PHILADELPHIA -- As Joel Embiid missed shot after shot throughout the first half Thursday against the Memphis bet 188Grizzlies at Wells Fargo Center -- ultimately finishing 1-for-8 in the first quarter and 2-for-14 through the first half -- he knew that if he was to have his usual impact, it would have to be on defense.
"For me, like I always say, defense is more important for me than offense," Embiid said. "Even tonight, I could not make any shots, especially the one I usually make. But defensively, I thought I had to be Bill Russell tonight to be able to kind of balance it out."
Embiid's final stat line -- 27 points, 19 rebounds, 6 assists, a steal and 6 blocks in 38 minutes -- was the kind of line the Boston Celtics legend would have been proud of, as Embiid and James Harden (31 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists) helped power Philadelphia back from a 17-point deficit to beat the Grizzlies 110-105 in front of a raucous sellout crowd.
Despite trailing for nearly the entire game, Philadelphia slowly but surely ground its way back. And Embiid's performance -- at both ends -- was emblematic of the way the game played out for the 76ers as a whole.
Embiid's 1-for-8 showing in the first quarter was tied for the worst he has ever shot in a quarter in his career on at least that many attempts, while his 2-for-14 performance in the first half was tied for the most shots he has ever missed in a half in his NBA career.
But Embiid, who was not on the injury report for the first time in several weeks, after repeatedly being listed as questionable because of left foot soreness ahead of the All-Star break, was dominant defensively. He grabbed 17 defensive rebounds, blocked those six shots -- including a massive rejection of the latest spectacular dunk attempt by Ja Morant -- and altered several others.
"Every single night I try to be as good of a defender as I can," Embiid said. "But I think there's a pattern with myself where if you look at most of the games where I have bad shooting nights, I just can't make the shots that I usually do. I go from having a good defensive game to having an amazing defensive game. That's part of it. When you're not contributing offensively, you've got to find a way, making your teammates better. So defensively, just being a monster. It was a little bit more of a focus on that end tonight."
It was a team effort at that end, however. Desmond Bane went 7-for-8 in the first quarter, scoring 19 points to help stake Memphis to a 37-22 lead after the opening 12 minutes, but then shot a combined 3-for-12 over the rest of the game for six points. The electrifying Morant, one of the game's best paint scorers, shot 3-for-16 on the night, though he did go 9-for-10 from the free throw line to finish with 15 points. Tobias Harris did an admirable job giving Morant trouble late in the game while pouring in 20 points, including a key late 3-pointer and a couple of free throws to put the game away.
In the end, though, it was the combination of Harden and Embiid that tore through Memphis, with Embiid patrolling the paint and Harden going off for 13 points and assisting on five of the other seven baskets Philadelphia scored in the fourth quarter.
"That's a part of it," Harden said of Philadelphia's ability to claw its way back into the game. "As much as you don't want it to happen, it's part of basketball, not making shots. We were resilient, and we fought and fought and fought and gave ourselves a chance."
In some ways, that is a microcosm of the 76ers' season. After beginning the year 1-4 and 12-12, Philadelphia (39-19) has gone 27-7 in its past 34 games and 14-3 in its past 17. That has allowed it to pull within striking distance of the East-leading Celtics, whom they host Saturday night, and the second-place Milwaukee Bucks, both of whom hold a two-loss lead on the 76ers in the standings.
With the most difficult schedule remaining in the NBA, according to ESPN's Basketball Power Index, climbing above one or both of those teams will be easier said than done. Doing so, however, will be possible only if Embiid continues to feel good physically. And the big man said he came out of the All-Star break feeling much better and that he hopes it stays that way moving forward.
"I felt pretty good," Embiid said. "Like I said before the [All-Star break], whatever it is is all about rest, and I've had a couple [days off]. There's a reason why I wasn't part of [All-Star] Saturday, because I wanted to make sure I could get more rest.
"This is about trying to get as much rest as possible. It would have been nice to get actually two weeks off, but it's the [middle of the] season and you can't have that, so you have to come back and keep going. Next time it comes along, take some time off and keep doing the same thing."
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