PHILADELPHIA — Well after the Philadelphia 76ers ensured that this promising, process-trusting season wouldn’t end in a sweep, the big man from the franchise’s last team to reach the NBA Finals was still hanging out in the hallway at Wells Fargo Center, slightly perturbed. Dikembe Mutombo spotted Joel Embiid leaving the interview room with his entourage, marched his direction, and soon, that raspy baritone drowned out any other noise emanating from the arena.
“How long are you going to make me wait for you?” Mutombo shouted to Embiid. “It’s been over an hour.”
Embiid chuckled as Mutombo continued his playful lecture on being tardy. Out of respect for the Hall of Fame center, Embiid waited for Mutombo to finish his finger-wagging rant. But the quick-witted Embiid — wearing a white T-shirt that read on the back, “History Will Be Re-Tweeted” — wasn’t going to let him have the last word. Embiid shot back that Mutombo had no room to talk about being late because he’d invited the four-time Defensive Player of the Year numerous times to watch him play in person. But only now — in Embiid’s fourth season in the league, in the second round of the playoffs — did Mutombo finally show up. For that, Mutombo had no rebuttal. But he did have some advice.
No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a series, and only three teams have managed to come all the way back to force a seventh game: the 1951 New York Knicks against the Rochester Royals in the NBA Finals, the 2003 Portland Trail Blazers against Dallas in the first round, and the 1994 Denver Nuggets in the conference semifinals against Utah. Mutombo was a member of that Nuggets squad. And he had the most iconic image of his career in an upset against the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics in the previous round, when he embraced a basketball while lying on his back to celebrate rallying from a 2-0 deficit to win the next three games.
“I told him, ‘You have to keep [the] faith. We did against Seattle. You can do it,’ ” Mutombo told Yahoo Sports. “It’s not over until that lady comes — and she has to sing.”
With a 103-92 victory Monday against the Boston Celtics, the wait for the 76ers to arrive in this series is also over. They fended off for at least one more game any singing or eulogies for a season in which they discovered a future foundation in Embiid and Ben Simmons and finally saw the fun side of that controversial rebuild. The 76ers didn’t win pretty or convincingly but can’t worry about aesthetics at this point — especially when they can look back at the first four games of this series and find a play (Marco Belinelli’s confetti-inspiring jumper with his foot on the 3-point line at the end of regulation in Game 3) or a series of plays (that horrific second quarter in which they let a 22-point lead get whittled down to five before halftime of Game 2) that would make them think that they should be the team up 3-1 in this series. But they’re not. And they’re desperate. And they remain surprisingly confident despite being stuck in a pothole only slightly larger than what can be found in these Philadelphia streets.
As he got dressed at his locker room stall after the win, Simmons slipped around his neck a gaudy, blinged-out gold chain with a boxing kangaroo medallion hanging low — a nod to his native Australia and to the fight the 76ers are going to have to display to be more than a one-hit wonder in this series. “I’m not ready to go home and start my vacation, definitely not,” Simmons said after matching surprise starter T.J. McConnell with a team-high 19 points and Embiid with a team-high 13 rebounds. “I texted Jo before the game and we spoke about it. We want to be here. The time is now. It’s going to take a lot. But that’s just the way our mindset is. We know we’re the leaders of this team.”
Boston has neutralized much of what made the 76ers a heavy favorite before this series began. But Philadelphia hasn’t been exposed as some not-ready-for-prime-time fraud. Being one loss from elimination simply forced the 76ers to show the scrappiness that allowed them to extend a winning streak from eight games to 17 after Embiid went down in March, and the moxie that forced coach Brett Brown to keep moving the goalposts for what they could accomplish.
The 76ers should be encouraged that they remain alive despite Embiid’s inability to impose his will at both ends, and Simmons finding driving lanes and passing lanes difficult to navigate under a swarm of Celtics arms. But they will eventually need their young stars to be special to turn this series upside down. The struggle, however, hasn’t silenced Embiid. Picking a smack-talking fight with fellow Kansas alum Marcus Morris, Embiid tapped the side of his temple multiple times in the third quarter and said, “We in your head.” Morris responded by flashing three fingers and curling two others into a zero, to signal the Celtics’ series lead at that point. Afterward, Morris said, “I know I wouldn’t say a damn word if I was down 3-1.”
How someone on the brink of elimination in every game the rest of this series can claim a mental edge is a bit confounding. But Embiid doesn’t know any other way. His accounts on Instagram and Twitter don’t go dark after losses. And he has earned the respect of players around the league, including from trash-talking extraordinaire Draymond Green, for refusing to be a frontrunner when he starts jawing. Embiid saved his most scathing words for Celtics point guard Terry Rozier, with whom he got into another tussle that resulted in technical fouls for both players. After shrugging about the overall impact of the incident, Embiid explained, “He tried to punch me twice. Too bad he’s too short and couldn’t get to my face.”
Mutombo was the only person in the arena who could actually look down on Embiid, a point he made as the two posed for pictures. “I just want to confirm who’s taller,” Mutombo said, causing Embiid to lower his head and concede with laughter. “Thank you.” As he walked out of the arena, Mutombo spotted a rim hanging on a wall, touched it without jumping and had a “still got it” smile come across his face. The NBA’s global ambassador, Mutombo just returned Saturday to the United States after a trip through Asia but withstood the jet lag and fatigue to witness Embiid, whom he referred to as “the next Hakeem Olajuwon.”
“I had to go see Jo at least one time here. He’s been giving me a hard time. He said, ‘You are our elder. You opened the gate for us. How come you don’t come see us? We made it.’ So I’ve been feeling a little bit of pressure,” Mutombo told Yahoo Sports. “I’m so happy for him. He has a great future. It’s going to be so bright. We just want him to be healthy. He missed two seasons. We’ve been praying for him to stay healthy and I’m happy that he’s performing for the playoffs.”
And Embiid is thrilled that his season isn’t over and that the 76ers still have a chance to repeat — and re-tweet — history.
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