PHILADELPHIA — After Joel Embiid missed four straight games with a left foot sprain, he immediately reminded the world — not that anyone needed it, mind you — just how valuable he is to his Philadelphia 76ers.
Not only did Embiid finish with 30 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists in Philadelphia’s 104-101 victory over the Atlanta Hawks at Wells Fargo Center on Monday night, but he hit the game-winning shot and made a game-saving steal inside the final 20 seconds to secure the win for Philly.
“I came in with the mindset to get my teammates involved, because everybody has had it going and they’ve been playing so well,” Embiid said afterward. “So I wanted to keep that going and find myself playing within that.”
While Embiid is correct about how the 76ers have played without him — they just rattled off three wins in four games without Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey, all of whom were out with varying foot injuries, and have won seven of their past nine while dealing with a litany of ailments — there’s no one arguing Philadelphia is better off without its talismanic center.
“He was great,” said Tobias Harris, who continued his own brilliant play by pouring in 24 points on 10-for-18 shooting. “His presence and his dominance is huge for our whole group, and I thought he did a great job involving everybody in the game.
“His ability to take over games, especially in the fourth quarter, is big for us. He did awesome, and we were excited to have him back. We would have loved to have him back earlier, but it was good to get him back for tonight.”
And, as this one played out, Embiid showed that to be true, scoring 11 of his 30 points in the fourth — including hitting a jumper with 18.6 seconds to go off the same pet play Philadelphia ran time and again down the stretch to great effect.
Then, after Atlanta called timeout, Trae Young attempted to float a pass over Embiid to a cutting John Collins for a layup. But Embiid tipped the ball in the air and grabbed it, before knocking down a pair of free throws.
“It was crowded and John was coming to set a screen and I told him to get out,” Young said. “Joel kind of stayed right where John was and I took a dribble right towards him. … It sucks, because that’s the game.”
For his part, Embiid said he goaded Young into making that pass.
“In that situation, from the start of the play, you could tell he thought we were going to trap him,” Embiid said. “They were going to try to set a screen for him to try to get me on him. We were going to go 1 through 5 anyway, so I was going to have to guard him straight up anyways, but the way I positioned myself I acted like we were going to try to trap him and take the ball out of his hands.
“As the best player on the team, you want the last shot, and you want to be able to make the last plays to make sure that your team wins. In that situation, that’s why he ended up sending whoever I was guarding away to try to go one-on-one and I just tried to play a cat-and-mouse game. I had him thinking he had a wide-open layup, while at the same time I knew I was giving that space for a reason, because I watch a lot of games. He’s not selfish. He doesn’t make that type of play if someone isn’t open. I was just trying to bait him, and it did work.
“In some instances, it doesn’t work, it could have been a bad play, or a bad read by me, but in that situation it did work, so I was happy.”
There has been plenty for Embiid and the 76ers to be happy about of late. Since Embiid returned from a three-game absence at the beginning of November, the 76ers have ripped off eight wins in their past 11 games. Philadelphia’s defense — which Embiid reminded everyone Monday night he said before the season that he wanted to be the league’s best — has not only been the best over that span, but the gap between the 76ers in first (103.7 points per 100 possessions) and the Indiana Pacers in second is the same as the gap between the Pacers and the Hawks, who are 15th.
Over that same time frame, only the league-leading Boston Celtics have a better net rating than Philadelphia’s plus-6.9 points per 100 possessions — all while Embiid, Harden, Maxey and Harris have missed chunks of time with injuries, among others.
“It’s a testament to our coaching staff,” Embiid said. “I’m just proud of [my teammates] because they are ready. You could tell that they were waiting for this moment for their name to be called, so I’m just proud.
“The first few games, we didn’t play the way we wanted to. … Injuries happen, and we had to make a lot of adjustments. … It’s just about all of us playing together. The coaching staff has been getting everybody ready, just making sure we come in and do everything possible to win these games.”
Joel Embiid drops 30 points in return, keeps 76ers on roll