PHILADELPHIA — The 76ers were not exactly putting on a clinic against their undermanned opponent.
Philadelphia’s Shake Milton was driving into the teeth of Golden State’s defense on Friday night when he lost control of his dribble. In the ensuing mad scramble, his teammate De’Anthony Melton collected the loose ball and somehow located the rim above him. But when Melton’s layup attempt was swatted away by Golden State’s Kevon Looney, someone else swooped in for a cameo.
It is impossible to miss the 76ers’ Joel Embiid, who continues to stuff box scores with numbers that resemble lottery tickets. He has seldom been more fearsome or more effective. So no one was surprised that, after Looney blocked Melton’s shot, Embiid was able to reach over the top of a crowd to grab (another) offensive rebound and draw (another) foul to earn two (more) free throws.
In their 118-106 win, the 76ers were uneven but just good enough — and that matters to them a great deal these days. After a dismal start to the season, and despite another recent rash of injuries, they have won four straight. James Harden is directing the offense with more pace. The team’s reserves are producing. And Embiid is busting through defenders like a snowplow.
“I think the main thing is that everybody has bought in,” Embiid said after he finished with 34 points and 13 rebounds to help the 76ers improve to a 16-12 record. “Everybody knows how to play. Everybody knows where the ball has to go. The ball is not sticking. Everybody is doing their job.”
Yes, the 76ers are playing some tantalizing basketball. The question, of course, is whether this team — so often in the discussion as a contender in recent seasons — can sustain its strong play. Embiid, a five-time All-Star, has never caught a whiff of the conference finals. (He can thank Kawhi Leonard and his theatrics in 2019 for one such missed opportunity.) Now, there is a sense of urgency.
“I think our guys are finally seeing that this is who we are, this is how we have to play,” 76ers Coach Doc Rivers said. “They’re starting to visualize what we are. And that’s a good thing.”
Rivers wants his team to defend — what coach doesn’t? — but he also has implored them to play with greater tempo, to get out and score in transition, and there is an ongoing experiment at the center of it all. Since the 76ers traded for Harden in February, he and Embiid have played together in just 32 regular-season games, including 11 games this season.
“It’s not a lot,” said Harden, who had 27 points and 9 assists against Golden State. “So every single game, we’re figuring each other out: me getting it going or him getting it going, our pick-and-roll, how teams are guarding us. It’s a game-by-game scenario. So we just keep building on that. It’s actually fun.”
It must be easy to have fun playing with Embiid these days. In addition to averaging a league-leading 33.3 points a game heading into the weekend, Embiid is shooting a career-best 53.5 percent from the field.
Steve Kerr, Golden State’s coach, said that Embiid reminded him of some of the great centers he faced as a player in the late ’80s and through the ’90s. The game was different back then, with less emphasis on the 3-point shot and a greater focus on big men who could dominate down low.
Physically, Embiid is a throwback to those centers of a bygone era. At seven feet tall and 280 pounds, he can impose his will against pretty much anyone near the basket.
“But what makes him unique is he can put the ball on the floor and knock down jumpers, hit 3s — he’s such a talented guy,” Kerr said. “You have to come in with a plan and a backup plan and try a lot of different things, because otherwise he’ll just dominate the game. And he might do that anyway.”
Facing him on Friday, Kerr had backup plans for his backup plans, but Embiid fed them all through a paper shredder.
There he was in the first quarter, sinking a 14-foot jumper over the top of Looney and using his dribble to get past Jonathan Kuminga for a layup. There he was in the second quarter, grabbing another offensive rebound before going straight back up against James Wiseman to create contact and draw a foul. There he was at the start of the third quarter, igniting the 76ers with an 18-foot jumper and a 3-pointer.
And there he was in the closing minutes, sealing the win with an alley-oop dunk.
It is a credit to Embiid, who led the league in scoring last season, that he has still identified ways to improve. This season, for example, he has carved out the elbows — the twin spots on the court where the free-throw line and the corners of the lane meet — as his personal canvas. From there, he can shoot over smaller defenders or use his strength and quickness to drive past them.
“And the second part is his passing,” Rivers said. “His passing has gone from a four to a nine in that area.”
The Golden State team that took the court in Philadelphia was absent several injured stars, including Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and Stephen Curry, who hurt his left shoulder in a loss to the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday and could miss several weeks.
Then again, the 76ers had their own issues. Two of their starters, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris, were sidelined with injuries. But they were not about to make excuses. Embiid made sure of it.