PHILADELPHIA — With his Philadelphia 76ers taking a 2-1 series lead over a Toronto Raptors team led by Kawhi Leonard and his 37.7 points per game so far in the Eastern Conference semifinals, coach Brett Brown was asked a simple question.
When Joel Embiid is healthy, does Brown believe he has the best player in the series on his side?
Brown, taking a swig of water as the question was asked, put down the bottle to answer. “Yes,” Brown replied, letting a smile escape from the corners of his mouth.
Embiid certainly looked the part Thursday night, posting 33 points, 10 rebounds, 5 blocks and 3 assists in Philadelphia’s 116-95 win.
After being limited through the first two games, Embiid broke out of the shackles applied by former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol.
He scored 24 points on 6-for-12 shooting when Gasol guarded him Thursday, including 3-for-3 on 3-pointers and 9-for-9 from the foul line, according to ESPN Stats & Information. This came after he scored just six points combined against Gasol on 2-for-11 shooting (0-for-2 from 3 and 1-for-2 on free throws) in Games 1 and 2.
“I’m not really focused on him,” Embiid said of Gasol, who finished with 7 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks in Game 3. “Great player, have a lot of respect for him, but it’s a team game.
“If I’m open, my teammates are going to find me, and if they’re open, I’m going to find them. So I’m not really worried about them, I’m more worried about my team. You know, how we coexist on the court, how we play together.”
The Sixers played seamless basketball Thursday, leading by as many as 26 points and never trailing. Outside of Leonard’s 33 points on 13-for-22 shooting, Philadelphia held the rest of the Raptors’ roster to just 62 points on 36.1 percent from the field.
After Toronto was held to just 89 points in Game 2, Thursday marked the first time the Raptors failed to reach 100 points in consecutive games since Dec. 28 and Dec. 30.
It shouldn’t be surprising then that Brown was most impressed by his big man’s defense.
“I mean, for me it goes straight to the blocks,” Brown said when asked what stood out about Embiid’s night. “You know, we can talk about a windmill dunk. You can talk about some finesse post moves and that, but I go to defense. That’s what interests me the most to date with this series. … My mind goes straight there. He is our crown jewel defensively, and I suppose offensively, too. But certainly defensively. And his rim protection and blocking-shot ability tonight stood out as much to me as anything in an incredible performance.”
Not that the windmill dunk — preceded by a catch at the 3-point line and a hard drive down the lane — that sent the Philadelphia crowd into a tizzy when it put the Sixers up 110-84 halfway through the fourth quarter didn’t deserve to be mentioned.
Embiid celebrated the play by running back down the court and opening his 7-foot-6 wingspan in an airplane motion. Earlier in the game, he rocked the baby after hitting a shot from the short corner over Serge Ibaka and jiggled his shoulders after hitting a 3-pointer over Gasol.
“I think for everybody that knows me, I need it,” Embiid said of the antics. “When I have fun, my game just changes. I’m always told that if I don’t smile during the game, I’m either having a bad game or I’m not into it. So I know that to get my game going, I got to have fun on the court. At the same time I got to make plays, but that part of the theatrics, it has to happen for me.
“And the game is more fun that way. We all have fun as a team. You can see, it lifts my teammates and we all do a good job.”
Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry said he wasn’t surprised by what he saw out of Embiid.
“He’s a dominant big,” Lowry told ESPN. “He played his ass off. He plays even better at home.”
The Sixers will get another home game Sunday. A win will put them one win away from the franchise making its first appearance in the conference finals in 18 years. This for a team that went just 10-72 in the 2015-16 season as it played out the controversial rebuild known as “The Process” that was introduced by former general manager Sam Hinkie.
“This is not a good time to talk about ‘The Process,'” Embiid said without a hint of irony despite the fact he wore a sweatshirt that had “The Process” printed on it. “Focus on the playoffs and we got a great opportunity up [3-1] on Sunday. We got to take care of business. It’s great. It’s great. … Considering what we’ve been through all these years, we’re here. But we got a lot more to give. We have a chance to accomplish something special, and that’s what I’m focused on.”
And his teammates are focused on the special teammate they have in their midst.
As Jimmy Butler left the locker room late Thursday night wearing a pair of cutoff jeans, Air Jordans and a black tank top, Embiid quipped, “Who let you out of the house like that?”
Butler replied without missing a beat.
“When you’re rocking with the best team and you got the best player in the world,” he said, “you can wear whatever you want.”
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