By Al Thompson
When the Philadelphia 76ers headed into the all-star break, head coach Brett Brown and his players promised the final 27 games of the season were going to be a chance to right their ship with regard to an abysmal road record, one of the worst in the NBA.
The Sixers are 2-1 since the break, both victories earned at home, where they are a league-best 27-2. After defeating the Atlanta Hawks, 129-112, Monday night, the Sixers’ overall record improved to 36-22, good for fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
If the season ended now, the 76ers would not have home-court advantage in the first round and most likely for any other rounds should they advance.
The 76ers have been able to muster only nine road wins to go with 20 losses. To put it in perspective, the seventh-place Brooklyn Nets (26-30) and eighth-place Orlando Magic (25-32) both have 10 road wins.
The Sixers took a hit right before their first game back when it was learned all-star guard Ben Simmons would miss the home game against the Nets due to back stiffness.
Sixers all-star center Joel Embiid stepped up with 39 points on 10-of-20 shooting from the floor, 16 rebounds (six offensive) and an impressive 18-of-19 from the free throw line.
“Like I’ve been saying, I’m getting back to myself,” Embiid said after the game. “I’m telling my teammates, ‘Just get me the ball.’ That’s the mindset I’ve gotta have. I want my teammates to know that I’m going to be there, especially in tough situations.”
Embiid went on to say that when he is having fun, he plays better.
“Having fun means a lot of things,” Embiid said. “This year, I have not been smiling as much as the previous years. That doesn’t mean I’m not having fun. It’s just about playing basketball the right way. I feel like the first part of the season, I was trying to make sure everybody was comfortable. I kind of took a step back. If we’re gonna go somewhere (in the playoffs), I gotta be one of the guys, and it starts on defense. I just have to play hard and run the floor and do the little things.”
Embiid said he thought his performance in the all-star game – 22 points, 10 rebounds – showed he is among the elite of today’s NBA.
“The all-star game was fun, being in the fourth quarter and doing my thing at the end of the game,” Embiid said. “I thought it was great. In the all-star game, it’s just proving I’m here, I belong, and being the best player in the world, I just intend to come out every single night, play hard, try to get wins and try and win a championship.”
Embiid was hardly elite when the Sixers traveled to Milwaukee in game two after the break.
Reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo had been waiting. It was to be the regular season rubber match between the two Eastern contenders.
The game ended up a dud. Simmons could go for only five minutes before his back stiffness acted up and he was lost for the game.
Antetokounmpo went wild, scoring 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting, plus 17 rebounds and eight assists.
Embiid did not step up this time. He looked downright pedestrian, scoring just 17 points on 5-of-18 shooting from the floor, plus 11 rebounds and four assists.
The Sixers got a break from their schedule with the Hawks (17-42) coming to town on Monday.
Embiid scored a career-high 49 points on 17-for-24 shooting from the floor, plus14 rebounds.
Again, the 7-footer was elite from the free throw line, hitting 14-of-15, which marks the 20th time in his career he has shot at least 15 free throws in a game.
“Just what you all would say: He was dominant,” Brown said after the game. “He was dominant making his free throws. He was dominant as an interior presence. Scoring that volume of points at that efficient of a rate is impressive. I thought the thing that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet that he did as well as anything was that he handled the double teams. Whether he passed out of it because there was a crowd, whether he went quick because the double teams were coming and he didn’t get involved in that. I thought he handled the double teams really well.”
After the game, Embiid again said he intends to take over every game.
“I said it right before all-star break that I was going to have a different mindset and it wasn’t just about tonight,” Embiid said. “Since the Clippers game, I’ve had the mindset of just being aggressive, just trying to dominate offensively and defensively. I said I was going to get back to having fun, but having fun comes in different forms. I don’t always have to be smiling or laughing all the time. I can have fun just dominating the game. Obviously, tonight was just one of those nights where I was having fun like the old days, just having fun with the crowd. Some nights, I just want to dominate and stay quiet, but it was cool. Most important thing is that we bounced back and we got the win.”
Now if he can just start having fun in another team’s building. ••
Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii