Two days after he set off consternation here by placing an index finger across his lips and imploring his home-crowd fans to stay silent, Philadelphia center Joel Embiid motioned to the sold-out crowd inside Wells Fargo Center again Tuesday night.
Unfurling his massive wingspan and bobbing his head, the 7-foot All-Star requested their cheers.
A shoving match between Embiid and Clippers forward Marcus Morris had just been broken up underneath the basket with 2:48 remaining in a taut game. As Embiid stalked toward the 76ers’ bench at the other end of the court, the crowd that had booed him during pregame introductions roared its approval.
The Clippers had pushed back against the 76ers long before Morris took affront to Embiid’s hand in his chest and responded with a two-handed shove, earning both a technical foul. Facing double-digit deficits before and after halftime, they chipped away behind the brilliance of Kawhi Leonard and his game-high 30 points.
But on a night when the Clippers’ other high-powered scorers faltered, their late push wasn’t forceful enough to dislodge the 76ers from their current post as the NBA’s best home team. Philadelphia’s 110-103 victory improved it to 25-2 at home and when it was over, fans still were bellowing.
Embiid and teammate Ben Simmons both scored 26 points, and 76ers guard Josh Richardson scored 17 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter to ice the Clippers.
“We fought to the end,” Leonard said. “They made a push and I mean, they played better tonight.”
A matchup between teams considered preseason favorites to win their respective conferences carried the feel of a possible NBA Finals preview. Leonard and Simmons often guarded each other, a reunion of their matchup in last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals.
“They could be a team that gets hot and make it to the Finals and we could be a team that gets hot and makes it to the Finals,” said Paul George, who made three of 15 shots and had 11 points. “Definitely going to be two teams that are feeling each other out.”
Noting a 19-11 disparity in foul calls in Philadelphia’s favor, George called out “some home-court cooking tonight, to say the least.” The Clippers were often upset with officials, who called Leonard for two fouls within the first six minutes and five on the night against center Ivica Zubac, their main defender against Embiid.
Yet the bigger obstacle was a stagnant offense that squandered Leonard’s efficiency and Landry Shamet’s 19 points off the bench in his first game in Philadelphia since being traded away one year ago.
Morris needed only 12 minutes to match his point total from his Clippers debut Sunday, but then didn’t score for the next 20 minutes. He finished with 13 points. Lou Williams made five of 15 shots and had 13 points. Montrezl Harrell made five of 10 shots and had 10 points.
Since acquiring Morris in a trade with New York on Feb. 6, the Clippers have pared down their offense — only one set has been installed, coach Doc Rivers said — to get everyone on the same page. That limited playbook was not an excuse, he said.
“We had plenty of times where we had great shooting on the floor and, basically, whoever brought it down took a shot,” Rivers said. “That’s not good offense.”
Questions about the offensive fit between Embiid and Simmons have swirled since their partnership began, but they unlocked their potential against a Clippers defense that allowed 58 points in the paint.
“When we add up Ben Simmons and Joel’s stat line, it’s arguably the best game that those two have paired with since I’ve been the coach here,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said.
Before tipoff, Brown had taken questions about Embiid’s capacity as a leader in light of Sunday’s provocation with 76ers fans. On Monday, Embiid sent a tweet suggesting he’d become a villain in the city.
“Is it ideal? Maybe not,” Brown said. “Is it Joel? Yes.”
Embiid’s tangle with Morris was their second this season, following a scuffle when Morris played for the Knicks. Morris called Philadelphia the “tougher” team but didn’t want to elaborate on Embiid fearing a fine from the NBA.
“I’m gonna keep my mouth shut,” he said.
Embiid got the cheers he requested. More importantly, a 76ers team that had slid to fifth in the East got a win.
“This is still my city,” Embiid said. “This is still our city.”