Enjoyable passing, valuable defense, and a bit of mischief in Embiid's Game 2

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It was yet another one of those nights that Joel Embiid did a little bit of everything. 

A lot of everything, really.

His statistics from the Sixers’ Round 1, Game 2 victory Monday over the Nets suggest as much — 20 points on 6-for-11 shooting, 19 rebounds, seven assists, three blocks — although Embiid thought that final number should have looked a bit better after an exceptional defensive outing. 

“Only three blocks? I probably need the Memphis scorekeeper,” he said, referencing a strange conspiracy theory about Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr. receiving an edge at home. “What was it, Denver? Memphis? I thought I had more. But that’s the level (of defense) that I’ve got to get to. I’m going to do it every game.”

As for Cameron Johnson’s highlight slam over him in the second quarter, Embiid deadpanned, “I don’t remember getting dunked on.”

Unlike in his press conference after the Sixers’ Game 1 win, Embiid did not have the (delightful) distraction of his 2-year-old son Arthur at the podium. Sporting a customized “Best Dad Ever” hoodie, Embiid was in a somewhat mischievous mood.

Following Game 1, Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn told reporters, “Hopefully, they’ll be calling a travel and three seconds on the big fella next game.”

Embiid found that remark similar to how the opposing coach criticized the officiating during the Sixers’ first-round series last year vs. the Raptors. 

“I saw after the game last time, they kind of took the Nick Nurse route of begging for free throws and calling out the referees,” Embiid said. “They did come out and they got a lot of calls, which I guess is good for them. 

“I think we didn’t play our best basketball, but what happened in the second half is we just figured out what worked and we just kept doing it over and over and over. They stuck to their game plan, they didn’t make any adjustments, and we just figured it out and kept playing together.” 

The Sixers led the NBA in free throw rate this regular season for a third straight year, per Cleaning the Glass. 

Through two games against Brooklyn, they’ve attempted 32 total free throws. Embiid has taken 19. James Harden, who struggled Monday in an eight-point performance, has attempted zero foul shots in the series. 

“He was aggressive and it’s kind of crazy that he’s not getting any free throws,” Embiid said of Harden. “I think he’s been getting fouled a lot. And I don’t think he’s been to the free throw line at all during these two games, which is kind of insane to think about. So hopefully, they change that.”

While none of Embiid’s seven assists were to Harden, he set up four of the Sixers’ 11 three-pointers. On an off shooting night for the team (11 for 35 from long range), Sixers head coach Doc Rivers and Tyrese Maxey praised Embiid’s continued trust in his teammates. 

Appropriately, Embiid was perhaps most illuminating on that subject after the Sixers’ tight Feb. 11 win in Brooklyn. He joked about his teammates’ missed jumpers, noted “you can’t win 1-on-5,” and shared his belief that hitting the open man would “pay off at some point.”

“I think I used to get frustrated a lot. … I can shoot over double teams and I can make some of those shots, but I’ve come to find out that you can’t win alone,” Embiid said that night. “You need to trust your teammates and even when they’re missing, you need to keep making the right plays, make the right passes. That’s how you play basketball. You’re not going to win by being selfish, taking all the shots and shooting over double teams and triple teams.”

On Monday, Embiid truly saw occasional triple teams.

The Sixers came back in the third quarter by rediscovering what worked in Game 1. They gave Embiid the ball in the middle of the floor, let the Nets send hard help defense, and profited from his ability to find open shooters. 

Statistically, the 22-year-old Maxey has been one of the league’s best shooters. After making 43.4 percent of his threes during the regular season on significantly increased volume (from 4.2 to 6.6 attempts per 36 minutes), he’s at 9 for 18 in the series. 

Maxey's last triple in a 33-point Game 2 was an exceedingly comfortable corner jumper. Jalen McDaniels got the ball to Embiid at the left elbow extended and made a good “gut cut.” With Spencer Dinwiddie having to worry about McDaniels’ dive to the rim and Seth Curry doubling, Embiid fired a pass to Maxey. 

“A lot of people think I just love scoring the basketball,” Embid said. “I don’t think it’s true. I enjoy winning and doing whatever it takes to win. Some nights I might shoot a lot and score a lot. Some nights I’m going to get double teamed and have to make the passes. But I believe in playing the right way, which is getting your teammates involved against double, triple teams, making sure everybody touches the ball. 

“That’s what I believe in. It’s fun playing that way; everybody’s happy. Doesn’t matter if I have four points. As long as we score and guys are doing their jobs and making shots, that makes me happy.”

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