Every team is largely dependent on its superstar, but with the Philadelphia 76ers and Joel Embiid, that connection is even more pronounced. When Embiid is good, Philly can, and often does, look like a legit title contender. When Embiid is bad, they can, and often do, look like a lottery team. In Thursday’s 112-101 Game 6 win over the Toronto Raptors, Embiid wasn’t good, he was great — even if the traditional numbers looked pedestrian — and Philly is now headed for a Game 7.
Embiid, who was downright bad in four of the first five games of this series, had 17 points and 12 rebounds in Game 6. He shot 5-of-14 from the field. He had two blocks. One steal. A couple 3-pointers. He played 35 minutes. He had five turnovers.
And he was a … PLUS-40!
Typically plus-minus numbers for a single game are pretty useless. But when a dude is plus-40 in a game his team wins by 11, you have to stand up and give that man a round of applause. The Sixers, if you reverse the math, were outscored by 29 points in the 13 minutes Embiid was on the bench. Just about every time he came out, the Raptors would string together a run. Then Brett Brown, with no choice in a do-or-die game, would promptly do away the normal rotations and put Embiid back in, and the run would stop.
And, as you can tell by the 17 points, it wasn’t Embiid’s offense carrying the day. He wasn’t bad on that end. He was controlled and allowed Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons to be the aggressors, he hit some jumpers to extend the Raptors’ defense and open the lane, and he was just generally active in motions that created looks for others. But it was his defense that dominated. He was everywhere — dropping and containing two on pick-and-rolls, recovering to shooters, stuffing Marc Gasol into a completely irrelevant seven-point performance. And then he did a few things like this:
It’s fitting that Simmons finished that last clip with a breakout layup. He made it a point to push the pace in Game 6, and with Butler aggressive in the half court, this is Philly at its best. Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick combined for 27 points. Mike Scott chipped in 11 off the bench. Philly is just a different team when it’s playing with energy. Again, credit Butler for a lot of that. He was sensational in the first half and finished with 25 points and eight assists. Butler has to create consistent offense for Philly, because Simmons’ contributions are more circumstantial, and thus inconsistent.
When Butler is playing like a No. 1 on offense, Embiid doesn’t have to be spectacular on both ends. He can be, but he doesn’t have to be. His defense is what really makes him a superstar, anyway. He has great skill and feet and a wildly versatile arsenal for a man his size, but the defense is what truly sets him apart. When he’s at his best, as he was in Game 6, you can make the argument he’s the most impactful defender in the league.
So now here we go for Game 7 on Sunday in Toronto. This is why the Raptors went and got Kawhi Leonard, for games like this, and if The Process is ever going to come to full fruition, you knew it was going to have to go through a series like this at some point. This is gut-check time. When the Sixers win, it’s not usually about pristine execution or lights-out shooting. It’s about energy. It’s about a bunch of talented players who don’t always fit perfectly just kind of figuring it out on sheer ability and will. But it all starts with Joel Embiid, and for as dominant as he was in Game 6, if he doesn’t bring this same kind of force in Game 7, the Sixers’ season will end with him, too.