PHILADELPHIA — When Joel Embiid caught the ball with 7 seconds to go in Friday night’s game at 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 area — and get off a clean shot.
“Once I got there,” Embiid would say later, “I just knew I had to make it.”
He didn’t disappoint.
Embiid drained a fallaway jumper with 1.1 seconds to go — a bucket that gave Philadelphia its first lead of the entire contest — and lifted the 76ers to a thrilling 120-119 win over Portland in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 21,001.
The win, Philadelphia’s fifth in six games since the calendar flipped to March, came after the 76ers (44-22) were dominated by the Trail Blazers (31-36), who led by as many as 21 and never were even tied with Philadelphia until midway through 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 just couldn’t get going, man. We looked like we were in mud in the first half on both ends.
“That’s a hell of a win for us because we didn’t have a lot, and you could see it.”
Philadelphia certainly didn’t have anything in the first half, when they allowed the Blazers — and, in particular, Anfernee Simons, who finished with 34 points and went 8-for-12 from 3-point range — to do whatever they wanted.
Things began to turn around in the second half, though, and Philadelphia quickly began to narrow the gap, setting up Embiid’s heroics.
“Defense,” said James Harden, who had 19 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists, when asked what changed in the second half. “We got some stops. We settled into the game and got stops when we needed to. Not the prettiest win, but we’ll take it.”
Portland, meanwhile, saw a golden opportunity to move up the Western Conference standings slip through its fingers. The Blazers are now in 13th place in the West by themselves, and are two losses back of a play-in tournament spot.
“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 sides. We were on a string defensively. Our presence on the ball. Our presence in the paint, and we gave ourselves a really good chance to win the game.
“They just made a big-time shot from a big-time player.”
It wasn’t always clear that was going to happen, though. After Philadelphia got the ball back on a Lillard turnover with 20 seconds to go and with the shot clock off, Rivers initially chose not to call timeout and let his players run something.
But after Embiid got into an isolation on the right wing and appeared to stumble, Rivers called timeout and drew up a new play.
“It was a disaster,” Rivers said with a laugh, when asked why he called timeout. “That’s what I didn’t like. I actually liked it visually. I saw us coming down the floor and I loved how it looked, the spacing, and when he bobbled the ball and crumbled, I knew we had to get a timeout, and then we got a set.”
The play Rivers originally drew up was for Embiid to either execute a dribble handoff with Harden, or fake it and attack the defense himself. But Rivers credited Harden for making a smart cut away from Embiid — clearing the space Embiid needed to operate — once Embiid caught the ball in a better space than the 76ers anticipated he’d be able to.
And that space, the right elbow, was one Embiid spent the entire season planning to utilize in moments just like this.
In the past, Embiid would’ve gone into the post — and, as a result, given teams an easier opportunity to double-team him. He said this was a prime example of exactly why he did that work in these areas of the court this summer.
“Yeah, that’s the perfect spot, honestly, especially from my previous years,” Embiid said. “I’ve had a couple of opportunities of game winners and stuff and we kept trying to post. It’s easy to double and there’s not enough space. But when you get enough in those positions at the nail or the top of the key, the court is wide open because, most of the time, guys don’t want to give up 3s.
“So that’s been working out pretty well.”
It certainly worked out well for the 76ers Friday night, as Embiid had his latest huge game of the season. He now has 23 games with 35 or more points this season — tying Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-2000 as the most by a center since then. The only other center to have 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.
“I’m really just working on my game, honestly,” Embiid said when asked about his recent run of form. “Seeing what works and what doesn’t. Trying to be aggressive, and getting my guys involved. Like I said, I can be better, I missed a bunch of free throws today, and I had a couple turnovers, especially one down the stretch, so I can always be better.”
Harden, though, had a more succinct explanation for Embiid’s ability to take over down the stretch and carry Philadelphia to the win.
“Something that he works on every day,” Harden said. “That’s why he’s MVP of the league this year.”