Opinion: This dominant Joel Embiid makes 76ers a true NBA Finals contender

PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid said when he has fun, his game changes.

Fun was the name of the game on Thursday.

"I'm always told that if I don’t smile during the game, I’m either having a bad game or I’m not into it," Embiid said.

He was into it and had plenty of smiles in Philadelphia’s 116-95 victory against Toronto in Game 3, helping the 76ers to a 2-1 lead in this Eastern Conference semifinal series.

Embiid had a team-high 33 points, a game-high 10 rebounds and five blocks as he shimmied, rocked the baby, did the airplane, the Hulk Hogan "can’t hear you" move and celebrated his best game of the series.

Embiid had his fun and dominated, too.

It was his second 30-point, 10-rebound, five-block performance of the playoffs, and it’s been accomplished just one other time (Kevin Durant in 2017) in the past 10 postseasons, according to ESPN.

? @JoelEmbiid (33 PTS, 10 REB, 5 BLK) drops a #NBAPlayoffs career-high, guiding the @sixers (2-1) to victory in Game 3! #PhilaUnite

Game 4: Sunday (5/5), 3:30pm/et, ABC pic.twitter.com/yj13ArdNbQ

Embiid wasn’t at his best in the first two games for various reasons. Toronto neutralized him in Game 1, and he battled gastroenteritis in Game 2, which the Sixers were able to win. There was even talk about how Marc Gasol was doing a fantastic job defensively on Embiid.

He made sure that wasn’t a talking point heading into Game 4.

For the Sixers to win this series, they need the Embiid that played Thursday night. That is the Embiid who gives the Sixers a chance to reach the NBA Finals. He is the centerpiece of the franchise and does what just a few players his size can do: dominate inside and step outside and make 3s offensively, and rebound, block shots, protect the rim and defend from the 3-point line to the rim.

"To me, it goes straight to the blocks," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "You can talk about a windmill dunk, you can talk about some finesse post moves, but I go to defense. That’s what interests me today with this series. He is our crown jewel offensively, and I suppose offensively too, but certainly defensively. His rim protecting and shot-blocking ability stood out as much to me as anything in an incredible performance."


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Yet his health is fragile. Embiid missed one game of the Brooklyn series in the first round because of a sore knee and was questionable for another game.

Asked if a healthy Embiid is the best player on the court in the series — an interesting debate given Kawhi Leonard’s impressive performance for Toronto — Brown said yes.

Brown is biased, but so much of Philadelphia’s success this season — and in the future — depends on Embiid’s health. The Sixers try to watch his minutes, and thanks to a 110-84 lead on Embiid’s windmill dunk following a pretty pump fake that had Gasol sprinting out to the 3-point line, he played just 28 minutes.

But he was superb in those 28 and was engaged from the opening tip-off with nine points in the first quarter and book-ended with 10 points and two blocks in the fourth.

Embiid’s ability does so much for the Sixers, creating opportunities for teammates when he is double- and triple-teamed. All five starters scored in double figures, and Jimmy Butler has posted great games in Philadelphia’s wins, including 22 points, nine assists, nine rebounds, three steals and one block in Game 3. The Butler-Embiid pick-and-roll has turned into a great option, too.

It’s a two-way street for the Sixers right now. They are cooking offensively and defensively, and that was evident in the fourth quarter. Toronto had cut Philadelphia’s lead to 89-82. A Raptors stop and bucket would have put pressure on the Sixers.

Instead, it was a 21-2 Philadelphia run in which Embiid scored 10 points and Butler nine. Game over.

And Embiid was enjoying every minute of it.

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.

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