PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The headline reads like it was ripped straight from a fake news website: Philadelphia 76ers win for fourth time in five games!
The veracity of that claim has been verified — the Sixers, yes those topflight tankers that made a sham of competitive basketball — are actually winning games.
So let’s dance !
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Joel Embiid would not let a sprained left ankle stop him from busting a move on the court. He crashed the 76ers dance team’s postgame celebration and flailed his arms in the air like one of those wacky, waving inflatable air dancers stuck at car dealerships. Embiid was all smiles after the Sixers rallied from 10 down with 2:29 left to beat the New York Knicks on T.J. McConnell’s jumper at the horn.
Embiid, a social media darling, has hit the “like” button on Philly’s future.
“Playoff time, baby,” Embiid said.
Don’t download those postseason tickets just yet. Embiid, the 7-foot center with an affinity for Shirley Temples, has added a splash of fun in his long-delayed rookie year and has at least made the Sixers compelling this season.
Embiid has generated the kind of buzz through his celebrity crushes (hello, Rhianna!) and celebrity fans (hi, Mike Trout!), and he’s become the Ellen of the 76ers with a victory dance in big moments.
Because of Embiid, the Sixers are finally finding those big moments.
Even with playing-time restrictions forced on him, Embiid has helped the Sixers win 11 times this season, one more win already than all of last season. Embiid has played in 26 of 36 games and leads the Sixers in scoring (19.4 ppg), blocks (60), rebounds (7.5), and hit 29 3-pointers. His 52 assists have helped the team PA announcer proclaim, “the feed from Embiid” at times in the Wells Fargo Center.
Already a fan favorite before he played a game, Embiid had adopted “The Process” as a nickname and is introduced as such as part of the pregame lineup festivities. Embiid waves his arms and exhorts fans to get louder as they chant “Trust the Process!” — the hackneyed nickname coined under the old Sam Hinkie era when tanking games (not winning them) was the theme of the organization.
“Rookie of the year would be great,” Embiid said. “I don’t think it’s going to help me to get to my crush. Hopefully, the All-Star (bid) gets to do that.”
The Sixers have orchestrated a social media push to get Embiid into the All-Star game. Embiid has long been a fan of Shirley Temples, the alcohol-free concoction of lemon-lime soda, grenadine and a maraschino cherry, and the Sixers sold the drink as part of a promotional push to get him an All-Star spot.
Embiid was fourth among frontcourt players with 457,300 fan votes in the latest round of All-Star totals released Thursday. He needs to crack the top three to earn an Eastern Conference starting spot and was 16,028 votes shy of Cleveland’s Kevin Love for third. Cleveland’s LeBron James and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo hold the top two spots.
As protective of the Sixers have been of Embiid’s health, the team still wants him in the All-Star game.
There’s still a harsh reality check facing the organization as it moves closer toward the Feb. 23 trade deadline. The Sixers still have one too many starting centers and the Embiid-Jahlil Okafor combination was a flop. Okafor, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 draft and last season’s leading scorer has been benched. He sat against the Knicks for his fourth DNP-CD in the last six games.
“I’m just trying to do my part to make sure it all works out,” Okafor said.
Nerlens Noel has been solid and the best bet to team at power forward with Embiid. Ersan Ilyasova had made everyone better and was a major coup for team president Bryan Colangelo. Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall draft pick, has been strong in his comeback from a broken right foot and he could make his season debut within the month. The Sixers, though, have not put a timetable on his return. He competed in 5-on-0 drills this week for the first time and has recently started traveling with the Sixers.
Coach Brett Brown may have his best team in four seasons but the Sixers are well out of the playoff picture. Their 4-1 streak (on two buzzer-beaters ) came against sub.-500 teams Denver, Minnesota, Brooklyn and the Knicks. They play teams with .500 or above records in eight of the next nine games. Embiid, who sat out two seasons with a broken right foot, has a 28-minute per game restriction and doesn’t play a full set of back-to-backs. He’ll start Friday against Charlotte and sit Saturday at Washington.
Embiid-Simmons-Noel could be the trio that maybe next season leads the Sixers back to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
“When you really set the bar as high as we have, there is a lot left to be learned. And done,” Brown said. “It’s a heck of a lot clearer now than it ever was.”