NEW YORK -- Brett Brown, travel bag on his shoulder and dressed in a Sixers-blue jogging suit, walked over to Joel Embiid and his circle of friends. Embiid stood in the entrance to the tunnel under the stands, 7 feet, 2 inches of superstar, in a black leather jacket that cost a small herd its hides.
An hour had passed since they’d cut down the Nets a third straight time. The Barclays Center was mostly quiet. This was their time.
Brown got close to Embiid and hugged him. It was a hug of affection, and of pride, and of gratitude. Embiid bent down a little and he hugged Brown back; affection, pride, gratitude returned.
Brown, the only NBA coach Embiid has ever had, knew he’d witnessed something special. Embiid, the product of Brown’s greatest labors, knew he’d provided a performance for the ages: 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, six blocked shots.
According to basketball-reference.com, only one other player has ever matched that stat line in a playoff game: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem did it only once, in 1974, and he had one more assist than Embiid, though he had no steals, and Embiid had two, which makes Embiid’s game better.
That was 45 years ago; 45 years of Moses and Shaq, of Hakeem and Ewing, of Duncan and Mr. Robinson, and, of course, 15 more seasons of Kareem himself.
“Look at the magnitude of what the numbers say,” Brown said in his postgame press conference. “He was dominant. He was dominant.”
Embiid is hurt again, and therefore is out of shape again, but he did what champions do. He summoned strength beyond his endurance. He played beyond his pain.
Embiid delivered this virtuoso performance on a left knee surgically repaired two years ago and now afflicted with, at least, tendinitis, though Brown hinted Friday that the damage might be more significant. That makes sense, since the knee cost Embiid 14 of the final 24 games of the regular season, sidelined him for Game 3 of this series, and limited him to 24 minutes in the Sixers’ Game 1 loss. Embiid has been a game-time decision each of the first four games of this series, and now, with the Sixers leading three games to one, he might miss Game 5 on Tuesday night in Philadelphia.
Which makes what he did in Game 4 all the more impressive.
“Given the volume of playing time lately that he hasn’t had, it’s just a dominant performance,” Brown marveled. “What more can you say?”
Embiid played 31 minutes, 30 seconds Saturday afternoon, the most he’d played in 16 days. He played almost 21 of those minutes in the second half. He scored 12 of his points, pulled six of his rebounds and dealt three of his assists in the 10:46 he played in the fourth quarter -- which, of course, was almost all of it.
Embiid was winded, and he was hindered, but he was magnificent, especially in the absence of Jimmy Butler, the team’s designated fourth-quarter closer.
The Sixers trailed, 101-94, with 5:20 to play. Embiid went on an 8-0 run, and the Sixers led, 102-101, with 2:54 to play. Embiid got two offensive rebounds that led to JJ Redick’s go-ahead three-pointer with 50 seconds left, and Embiid’s hustle play saved the game, when he batted a ball that was headed out of bounds to Mike Scott, who buried the winning three-pointer from the corner.
No Jimmy Buckets? No problem.
“If he’s not on the floor, it’s my job to take things under control,” Embiid said.
Butler had been ejected in the third quarter after he bum-rushed Jared Dudley, who had bum-rushed Embiid, who had clobbered Jarrett Allen and drawn his second flagrant foul against Allen this series. But then, that’s part of the package with Embiid. If he doesn’t block your shot, then he’ll make his fouls count, and you’ll remember. He altered at least a half-dozen other shots Saturday.
Ben Simmons played well, Tobias Harris dropped 24 and James Ennis was strong off the bench, but Embiid was plus-18, 10 better than the next best Sixer.
“l’ll let you decide how dominant I really am,” he said.
How about, utterly.
Which is how things are supposed to be. This is what Brown envisioned when the Sixers drafted Embiid third overall in 2014, knowing they would have to wait a season before he would be fully healthy. It’s what Brown clung to the next season, when Embiid remained injured. It’s what Brown banked on the next season, when the knee trouble began.
It’s what Brown saw manifested Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn. It’s why he hugged the big guy.
They had Processed together for five long years to reach this moment. It was their finest moment.