PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid’s teammates didn’t know what he had planned for the moment The Process finally made way for the playoffs. Since he’s been out for the past two weeks with that left orbital fracture, Embiid has petitioned different companies that make protective face masks with a special request: to give him a half-mask, covering the left side of his face, reminiscent of the one worn by the Phantom of the Opera.
“The Phantom of the Process” — as Embiid has dubbed himself with a new social-media hashtag — made his debut before the Philadelphia 76ers hosted Game 1 of their first-round series against the Miami Heat. Embiid, following through the team’s pregame bell-ringing tradition, emerged at center court, raised his arms to the roof and whirled around the hammer to put the sellout crowd into a tizzy. It was a bold move that could’ve been clowned for its sheer brashness — especially because Embiid remains sidelined. But it also is indicative of the cockiness, fearlessness and overall showmanship of a 76ers team that refuses to be confined by what should be expected of a team that, before this season, mastered in the opposite of winning.
“It was funny,” rookie Markelle Fultz told Yahoo Sports about Embiid’s pregame stunt. “I had no idea he was going to do that, and I’m pretty close with him.”
Fultz might have been clueless about Embiid’s antics, but the list of people who had “no idea” about how good this 76ers team could be is too long to count. It has emerged from the abyss to finally start embracing bliss. And with some doubting the 76ers’ readiness because of the youth of its frontline performers, they let it be known that while there is no substitute for experience, talent and supreme confidence are often more important. The 76ers didn’t even need arguably their best player to shellack the Heat 130-103 and take a 1-0 lead in the franchise’s first seven-game playoff series since 2012.
There couldn’t have been a squad with less swagger over the previous four years — a tanktastic period that hauled a slew of lottery picks and record-breaking losing streaks. Coach Brett Brown, Embiid, Dario Saric, Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell are the only remnants from that era. And the ones who are mostly responsible for ambushing the Heat on Saturday with a barrage of 3-pointers, head-spinning ball movement and unrelenting defense have only come to know this version of the 76ers — the team riding a league-best 17-game winning streak dating to March 14, not the one that once opened consecutive seasons with 17-game losing streaks.
“It’s amazing,” said Covington, part of the 10-win team in 2015-16 that eventually yielded Ben Simmons and turned former GM Sam Hinkie into a martyr. “I pictured it being something unique, as this team can do so many great things. It’s just a matter of us all believing. That’s what it took. Overall, everyone bought into this, early in the year, before this season even started. That’s what made us so unique.”
Philadelphia fans don’t have a problem with how the 76ers got here, as “Trust The Process” chants took over the arena at various points in the game. They’ve taken pride that their faith in a controversial team-building strategy has been rewarded with a potential generational point guard in Simmons, who has the rare ability to remain disciplined and in control while playing at break-neck speed — all while being 6-feet-10 — and a generational big man in Embiid who provides an imposing physical presence on both ends and only raises expectations for the team whenever he makes his highly anticipated return.
Simmons has taken full responsibility for the franchise in Embiid’s absence, extending by nine more games a winning streak that appeared to be over once Embiid’s face crashed into the same right shoulder that was blamed for Fultz’s bizarre 68-game absence. But in a town that already won a Super Bowl this year with its backup quarterback, the 76ers weren’t about to let anything slow the momentum that has been building since Christmas and broke clean off the tracks with the additions of veterans Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova.
Brown’s “ready, fire, aim” offense has been overwhelming teams for a month, putting pressure on defenses that have to be prepared for every shooter on the floor having a fluorescent green light. If they’re open, Simmons finds them, in the corners and at the elbow extended. Or Simmons gets them open himself at the top of the key by handing off the ball and setting screens. Simmons had a chance to become the first rookie since Magic Johnson to record a triple-double in the playoffs, but he went to the bench for good in the fourth quarter one rebound shy. Chasing that feat would’ve added an unnecessarily tacky element to a game that served as a celebration of where the 76ers are and what they could become in the immediate and distant future. And the way Simmons easily racks up statistics, it has to be assumed that round numbers in three different categories will come before this run is over.
Veteran Amir Johnson warned Simmons before the game that the Heat were going to go at him with some physical play and perhaps sneak in a little extra after the whistle. But Simmons was prepared for the worst, even for a Hack-A-Ben strategy that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra employed in the second half. A shaky free-throw shooter at best, Simmons, funky form and all, calmly knocked down his free throws. Simmons attacked the Heat with that orneriness one would expect from his native Australia, and he mixed some determination to make sure that he was the best player on the floor. When Kelly Olynyk ran up to guard him on one play in the second half, Simmons sized him up for the best way to embarrass him. Simmons crossed up Olynyk, blew by him, then dunked over all of Miami.
“He had that,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports of Simmons’ confidence. “That’s just his personality and it works for him. Whatever you’ve got to do. Swag, hype yourself up, we get the win, keep on swagging. Keep on doing what you do.”
As he prepared to head to the podium after the game, Simmons checked himself out in the mirror in the locker room to make sure he looked right. Ilyasova spotted him and noticed the three diamond necklaces glistening from his neck. “You look shiny.” Simmons cracked a smile and got ready to take a cart to address reporters. One game is down, but they still need to win three more. “I feel good but not satisfied,” Simmons said.
How could he be? The playoffs have just begun. The fun part of The Process is finally here. And the confidence instilled by two young otherworldy talents who avoided having to endure most of the losing already permeates. Think these guys are afraid of this moment? Forget Simmons’ post-dunk howl. Forget Embiid’s flamboyant pregame mask. Just check out Embiid’s Instagram page, where he posted pictures of him playing against Miami, Boston, Cleveland and Golden State, mapping out his predicted path to a possible 76ers title. Yeah, most have “no idea” how ready this team is for this stage.
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