I had today. So that was the reason, but I'm wearing a lot of straps on it so takes a lot of adjustment, but it's fine."
With the Sixers beginning to pull away in the fourth, Embiid got the ball in the post on Eric Paschall. It was an obvious mismatch and Embiid went to work. With a double team looming, Embiid turned toward the baseline.
He hit a fadeaway. Wearing No. 24. Earning his 24th point of the game.
"Well, that was cool. I didn't know it was actually 24 points as I shot that fadeaway - that was what [Kobe] was about. I actually yelled ‘Kobe.' A lot of us, since I started playing basketball, that's how we've always done it. You shoot something in the trash and you just go ‘Kobe,' so that was cool. And then for it to be the 24th point and me wearing 24 means a lot."
It was a fitting end to a difficult night.
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