Each game is a new step in Joel Embiid’s development. There have been contests in which he makes dominating look easy, and others like Tuesday’s down-to-the-wire 103-101 loss to the Magic in which he had late fourth-quarter struggles (see Instant Replay).
Embiid said early in training camp that he wanted to be the Sixers' go-to guy. He described himself as a clutch player even though he had yet to make his NBA debut. For him it is more of a mindset than an actual experience, one that he eagerly brings to the court.
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The Sixers looked for Embiid down the stretch as they fought to reclaim their once-18-point lead over the Magic that they squandered away in the second half.
“This one I want to play through Jo,” Brett Brown said after the loss. “We got him touches, we got him the ball. I think you can get him the ball in different ways. You can pick-and-roll him into the post. You can direct post him and pass it into the post. I wouldn’t do much differently.”
Embiid recorded his first career double-double (18 points, 10 rebounds) in his third NBA game, but two key possessions gave momentum back to the Magic.
Up 101-99 with 36.6 seconds to play, Embiid traveled and committed a turnover. Evan Fournier tied the game on the next possession. The Sixers had the opportunity to retake the lead with the score evened up at 101 apiece. With 6.7 seconds left, Embiid attempted to hand the ball off to Sergio Rodriguez. Elfrid Payton reached in for the steal.
Embiid still had a chance at redemption on the final play.
After the Magic called a timeout, they ran a set that started with Nik Vucevic catching the ball at the three-point line. Vucevic attempted a pass to Evan Fournier, but the ball was tipped in the air. Embiid tried to pounce on the loose ball on the floor only to have it squirt from his grasp right to Magic forward Serge Ibaka. Ibaka was subsequently hacked by T.J. McConnell, who was assessed a Flagrant 1. Ibaka drilled the two free throws for the win.
“It's part of this group trying to figure out how to execute better in that situation and Joel trying to do the right thing,” Brown said. “Even the play at the end, he’s got the ball and you can see it's just raw to him at the moment. We'd do it again, try to put him in a position where he can help us go get a win.”
Embiid was visibly disappointed after the game. After the media parted from his locker, he placed his hood over his head and stared at the ground.
“It’s really tough,” Embiid said of the loss. ”Next time we’ve got to come out of halftime, we’ve got to be ready. … Next time when we have a lead like that we’ve just got to be ready to play and compete.”
Brown noticed Embiid still is getting adjusted to the league after a two-year recovery from foot injuries. Embiid’s minutes were increased to 24 minutes on Tuesday, which he exceeded by 52 seconds. He played over seven minutes in the fourth quarter.
“I feel like we’re seeing Jo try to get his balance and his hands, he just hasn’t played for so long. And we’re seeing that tonight, kind of all over the place,” Brown said, adding, “I see Joel fatiguing right now quickly. He goes three, four minutes and you can just sort of see it in his game and in his face, and so we sit him. Tonight we were able to get 24 minutes out of it and tried to do it in different sections. I’m happy the way that that played out. We had him on the court when we needed to.”
If it were up to Embiid, he would be playing every minute of the game.
“I didn’t feel tired at all,” he said. “I felt great.”
The Sixers decided earlier in the week Embiid will not travel to Charlotte for their back-to-back game against the Hornets on Wednesday. He will remain in Philadelphia to go through individualized work at the Sixers' training complex in Camden, N.J.