By Connor Thomas
Joel. Hans. Embiid. Tweets containing some combination of those names, and the three letters ‘M’, ‘V’, and ‘P’ flooded the timelines of the Delaware Valley and NBA Twitter in general last night. The reason, of course, was because of the absolutely dominant and clutch performance that the Sixers big man turned in during last night’s contest with the Western Conference leading Utah Jazz. Looking back at the result of the game, it seems that things couldn’t be better for the Sixers heading into the All-Star break, but the first couple quarters did not look great for Philly. In the opening frame, Utah jumped out to an early lead behind 10 points from All-Star Point Guard Donovan Mitchell and 59.1% shooting from the floor as a team. The Sixers, outside of 12 points from Embiid in the 1st, started very slowly, only hitting 1 3 pointer on their way to an 8 point deficit. The 2nd quarter was better defensively for Embiid and company, as Ben Simmons started to dig his defensive claws into Mitchell, but the team stayed cold from the floor, not making a single shot from deep in the 2nd. In fact, at the halftime break, the Jazz had already knocked down 10 3 pointers to only 1 made 3 for the Sixers. With that type of discrepancy in outside shooting, it was lucky for Doc Rivers that he was only trying to rally the troops back from 9 points down.
Coming out of the break, the Sixers starters returned to form a little bit, with Seth Curry and Danny Green knocking down shots from deep to help keep Utah from running away with the game. The issue was that the Sixers bench unit was unable to hold up their end of the bargain as the 3rd quarter rounded out. The work that Philly’s starters were doing seemed to be given away with the all-bench rotation that Rivers seemed insistent on sticking with. As a result, Philadelphia finished the 3rd within an arm’s reach of the Jazz, down 5 points, but the game did not feel as close as the score indicated. Then, at the start of the 4th quarter, Dwight Howard came out of the phone booth, red cape attached, for the first time in a while. Superman was a force on both ends of the floor to start out the final quarter, cleaning glass, packing layups, and even knocking down a rare-for-him 3 pointer. He had the first 6 points of the quarter for Philly, and a subsequent tear drop from Furkan Korkmaz tied the game at 92 with 10 minutes remaining. The next 7 minutes were filled with a beautiful back and forth battle between two elite NBA teams, as starters on both sides traded buckets and runs, ultimately culminating in another tie at 109 with 3 minutes left on the game clock.
The Sixers seemed content to let Utah big man Rudy Gobert try to beat them on the offensive end, but unfortunately he was up to the task as he helped the Jazz push to a 5 point lead. Embiid, however, was not to be outdone. He scored 9 of the Sixers last 11 points in regulation, none bigger than what came with 6 seconds left on the clock. After a clutch Tobias Harris drive the brought the Sixers within 1, an intentional foul sent Mike Conley to the line for the Jazz, where he knocked down both free throws. Down 3 with 21 seconds left, the ball found Embiid’s hands on the right wing. Guarded by Bojan Bogdanovic, Embiid nearly fell over receiving the pass from Harris then back-dribbled, stepped back, pumped, and fired a contested 3 that found absolutely nothing but the twine. Mike Conley got a good look at a runner in the lane at the buzzer that caught front then back iron, and there was extra basketball in Philadelphia.
Well, rather I should say there was extra basketball for all but 1 of the participants in the game. Tobias Harris certainly was not the player missing in overtime, as he took Bogdanovic to the woodshed. Harris had the first 8 points for Philly in the extra period, and with a 126-123 lead for the Sixers, the wheels fell off for Mitchell and the Jazz. After a sequence on the Jazz’s end of the floor that saw Embiid and Simmons swarm the rim relentlessly trying to put back a missed layup and ended with Joel drawing a push foul on Rudy Gobert, Mitchell stomped away from the play to yell at the officials, earning himself a costly technical foul. Embiid, who called the technical foul on Mitchell just a few seconds before the officials, knocked down one of his two free throws after Seth Curry hit the technical. Then, on the following possession, Embiid hauled in a physical rebound over Gobert that led to more chirping from Mitchell, his second technical foul in 27 seconds, and an ejection. So yes, I suppose with only 30 seconds left he did get some extra basketball in, but not enough to help the Jazz win. Tobias knocked down the technical, then two more free throws on an intentional foul, and the Sixers locked up a huge 131-123 win.
I will fully admit that the officiating was not great down the stretch for either side, with multiple questionable calls, but the amount of crying that Mitchell and Gobert did to the press after the game was still a really bad look for a team that simply didn’t get the buckets they needed down the stretch. But none of that crying changes the fact that Joel Embiid turned in an MVP performance, Ben Simmons played DPOY type defense, Tobias Harris was incredibly clutch, and the Sixers held on to first place in the East heading into the break. The last time the team was in first place at the halfway mark? 2001. I think we all know where that season ended. That push starts in a week, and with fans returning to the stands at the Wells Fargo Center, the sky is the limit.