Doc Rivers & Joel Embiid relishing a recent culture shift within 76ers locker room

Joel embiid
Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, left, makes his move to the basket against Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Joel Embiid is dominating the postseason in different ways this year. The front-runner for MVP best exemplified his new play-making ability midway through the third quarter when he found a streaking Tobias Harris open on the perimeter.

Doc Rivers acknowledges strengths of Joel Embiid’s teammates

Harris seemed to wink as he caught a perfect pass from Joel Embiid and swished the 23-foot triple. The Brooklyn Nets immediately called a timeout as the Sixers pushed their lead to 64-56. Embiid (20 points, 19 rebounds, 7 assists) was in the zone, dishing out dimes like left-handed haymakers from Rocky Balboa, during a 9-0 Philly run.

The 7-footer was focused on setting up teammates rather than scoring the basket himself on every trip down the court. It was amazing to watch. And the Sixers used it to their advantage in a 96-84 win. 

“I was really proud of Jo. You look at his numbers, those are dominating numbers, rebounds, blocked shots, assists, but he let it — especially in the second half — he just let the game come to him,” head coach Doc Rivers said. “It was the happiest I’ve seen him since I’ve been here, with other guys hitting shots. He was really celebrating his teammates tonight because of what they were trying to do to him. I think that’s a great statement for our team.” – Doc Rivers on Joel Embiid

What the Nets were trying to do was throw double and triple teams at Joel Embiid on every possession. It worked to a degree in the first half, then the Sixers decided enough was enough. They ran the offense through Embiid anyway and his teammates hit clutch shot after clutch shot, including a playoff career-high six three-pointers for Tyrese Maxey.

Why did it work? Rivers had a thought, one wrapped in subtle shade aimed at previous rosters.

“Better teammates help. Maturity. And preparation,” Rivers said. “We work on it every day. We worked on it all year because you know this time is coming, and he was going to need to do this, and he’s worked on it, so I think it’s all those [things] in one.”

Joel Embiid Takes Aim at Raptors, Nick Nurse

Embiid had jokes ready for the post-game press conference, as he always does, but these barbs appeared to be saved up from previous playoff runs. He accused the Nets of publicly lobbying for foul calls — a reference to Jacque Vaughn’s comments from Game 1 — then called Raptors coach Nick Nurse onto the carpet. Toronto was guilty of the same thing last year.

Joel Embiid
Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, right, dribbles the ball as Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)

“I saw, after the game last time, they kind of took the Nick Nurse route of begging for free throws and calling out the referees, and they did come out and they got a lot of calls, which I guess is good for them,” Joel Embiid said. “But you know, I think we didn’t play our best basketball. But what happened in the second half was we just figured out what worked, and we just kept doing it over and over and over. They stuck to the gameplan, they didn’t make any adjustments, and we just figured out and just kept playing together.”

First-Round Series Getting Physical

The intensity seemed to ramp up a bit in Game 2. Players were jawing a bit more and extra elbows were being thrown around a bit more liberally, in addition to a noticeable increase in trash-talking. For example, Tobias Harris turned around and mouthed something to the Nets bench after knocking down a huge three-pointer late in the third quarter.

The players could feel more urgency in the air, something that comes with two teams that already don’t like each other battling for the second time in two days.

“It’s just to get even more physical,” Maxey said. “You get tired of seeing people and it gets real physical, but that’s just part of the playoffs. That’s why NBA fans love it and us as players compete and we love it every single night.”

AP Photo/Chris Szagola