Pro hoops fans who weren’t able to see the Sixers make short work of the Pacers yesterday may well consider Joel Embiid’s 24-13-5 output underwhelming at best. After all, he had been putting up stout numbers prior to the homestand — so stout, in fact, as to install him a frontrunner for the Most Valuable Player award. Never mind that he managed to burn rubber for only 27 minutes, six less than his season average. As far as statheads are concerned, the bottom line is what counts — outside, that is, of his efficient 10-of-17 clip from the field and his second-best plus-22 line.
To be sure, Embiid isn’t engaging in a sprint. To the contrary, he’s running a marathon, and not simply because of his seeming susceptibility to injury. And if he’s deemed to be among the best of the best, it’s precisely because he has learned to make the most of the time he’s on the court. That he’s dominating from the post — a place on the floor all but eradicated from the systems of head coaches operating in the pace-and-space era — serves to further underscore the weight of his singular contributions. He has become all but unstoppable in the face of single coverage; heck, he has even developed a reliable three-point shot.
Little wonder, then, that the Sixers find themselves at the top of the Eastern Conference heading into the All-Star break. They’re by no means perfect; over the weekend, for instance, they bowed in overtime to the severely undermanned and supposedly overmatched Cavaliers. The good news is that they’re quick to learn from their missteps. The setback certainly gave them the impetus to assert themselves early on as opposed to plod on and keep the Pacers hanging around yesterday; they were up by 17 at the half and 28 after three quarters, rendering the payoff period irrelevant and giving Embiid much-needed rest.
Make no mistake: The Sixers remain a work in progress under first-year bench tactician Doc Rivers. Often, they wind up relying too much on their acknowledged cornerstone. To be fair, Embiid has dutifully produced as expected. Then again, the playoffs are a different matter. In best-of-seven affairs, repeatedly turning to an obvious crutch is damning predictability. Which is why they’re wisely exploring their depth and learning to use it to full advantage. How they do so, and when they get it down pat, figures to determine the outcome of their campaign for the hardware.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.