The matchup between Hassan Whiteside and Joel Embiid did not disappoint Monday night. The two young big men battled all game long, and found themselves shadowing each other when they were on the floor together.
Whiteside, who has been in the NBA for five years, is a big that Embiid can learn from. He is dominant on both ends of the floor and has quickly become one of the best centers in the league. Embiid, who is still developing, hung with the double-double machine during the Sixers' 101-94 win over the Heat (see Instant Replay).
The much anticipated battle was the game's best. Whiteside set a career high in points with 32 and also had 13 rebounds. Embiid, who played 23 minutes, finished with 22 points and five rebounds.
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"Going against him makes me better, and I like going against guys who are good," Embiid said. "Since high school, that’s how I have always gotten better."
Playing almost double the minutes of Embiid, Whiteside handled the Sixers in the first half in which he had 16 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. With 5:05 left in the first quarter, he was already on his way to a double-double with nine points and four rebounds. He played well with Embiid on the floor, but started to take the game over when the rookie went to bench.
Embiid played 11 minutes in the first half and had 10 points, two rebounds and two blocks. With 2:40 left in the first quarter, he started to find his rhythm after a huge three-point play scored over Whiteside.
Unsurprisingly, Embiid and Whiteside went right back at it when the second half began. This time, Embiid started to take over. With 8:17 remaining in the third quarter, he blocked Whiteside, then on the other end of the floor, hit an uncontested three in front of him.
As Embiid’s minutes restriction took him off the court, Whiteside took advantage. On two consecutive possessions, he had back-to-back three-point-plays. Jahlil Okafor, who had his minutes restriction lifted prior to the game (see story), had trouble defending Whiteside while Embiid sat.
Despite not playing well on defense, Okafor showed flashes from his rookie season on offense. He scored multiple times on Whiteside and finished the game with 15 points. In his first game free of restrictions, Okafor ended up playing just one more minute than Embiid.
In the fourth quarter, it was no longer Embiid vs. Whiteside, but rather Embiid and Okafor vs. Whiteside. Embiid sat for the beginning of the quarter, while Okafor continued to impress on offense.
Sixers head coach Brett Brown was pleased with the way his bigs performed in the Sixers' fourth win in a row at home.
“Look at what Jahlil did. Look at the stats of Jahlil and Joel, add those up,” Brown said. "That’s good production out of that five spot. The performance of Jahlil and Joel is different than what we had last year."
With 3:38 left in the game, Embiid relieved Okafor to resume his matchup against Whiteside. Embiid immediately drew a foul on him, which was Whiteside's fifth of the game, sending him to the bench. Embiid’s free throws put the Sixers up, 93-91.
The free throws came at a big moment in the game, and Embiid’s poise at the stripe showed.
“I always like to think that I’m clutch," Embiid said, "so I made the free throws."
Whiteside returned with 2:30 left in the game, but failed to score the rest of the way. Still, Whiteside, who signed a four-year, $98 million deal this offseason, delivered his league-leading 12th double-double in 13 games.
Meanwhile, Embiid continued to get to the line, and ultimately won the game there to finish with his fifth 20-plus-point output.
Embiid, who wants to play more, knows that the organization cares about him and continues to say that he must “trust the process.” He also liked the challenge of playing a great center the caliber of Whiteside.
“It’s good, going up against him," Embiid said. "He’s a good defensive big man."
Embiid kept up with Whiteside during the Sixers' fourth win, and once his restriction comes off, he could put up the type of numbers Whiteside did Monday night.