PHILADELPHIA — When Joel Embiid caught the ball with 7 seconds left in Friday night’s game at the Wells Fargo Center between his Philadelphia 76ers and the Portland Trail Blazers, he had one thing on his mind:
Get to his favorite spot on the floor — the free throw line — and make a clean shot.
“Once I got there,” Embiid would later say, “I just knew I had to do it.”
It did not disappoint.
Embiid drained a missed jumper with 1.1 seconds left — a bucket that gave Philadelphia its first lead of the entire contest — and led the 76ers to a thrilling 120-119 victory over Portland in front of a hard sell-out crowd of 21,001.
The win, Philadelphia’s fifth in six games since the calendar turned in March, came after the 76ers (44-22) dominated the Trail Blazers (31-36), who led by as many as 21 and never they were tied with Philadelphia. until the middle of the fourth quarter.
“It wasn’t our night until 1.1 seconds, when you think about it,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “We stayed at it. We were looking for everything and we couldn’t go on, man. We looked like we were in the mud in the first half at both ends.
“That’s a hell of a win for us because we didn’t have much, and you could see it.”
Philadelphia certainly didn’t have it in the first half, when they allowed the Blazers — and, in particular, Anferni Simons, who finished with 34 points and went 8-for-12 from 3-point range — to do whatever they could. wanted.
Things began to change in the second half, however, and Philadelphia quickly began to close the gap, setting up Embiid’s heroics.
“Defense,” said Harden, who had 19 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, when asked what changed in the second half. “We had some stops. We settled into the game and got stops when we needed to. It wasn’t the prettiest win, but we’ll take it.”
Portland, meanwhile, saw a golden opportunity to move up in the Western Conference standings. The Blazers now sit in 13th place in the West on their own and are two losses out of a play-in spot in the tournament.
“It was a good performance,” Portland star Damian Lillard said. “We played really well on both ends of the floor. The game felt good, just how we played on both ends. We were in a streak defensively. Our presence on the ball. Our presence in the paint and we really gave ourselves a good chance to win the game.
“They just took a big shot from a big player.”
However, it wasn’t always clear that would happen. After Philadelphia got the ball back on a Lillard layup with 20 seconds left and the clock winding down, Rivers initially opted not to call a timeout and let his players run something.
But after Embiid went into isolation on the right wing and appeared to stumble, Rivers called a timeout and devised a new play.
“It was a disaster,” Rivers said with a laugh when asked why he called timeout. “I didn’t like that. I actually liked it visually. I saw us coming down the court and I liked the look, the distance, and when he popped the ball and it crumbled, I knew we had to take a timeout. and then we got a set.”
The play Rivers originally designed was for Embiid to either run off the dribble with Harden, or fake it and attack the defense himself. But Rivers credited Harden with smartly getting away from Embiid — clearing the space Embiid needed to operate — once Embiid caught the ball in better space than the 76ers expected him to.
And that space, the right elbow, was one that Embiid spent all season planning to use in moments just like this.
In the past, Embiid would go to the post — and, as a result, give teams an easier chance to double him. He said that was a prime example of why he was doing this work in those areas of the court this summer.
“Yeah, that’s the perfect spot, honestly, especially from my previous years,” Embiid said. “I had a couple of opportunities for game-winners and stuff and we just kept trying to post up. It’s easy to double up and there’s not enough room. But when you have enough in those positions at the stud or at the top of the key, the field is wide open because, the more often than not, kids don’t want to leave 3.
“So that worked out really well.”
It certainly worked out well for the 76ers on Friday night as Embiid had his final huge game of the season. He now has 23 games of 35 or more points this season — tying Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-2000 for the most by a center since then. The only other center with that many since the NBA-ABA merger is Moses Malone, who had 25 in 1981-82.
Both players won the league’s MVP award that season.
“Honestly, I’m working on my game,” Embiid said when asked about his recent run. “Seeing what’s working and what’s not. I’m trying to be aggressive and get my guys involved. Like I said, I can get better, I missed a lot of free throws today and had a few turnovers, especially one down the stretch, so I can always be better”.
Harden, however, had a more succinct explanation for Embiid’s ability to take over and lead Philadelphia to victory.
“Something he works on every day,” Harden said. “That’s why he’s the league MVP this year.”