When last we left our masked hero, he was, well, masked. And tired of wearing a mask. And angry about his season coming to an end in the second round of the NBA playoffs.
Compared to how his first three years in the league played out, though, none of those details seem so bad in retrospect.
Over the course of the 2017-18 season, Joel Embiid went from an injury-prone punchline to one of the game’s most dominating players. Some less serious setbacks than the ones that marred the Philadelphia center’s previous three as a professional caused him to miss 19 games, most coming at the end of the regular season. But his impact and numbers — 22.9 points per game, 11.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.8 blocks — were so great that he made the All-NBA second team in his second season of competition.
A man who couldn’t seem to stay healthy enough to actually get on the court after becoming the Sixers’ No. 3 overall draft pick in 2014 helped his team secure the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
When considering all that Embiid accomplished in his first full season in the NBA (he only played 31 of 82 games before suffering a season-ending injury as a rookie), I keep going back to what the 7-footer said before it all played out. When Embiid and the 76ers practiced at Allen Fieldhouse in October of 2017, I asked the former University of Kansas center whether he had added anything new to his repertoire during the offseason.
“Not really,” Embiid replied. “Because I didn’t really get the chance to be on the court this summer, because I was rehabbing (the left-knee injury that ended his 2016-17 season).”
The man couldn’t even work on his game during the summer, said he felt behind in the preseason and went on to become not just an all-star, but an all-league performer. And Embiid said once he got healthy and caught up he thought the Sixers — after five consecutive losing, playoff-less seasons — could make the postseason.
So we should probably heed the Cameroonian center’s words regarding his expectations for the 2018-19 season, which tips off Tuesday night (7 p.m., TNT) with Philadelphia taking on East favorite Boston, the team that eliminated the Sixers in the second round this past spring.
Amid a healthy offseason of actually working on his game and conditioning, Embiid made it clear back in August that he’s planning on a massive campaign.
“I want to win the MVP,” he told Yahoo Sports. “I feel like at the end of the day it might be an individual award, but when I play better, the team also does. I feel like if I’m an MVP candidate or if I win the MVP, that means we are on another level.”
Embiid possesses the bravado of a professional wrestler and the size and skill to become (if healthy, a parenthetical that will continue to accompany him for some time) one of the game’s all-time great big men. You’ll want to tune in for the show every chance you get.
Other Jayhawks to watch
On the opposite end of the NBA spectrum, in Phoenix, where the likely lottery-bound Suns have an intriguing core of young talent but play in the loaded Western Conference, another former one-and-done lottery pick from KU, Josh Jackson, enters his second season with some hardware in mind, too.
And Jackson isn’t taking an outlandish route with his goal.
After averaging 13.1points and 4.6 rebounds and shooting 41.7 percent from the floor in 77 games as a rookie, Jackson, through a promotional piece for Under Armour, made public his plan to go after the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
“I really want to win that award,” the 21-year-old Jackson said. “It would help me feel the work I put in last season and this summer paid off.”
While Suns games aren’t exactly easy to find on the league’s national TV schedule, you can keep up with Jackson’s progress over at The Undefeated, where he will work with Marc J. Spears throughout the season to provide diary entries about his life on and off the court.
“How good is he? How good is he going to be? Can he really win? I feel like this is a big year for me to answer those questions,” Jackson began in his first piece.
Though he started four games for Boston in the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, Marcus Morris plans on making a different role work for him this season.
The Celtics’ top five players — Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — project as one of the league’s best lineups. Morris, entering his eighth season, plans on Boston having one of the NBA’s top bench units, too.
With the old school hiphop group N.W.A. the source of his inspiration, Morris declared the Celtics’ group of reserves — himself, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes and others — “B.W.A.” or “bench with attitude.”
“I think we have a lot of guys that bring that fire,” Morris told The Athletic. “So I just wanted to try and have fun with it. We’ve got, to me, a couple guys on the bench who could start on other teams. And at the same time we’re still coming in with that fire. Basically, if another bench don’t come in ready we’re going to bust their ass. And that’s how we approach it.”
Morris and the Celtics are gunning for the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance since 2010.
Because, of course he did, Marcus’ twin brother Markieff, he of the Washington Wizards, told reporters before the preseason schedule even began that Boston “has never been better than us.”
The Wizards, in Markieff’s mind, are the best team in the East.
“Raptors are going through a little bit, they changed up DeMar DeRozan,” the Wizards forward opined. “Other than that, Boston has never been better than us. Internally we don't think they were better than us last year. But we just got to play up to our ability."
The East’s No. 8 seed this past season, Washington lost to Toronto in the first round of the playoffs. We’ll have to check back in April or May to gauge Markieff’s prophesying abilities.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft and the recent recipient of a five-year, $148 million contract extension, Andrew Wiggins is viewed in most NBA circles as little more than an athletic scorer.
Those who cover Minnesota for the Star Tribune have reached a point where they’re ready to label Wiggins as a lost cause.
The Timberwolves’ best player, Jimmy Butler, demanded a trade, reportedly, in part, due to his not-so-high opinion of Wiggins and the franchise’s youngest star, Karl-Anthony Towns.
Butler might have been traded by the time you’re reading this. Or he might play out the season begrudgingly with Minnesota. Either way, Wiggins will be on the receiving end of some unwanted attention. The T’wolves are due to pay him more than $25 million this season and they — coach Tom Thibodeau in particular — would like to see more from the 23-year-old wing than the 19.7 points per game career average he brings with him into his fifth NBA season.
Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk
Sure, they play on opposite coasts for very different franchises, but for one last time it seems right to group these two former KU teammates and sidekicks together.
Both second-round picks enter their rookie season in similar situations, too. Devonte’ Graham, for now, looks like a 12th man type for Charlotte, behind all-star Kemba Walker and former Spurs great Tony Parker at point guard.
Playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, on the same team as legendary forward LeBron James no less, Svi Mykhailiuk, like Graham, likely won’t be called upon unless the bench is emptied in the game’s final minutes.
But an injury here or there could bump either of the rookies up their team’s depth chart. It will be interesting to see how they handle their opportunities when they come and to monitor how much their respective franchises utilize the G League in their development.
Kelly Oubre Jr.
Under contract only through the end of this season, Kelly Oubre Jr.’s next few months will determine how much money teams, including Washington, are interested in paying him once he becomes a restricted free agent next summer.
The 15th overall pick in the 2015 draft, Oubre is coming off easily his most productive season in the NBA, having averaged 11.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.0 steals, while shooting 34.1 percent from 3-point range — all career highs.
He already has proven to be a valuable defender as a pro. If he can somehow develop into a slightly better 3-point shooter Oubre won’t have to worry about finding a team that wants to pay him.
Frank Mason III
A beloved former national player of the year at KU, Frank Mason III just might begin his second season taking on a key role for Sacramento.
According to NBC Sports Bay Area, Kings coach Dave Joerger is considering starting Mason in the backcourt while the team is without Bogdan Bogdanovic.
“You’re going to get 110 percent from him,” Joerger said of Mason.
A hot start for Mason could inspire his coach to ask more of him on a permanent basis. Mason averaged 18.9 minutes while playing in 52 games as a rookie, producing 7.9 points, 2.8 assists and 2.5 rebounds, with 36 percent 3-point accuracy but just a 38.4 percent mark on 2-pointers as he struggled to finish inside against the length of NBA defenders.
Though Wayne Selden, in his first full season with Memphis, averaged 9.3 points per game and hit 40.2 percent of his 3-pointers, his status within the Grizzlies’ rotation, it appears, will be determined by how he plays in the weeks ahead and fits into various lineups.
As reported by the Memphis Commercial Appeal, injuries during his time with the organization have kept Selden from establishing what he could be for the Grizzlies. Selden will enter the summer of 2019 as an unrestricted free agent.
Coming into his third year with New Orleans, Cheick Diallo has yet to play more than 11.7 minutes a game. He at least appeared in 52 in 2017-18, far more than the 17 he experienced as a rookie.
Due to the Pelicans’ front court depth — Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, Nikola Mirotic, Darius Miller and even Jahlil Okafor — it’s difficult to foresee his role expanding this year.
Back with Sacramento after an uneventful stint with Memphis, Ben McLemore, at 25, doesn’t even really fit into the Kings’ youth movement.
It doesn’t seem too farfetched for him to play behind Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield, Yogi Ferrell and Iman Shumpert at shooting guard.
When the Kings traded for him this summer it was most likely for his contract, which will come off the books at the end of this season.
An undrafted rookie who never actually played at Kansas, Billy Preston likely won’t play much for Cleveland this year, either.
The 6-foot-10 forward whose name infamously popped up in the ongoing federal college basketball trial is playing on a two-way contract with the Cavs, allowing him to split time in the G League and NBA.
Before he joined the Celtics via offseason trade nearly a year ago, Marcus Morris experienced all of four playoff games during his first six seasons in the NBA.
He made up for lost time over the past month-and-a-half, though, becoming a bit of a Boston crowd favorite amid an improbable postseason run that ended one victory away from The Finals.
But the physical, sometimes confrontational approach of Morris, a former Kansas standout, played a role in pushing James’ Cavaliers to the brink of elimination. Whether he was celebrating his own and-one, a teammate’s dunk or some hustle play that charged up the Celtics and their supporters, Morris screams and ensuing crowd eruptions became commonplace in Boston.
“This is probably the most I’ve ever screamed in my life,” Morris told a group of reporters while cracking a rare smile earlier this week, after the Celtics’ season concluded with a 4-3 conference finals loss to Cleveland. “I’m not really a big screamer. Off the court I am so much different than I am on the court. I just thought that there were times we needed that and they feed off it. So it was definitely a fun experience.”
Morris’ seven seasons in the NBA have taken him through Houston, Phoenix, Detroit and now Boston. He said he turned out to be “one of the fan favorites” at every stop except Phoenix. After averaging 12.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in 19 playoff games, Morris saw Celtics fans embracing him, antics and all.
“It was just a matter of time,” Morris said.
Following his first season with Boston, Morris felt grateful for the trade that sent him there from Detroit. Pointing to both a knee injury and a court case in which he and twin brother Markieff were acquitted of aggravated assault, Morris thought the regular season got off to a slow start.
“But gradually I found my way and became a big help for this team,” said Morris, who averaged 13.6 points and 5.4 rebounds in 26.8 minutes during the regular season. “Playing in Boston is special, man. I’ve been around a lot of places and Boston has definitely been my favorite.”
Although Morris has a year left on his contract, he doesn’t know whether he will be back with the Celtics for the 2018-19 season. If he and all of his teammates are healthy, it could be difficult for him to see as much playing time as he did this year.
While coach Brad Stevens could definitely find avenues to make sure Morris fits in the rotation, Boston would have Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown all playing in front of Morris. Throw in the fact that president of basketball operations Danny Ainge only kept four players in place from a team that reached the conference finals in 2017 and nothing about this off-season can be assumed.
Morris told the Boston Globe he’s heading into the summer unsure if he’ll still be with the organization by preseason training camp.
“There’s going to be a lot of players next year, so I’m not 100 percent sure where I fit totally yet,” Morris said. “It’s just something I’m still kind of wary about.”
Nothing humbles a lifelong basketball prodigy quite like finally reaching the NBA only to find out that combination of athleticism and skills that helped you dominate in high school and college isn’t nearly as effective anymore.
In his first year as a professional, after leaving Kansas, Josh Jackson improved greatly over the course of the lengthy regular season, garnering a spot on the NBA’s All-Rookie second team.
Still, Phoenix’s No. 4 overall pick in the 2017 draft said recently his summer plans involve spending “a lot” of hours at the gym, because he wants to get stronger, add some muscle weight and work on improving his ball-handling.
“I think this year I had a lot of turnovers where I was just dribbling and lost the ball,” Jackson shared in a video interview for the Suns’ website. “A lot of times where I just took a look at myself and the other guys on the court, and I’m like, ‘Wow. These guys are a lot stronger than me. This needs to change.’”
While his mistakes, especially those that resulted from being overpowered, might stick out in his mind, high turnover rates are common for high profile rookies, because they typically play for bad teams and are asked to carry much of the offense at a young age (Jackson turned 21 in February).
Jackson turned the ball over 1.9 times a game, which ranked seventh-highest among first-year players. But the six rookies with worse averages — Ben Simmons (3.4), Dennis Smith Jr. (2.8), Donovan Mitchell (2.7), Lonzo Ball (2.6), De’Aaron Fox (2.4) and Milos Teodosic (2.2) — carried greater ball-handling responsibilities for their teams.
A 6-foot-8 forward who got off to a slow start as a pro, averaging 8.8 points in November and 8.7 in December, Jackson finished his rookie campaign starting 35 of 77 games for the Suns. His 13.1 points per game ranked 7th among rookies, and Jackson was among the best first-year players in steals (1.0 per game, 5th), shooting (41.7% FGs, 6th) and rebounding (4.6, 9th).
Looking back at his first go-round, Jackson understands why strength and conditioning workouts will have to become a staple of his offseason.
“Before that all-star break (mid-February) I think I was probably the most tired I’ve ever been in my life. I was literally gasping for air. But I made it through. I made it through,” Jackson repeated. “I’m happy I’ve got one NBA season under my belt and I see what it’s like now. It’s a long stretch. You’ve gotta take care of your body and you’ve always gotta be prepared and ready to play.”
Perhaps his most memorable initiation to the reality of the NBA came at the end of one of his best individual showings. Jackson capped a 27-point night (13-for-24 shooting) at Houston late in the season by knocking down a 17-foot, go-ahead jumper with less than two seconds left.
Jackson thought he won the game for Phoenix, and that belief “lasted maybe about 15 seconds,” because the Rockets’ Gerald Green made a 3-pointer on the other end.
Off the court, Jackson had to get the hang of the NBA’s rigors, as well.
“I knew about the 82 games. I knew it was gonna be hard. What I didn’t know was about the travel schedule. I didn’t really put that into perspective,” he admitted.
Playing in Phoenix or some other city, getting on a plane afterward and playing in another city the next night took some getting used to, as did so much flying for someone who is afraid of heights.
“Sometimes after a game I just want to go home, lay down and go to sleep, but you can’t,” Jackson said, adding he’s trying to find ways to fall asleep on planes. “I still haven’t figured it out yet.”
Even though the Suns went 21-61 (worst in the NBA) during his rookie year, Jackson is optimistic about the franchise’s future. The team is likely to build around him, Devin Booker and the upcoming No. 1 pick in the draft — possibly Deandre Ayton or Luka Doncic.
“I honestly can’t believe my rookie season has come to an end this quick, but I had a lot of fun this year,” Jackson said. “Obviously we had kind of a tough season, but I enjoyed all the guys this year, the coaching staff, and I’m excited for next year, getting to work with these guys this summer and see what we can bring to the table next year.”
Marcus Morris learned a new word following his team’s Tuesday victory over perennial Eastern Conference champion LeBron James and Cleveland.
After a physical Game 2 in the conference finals, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue described how Boston took a 2-0 lead.
“I think they're playing tougher than we are. We see that,” Lue said. “They're being physical. They're gooning the game up, and we've got to do the same thing. We've got to be tougher, mentally and physically.”
When media members presented Lue’s assessment to the Celtic who exudes his tough guy persona constantly on the court, Morris liked what he heard.
“Gooning? That’s a good word,” Morris told the Boston Herald. “(Expletive), we’re doing what it takes. Whatever it takes, every player 1-15, whatever it takes, that’s what we’re doing. You call it what you want to call it. We’re just trying to get the win.”
While Morris didn’t replicate his double-double production from Game 1 versus Cleveland, the former Kansas standout played a key role in a playoff victory yet again, contributing 12 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Boston trailed by 7 at halftime before making a critical run in the third quarter. Morris came through with some timely plays during the push, including a 3-pointer that cut the Cavs’ lead to 2 less than four minutes into the second half and a crowd-igniting and-1 that tied the game at 69.
The seventh-year forward attacked Tristan Thompson off the dribble, and after drawing a foul that sent both bigs tumbling onto the baseline out of bounds, Morris roared in Thompson’s face while flexing.
The sequence quickly became a meme on NBA Twitter, but more importantly for the Celtics, it seemed to fuel the rest of the quarter, as the home team out-scored the three-time defending East champs by 14 in the third, paving the way for a 107-94 win.
As expected, the Celtics weren’t able to relatively shut down James in Game 2 after Morris and his “gooning” band of long, strong wings held the league’s brightest superstar to 15 points in Game 1. James torched Boston for 21 first-quarter points Tuesday and finished with 42.
However, Morris once again held his own when defending James. A change in Cleveland’s starting lineup meant Morris didn’t draw the assignment as often in the second go-round. Still, the numbers showed afterward that Morris’ defense impacted James’ effectiveness. Per ESPN, James scored 6 points on 2-for-8 shooting with 2 turnovers when guarded by Morris.
Now a Boston team without its two best players, injured Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, needs just two more victories to reach The Finals. But Game 3 in Cleveland isn’t until Saturday, and James has plenty of time to figure out ways to better carve up the Celtics’ defense.
Morris described his group as “very confident” at this juncture of the series.
“But we’re gonna stay humble, man,” he added. “The work is not done. We up 2-0. But we done seen crazier things happen. The goal is to go to Cleveland and at least steal one and come back and play in front of these great fans.”
The mere concept of successfully defending otherworldly NBA superstar LeBron James borders on laughable.
So plenty around The Association likely recalled their favorite eye-roll meme or GIF when Marcus Morris stated his belief leading up to Boston’s Eastern Conference Finals series with Cleveland that he’s “probably the best guy defending (James) in the league, outside of Kawhi (Leonard.)”
Prior to this postseason, Morris had experienced exactly four NBA playoff games since leaving Kansas for the pros in 2011. Tactfully, Morris at least made it clear while discussing his matchup with the four-time league MVP, aka “King James,” that it would take a full team effort to try and defend “the best player in this game.”
Surprisingly, at least in the aftermath of Game 1, Morris’ predictive assessment didn’t look completely insane. He started for the first time this postseason specifically to match up with James, and the Celtics took a 1-0 lead as the man who has played in seven straight NBA Finals registered personal 2018 postseason lows with 15 points, 31.3% shooting and 7 turnovers.
Morris, meanwhile, delivered a double-double performance (21 points, 10 rebounds). He was asked during Sunday’s post-game press conference why James doesn’t intimidate him.
“It's a team effort, man,” Morris replied. “It's not just me. Everybody played their part in guarding him. He's obviously the best player in the game, and you need multiple guys and a team to guard him an entire game. I just think we did a great job of that.”
While that appraisal seems dead on, ESPN’s Chris Forsberg shared some interesting advanced data on Morris vs. LeBron, via Second Spectrum. Morris defended James 39 times — the most of any defender — during Boston’s 108-83 win. The Cavs averaged 89.7 points per 100 possessions when Morris defended James, compared to Cleveland’s postseason average of 108 points per 100 possessions.
Morris said he looked forward to guarding James because of his competitive nature, and that “I’m going to be able to tell my kids this one day.” But the seventh-year forward didn’t necessarily notice a change in James’ approach because of the way he and Boston went about defending one of the game’s all-time greats.
While James didn’t dominate inside the way one might assume, his ability to attack the paint was hindered somewhat by the Cavs’ poor 3-point shooting (4 of 26). Obviously, Boston coach Brad Stevens wasn’t about to anoint Morris and his teammates as LeBron-stoppers.
“I thought by committee everybody worked hard. You just have to keep making it as hard as possible on LeBron. Easier said than done,” Stevens added. “He's obviously not going to have many games like that. Their shooters around him won't have many games like that. But I thought our guys were locked in.”
Al Horford credited Morris for embracing the impossible mission of checking James.
“Marcus is one of our leaders, and he's been a presence since the first day he got here,” Horford said of his 6-foot-9 teammate, still in his first season with Boston. “So I think that taking on this challenge is something that we expect out of him. We have his back out there. Like he said, we're doing it as a unit. It's not all on him. But you do have to give him credit for his focus and his commitment for the team.”
Could Morris be the man who keeps James from reaching his eighth straight NBA Finals? Probably not. I mean, why would anyone even ask that question or type it out?
The King, likely waiting to unleash countless retaliatory plays the remainder of the series, complimented his adversary following the Cavs’ loss.
“I thought they had great game plan Game 1. He was the start of it. He was my matchup, and I think they did a great job of communicating throughout the whole game, knowing where I was and knowing where our teammates was,” James said. “Brad and the coaching staff did a great job in Game 1. You commend that. We have an opportunity to look at a lot of film (Monday), and see ways they were making us uncomfortable, making myself off balance and not have a rhythm all game. So we'll be much better in Game 2.”
James added the first game of any series always doubles as a “feel-out game” for him, so he will adjust to the Celtics’ defense accordingly.
Translation: Morris might require the aid of all the leprechauns in TD Garden to get out of another game this series relatively unscathed by LeBron.
In every great NBA player’s narrative there’s a moment he’d like to forget that actually turns into a point in time that shapes the rest of his career for the better. For Philadelphia uber-center Joel Embiid, that instant might have come Wednesday night in a season-ending loss.
Trailing Boston by two with the shot clock off in the fourth quarter of Game 5, the Sixers turned to a suddenly unmasked Embiid for a potential game-tying basket. The former Kansas big man faced up Celtics center Aron Baynes, drove to the paint and couldn’t finish a layup or secure the ensuing offensive rebound, as Boston point guard Terry Rozier snuck in to swipe at the ball, which went out of bounds off of Embiid with just more than 10 seconds on the game clock.
Already down on the court, Embiid slammed his hands on the floor in disbelief and let his 7-foot-2 body fall prostrate. The Celtics went on to win 114-112, ending Philadelphia’s season in the second round of the playoffs.
The play was the antithesis of the rest of Embiid’s night, as his second season in the NBA concluded shortly after unleashing his array of talents. Smooth jumpers, graceful finishes around the rim, protecting the paint on defense. Peak Embiid. The only thing lacking was a 3-pointer, but he finished with 27 points (9-for-18 shooting), 12 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks in his best performance of the postseason.
“It’s hard, because I feel like we had a pretty good chance of beating them,” Embiid said during his post-game press conference. “You’ve gotta learn from it and come back next year and do better.”
Some observers didn’t even expect the Sixers, a league laughingstock during their rebuild, to reach the playoffs this season. But by pairing Embiid with 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, Philadelphia found a young one-two punch as intimidating as any in the NBA. The duo helped Philly finish the regular season 52-30, capturing the No. 3 seed, before the 76ers disposed of Miami, 4-1, in the first round.
Considering Embiid is just 24 years old, Simmons is 21, Dario Saric is 24 and 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz (a non-factor this year) is 19, the confident, young Sixers rightfully anticipate better playoff finishes to come. But they also thought they were capable of more right now.
“We feel like when everybody’s on we’re unbeatable,” the always self-assured Embiid shared. “But we committed a lot of mistakes. We’ve gotta learn from it. But we definitely have more to show.”
The spectacle known as the Sixers will keep the NBA Playoffs compelling for years to come if — and this caveat always must be included when discussing Embiid, who missed his first two pro seasons due to injuries — the multi-skilled Cameroonian known as “The Process” can remain healthy.
“I feel like this season was kind of like a success,” Embiid said. “Our goal was to make the playoffs. And then we changed it and we wanted to get the third seed. And then it was the 50 wins. And going into the playoffs we felt like we had a really good chance, especially after winning 16 in a row (to close the regular season). We felt like we had a good chance to get to at least the conference finals and that was our goal. We didn’t make it, but the whole season we changed the goals we set at the beginning of the season.”
The franchise center said he and Simmons “have a lot of room to grow,” and referenced the beginning of the Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook era in Oklahoma City as an example of how two young talents can reshape an organization.
“I think we’ve got a bright future,” Embiid said, and related an exchange he and Simmons shared after their loss to the Celtics, when the guard pointed to the center’s hands and predicted there would be “a lot of rings” on Embiid’s fingers.
“I’m excited to learn from this stuff, because I felt like we had a pretty good chance,” the big man continued, “but you’ve just gotta learn from it and we’re gonna be fine.”
As a wise man once said: Trust the process.
In the first three games of Philadelphia’s Eastern Conference semifinal matchup with Boston, star center Joel Embiid averaged 24.3 points and often became the focal point of his team’s offense. The problem with this particular approach for “The Process” was the Celtics entered Game 4 with a 3-0 lead.
In the former Kansas big man’s first playoff elimination game, Embiid and the Sixers took a different approach and, with the help of a career night from new starting guard T.J. McConnell, knocked off Boston to stay alive.
Leading up to Monday’s win-or-go-home outing for Philadelphia, both ESPN’s Zach Lowe and The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor pointed out the lack of success the Sixers had offensively when feeding Embiid in the post.
During the first three games of the series, when Embiid received the ball via post-up and shot — an approach welcomed by Boston, by not sending double-teams — the Sixers only produced 23 points on 42 such plays.
From the opening minutes of Game 4, Philadelphia clearly had a different agenda, showing a concerted effort to bring some variation to its offense, with more actions designed to free cutters headed for the paint and the Sixers opting to post up Dario Saric or Ben Simmons when a smaller Boston defender ended up on one of them. Philly didn’t force-feed Embiid and the rest of the team benefited as a result.
While the 24-year-old 7-footer only scored on 1 of 4 shots directly off his post-ups, Philadelphia actually fared far better on his post touches overall. During Embiid’s 35 minutes on the floor, he received the ball 10 times on post-ups and the Sixers scored on 5 of them, netting 11 points (1.1 points per possession).
Embiid finished with 15 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 turnovers and looked comfortable deferring more often for the well-being of his team. The masked face of the franchise — or “Phantom of The Process” — shot 6-for-15, while Saric (25 points) led Philly in shot attempts (9 of 17) and Simmons (19 points) got more involved as a scorer (6 of 15).
When his teammate did seek out Embiid in the post, unlike earlier in the series, it tended to work out. In the opening minutes, the starting center went old school, scoring over Al Horford with a jump-hook after backing him down
In the second quarter, Embiid first made an impact in the post by drawing a foul on Marcus Morris, whom he pinned beneath the rim (more on that KU connection to come). He later posted up Aron Baynes on the right block and passed out of a double team to feed McConnell (19 points, 9-for-12 shooting) for a score inside.
The Sixers finished the half in style on a set that began with Embiid posting at the left elbow. After giving the ball to J.J. Redick on a handoff and rolling to the paint, the big man threw down a jam for a 47-43 halftime advantage.
In the third quarter, one Embiid post-up on the left elbow eventually turned into a wide-open McConnell 3 that pushed the margin to 76-62. In the fourth, after Embiid drew a foul while posting up Greg Monroe, the side out of bounds play that followed concluded with a McConnell layup.
Amid all the countable contributions Embiid made to the win, he also kept the raucous Philly crowd involved, sometimes with the help of his opponents.
In the second quarter Marcus Smart reached in after Embiid secured a defensive board and knocked the visor on the big man’s mask, giving the Sixers star the chance to play to the crowd and for the fans to boo Smart — a pastime with which Kansas fans surely are familiar.
The intensity turned up even more a few minutes later, when Embiid tried taking the ball from Terry Rozier after the point guard was whistled for an offensive foul. The two had to be separated after Rozier pushed Embiid and swung at them, leading to double technical fouls.
Of course, Embiid had something to say about it during his post-game press conference.
“Too bad he’s so short that he couldn’t get to my face,” Embiid deadpanned.
In the third quarter, with Philadelphia making a run, Embiid let another former Kansas standout, Morris, know the Sixers were getting in the Celtics’ heads. Morris responded by first flashing three fingers, then zero, referencing the state of the series entering Game 4.
Dull moments don’t exist in Joel Embiid’s world. Check in to see what he has in store on Wednesday, when the Celtics and Sixers play Game 5, in Boston.
Months from now, when Oklahoma City begins its preparations for the 2018-19 season, the Thunder could be doing so without Nick Collison for the first time in its existence.
Drafted 12th overall in 2003 following a stellar four-year college career at Kansas, Collison played four seasons with Seattle before the franchise relocated to Oklahoma. He admitted this weekend, following the Thunder’s season-ending loss to Utah in the playoffs, he had no idea as a 22-year-old he’d stick in the NBA for so long.
“No, I don't think I ever thought I'd be able to be playing with partially gray hair,” Collison joked during the team’s end-of-season press conference. “I’m starting to get some. At 37 years old, no, I wouldn't think I'd still be playing at 37. I've been really blessed. I've had a lot of really good people around me. I've worked hard at it, too, and things have gone my way. I'm very thankful for the career I've had.”
There’s a chance this just-completed season, his 14th with the franchise that drafted him (Collison missed the 2003-04 season due to injury), will be his last. The 6-foot-10 power forward only appeared in 15 games for the Thunder during the regular season. He didn’t even check into a playoff game for OKC either of the past two postseasons.
Collison has contemplated retiring “a lot,” he admitted, but said he didn’t want to rush to judgment a day or two after the season ended.
“I’ll probably just take some time, talk to my family, talk to my agent, talk to the team a little bit, and go from there,” Collison said. “But I've thought about it. There's no question I'm coming up on the end. It's close.”
Determining factors in his retire-or-keep-playing verdict, Collison said, include deciding what he wants to do with his time, life and family, as well as “just how I want to spend the future, the next year, and go from there.”
Whether his playing days officially conclude in a week or a year, Collison hasn’t figured out yet exactly what retirement will entail for him.
“I think there might be something in basketball I can do, but I'm not going to do that and not spend enough time with my child and stuff with my family,” Collison said. “I’ve been playing for a long time, and it's taken a lot of my time and energy and focus for a long time. So I think getting that stuff in order is the most important thing and then go from there, figuring out kind of what would be good for me.”
Collison played a career-low 75 minutes at the age of 37. His on-court role has steadily declined since 2012, his last averaging 20 minutes per game. OKC re-signed him to a one-year contract this past off-season primarily due to his renowned locker-room presence.
Though he played sparingly, scoring a season-high seven points in six minutes of a March win over Sacramento, Collison knew what his role would be coming into the season.
“I enjoyed being on a team and practicing, trying to help out. The few cameos I got were fun, in the games,” Collison added. “We would have all liked to continue to be playing and had a year where we could compete for a championship. It didn't happen, but it's a blessing to play in the NBA and to be on a team. So, yeah, I definitely enjoyed the year.”
The Thunder, headlined by Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, finished 48-34 in what might be Collison’s final year, securing the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference before bowing out to the Jazz in the first round, 4-2.
“Yeah, it was frustrating at times this year,” Collison said. “I think we kept waiting for us to really hit our stride, and it wouldn't happen really for long enough stretches that we needed it to. First thing, is it's a tough league. I mean, Western Conference, incredibly tough, and we got home-court advantage. It's not easy to do. But I think everybody would have liked for us to have things go a little bit better. You know, there's a lot of new players. It does take time.”
Considering Collison has spent the past decade around OKC’s polarizing superstar, Westbrook, he knows him just as well as anyone in the NBA. Asked how he felt about some of the narratives surrounding Westbrook, such as former teammates benefiting from moving on to other teams and playing without Westbrook, Collison described the all-star point guard as a “great” teammate.
“You know, when he got here, we were a bad basketball team, and we got better, and we've become a really good team for a really long time, and he's got a huge part — he has a lot to do with that,” Collison said. “I love playing with him, and he's an all-time great to me. I don't care what anybody else says. I think he's been huge for the city, this organization and all the guys I play with, and myself.”
Time will tell whether Collison will be back for another go-round with Westbrook and the Thunder.
Nick Collison career stats
He told you to trust the process. Why didn’t you believe him?
In just his second year competing at the NBA level, Joel Embiid has helped Philadelphia, a team that owned a 0.191 winning percentage in the three seasons before his debut, reach the second round of the playoffs.
The game-changing center who spent one shortened season at Kansas returned to the Sixers’ lineup against Miami with their first-round series tied at 1-1. The Heat failed to win a game with Embiid on the floor, and a franchise that was the butt of copious jokes as recently as a year ago eliminated one of the league’s most respected organizations, Thursday night. Embiid’s 19 points on 8-for-14 shooting, with 12 rebounds and 2 steals fueled the final blow of a 4-1 series victory.
“Two years ago, we won 10 games,” Embiid, who missed the first two seasons of his career due to injuries, told The Inquirer. “To get in this position, I’m just excited. Playing through adversity and everything that’s happened to me, I’m just blessed.”
The Sixers await the winner of the Boston-Milwaukee series in the Eastern Conference semifinals, a round Philly now projects to reach with ease for years to come.
“This is the future of the NBA,” Heat veteran and future hall of famer Dwyane Wade told reporters after the 76ers sent Miami home. Wade added the league is in “good hands” with Embiid and rookie point guard extraordinaire Ben Simmons.
In fact, in many NBA circles Philadelphia isn’t even considered a team to reckon with a year or two from now. Given the landscape of the East — top seed Toronto is tied 2-2 with No. 8 seed Washington, LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers are tied 2-2 with Indiana, and Boston, though up 3-2 on Milwaukee, doesn’t have injured all-stars Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward — the Sixers, some say, have as realistic a shot as any team to advance out of the Eastern Conference.
As you might have guessed, Philly’s boisterous center agrees.
“I think we have a chance to go to The Finals,” Embiid said during an on-court interview with ESPN following the victory, when asked how far Philadelphia could venture this postseason.
Embiid has played in just 94 regular-season games in his injury-shortened career, but the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft only looks muddled in the playoffs when the mask protecting the orbital bone he fractured last month affects his vision or comfort.
In three victories the 24-year-old force now known as “The Process” is averaging 18.7 points on 41.7% shooting, to go with 10.3 rebounds, 3.0 blocks, 2.0 assists and 1.3 steals.
“I promised the city this, and I’m just excited,” Embiid said following his home-court postseason debut.
“I think we have a special team,” he added during his post-game press conference. “You know, we’ve got a lot of talent and they’re all good guys. We love each other. We love playing with each other. So I feel like we play the way we want to play, and that’s sharing the ball and being the best defensive team in the league. We feel like if we move the ball we can get whatever we want to, so that’s the goal and we’re going to do everything to get there.”
Few believed a year ago such a scenario was possible, but it’s true. The recently forlorn Sixers could win not one, but multiple playoff series this spring.
And this team that has won 20 of its previous 21 games just may be good enough to reach The Finals. Is that possible?
As the headline in today’s Inquirer read: “Yes, Indiid!”
It wouldn’t really feel like a true Joel Embiid milestone without some maddening injury putting it behind schedule. So, appropriately enough, the often-wounded, rarely-dispirited Philadelphia center made his NBA Playoffs debut three games into his team’s opening-round series Thursday night in Miami.
Although the former Kansas star, who never played in an NCAA Tournament game back in 2014 due to a back injury, missed the last three weeks and the 76ers’ previous 10 games due to an orbital bone fracture near his left eye, a masked Embiid returned to the lineup to lead his team to a road victory in his postseason launch.
Sure, the Sixers’ star appeared both obstructed and frustrated at times by the protective shield strapped to his face. Even so, Embiid, while showing some rust, managed to pour in 23 points on 5-for-11 shooting, nail 3 of 4 from 3-point range and provide 7 boards, 4 assists and 3 blocks in 30 minutes of a 128-108 win.
The first five field-goal attempts from the recovering big man misfired before he got on track just before halftime, first by knocking down a 3-pointer, then converting through contact on a smooth up-and-under.
“I am just so proud of what he did on the court,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said after Embiid helped the team take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. “Take the real situation of not only was he injured, and not playing basketball, but now you’ve gotta come back in on the road and play a playoff game with a mask. And it’s not like there’s a clear vision line out of the mask. It has a protective lens in there, as well. And for him to come back under those terms and in that situation and produce the numbers he produced, and help lead us to a road playoff win, I’m very, very proud of him.”
As indestructible as the mask’s components proved to be — Miami’s Justise Winslow purposefully stepped on the goggles portion when it popped off to no avail — The Inquirer’s Keith Pompey reported Embiid had to use three different masks during the course of the game as the protective gear suffered damages significant enough to warrant replacements.
“It was annoying,” Embiid said, “but that was the only way I could play in this game, was if I was going to wear the mask and protect my face with the goggles. So I had to work through it, and I did, and we got a pretty good win.”
As for Winslow’s ploy to potentially destroy the mask and perhaps sideline Embiid as a result? Well, the Philly center got a kick out of that.
“Little do they know that I have about 50 of them,” Embiid said. “So it’s gonna take much more than that to get me out of the series. And I’m gonna be a nightmare for them, too.”
The Sixers took a 2-point lead into the fourth quarter before putting Miami away on its home floor down the stretch. In the final five-plus minutes, Embiid drilled a fade-away jumper off the glass, knocked down a 3-pointer, blocked a shot and sent in a pair of free throws, before checking out with his team up 16 points.
“It meant a lot,” Embiid said of finally appearing in his first playoff game, close to four years after the 76ers took him No 3 overall in the 2014 draft. “I feel like I’ve been here, went through everything. The year we only won 10 games (2015-16) it was really disappointing. So we went through a lot, and to be able to be in this position, I’m really happy about it. I’m really happy for coach, finally has a team and is coaching us well. He deserves a lot of credit and I feel like he should be Coach of the Year, too. But I was excited. Worked really hard for it and promised the city that. Made it happen. And I was kind of sad that I couldn’t play in the first game or at home, because we have a special connection. But I’m glad I came back today and we got a win.”