PHILADELPHIA — Fourteen minutes after the final buzzer sounded to signal the Philadelphia 76ers' series-clinching 122-100 Game 5 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday, a smiling Joel Embiid emerged from the home locker room wearing a black hoodie with a cartoon image of his girlfriend, Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Anne de Paula, plastered to the front.
"Can I take this golf cart?" he asked, gesturing to an idle vehicle stationed across the hall.
Soon thereafter, the Sixers' star center was driving over cable wires and navigating down the halls of the Wells Fargo Center. He stopped to greet Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson and then slowly picked up speed, whizzing by a half-dozen waving and smiling arena workers before coming to a stop outside the media room.
There, he told reporters he believed himself to be "the best defensive player in the league," a very Joel Embiid quote to cap off a very Joel Embiid night, one featuring a Monstars-like 23 points and 13 rebounds in only 20 minutes to go along with some wry taunting.
Only five days earlier, a lingering knee injury had sidelined Embiid for a pivotal Game 3. The series was tied at one game apiece then, and for a moment, it looked as though a Sixers season that had once flashed so much promise could be on the verge of collapse.
Not even a week has passed since, and yet everything about these Sixers feels different. Rome is no longer burning. The sky is no longer falling.
"We think we can win it all," Embiid told reporters after the game.
Embiid might not be 100 percent. But on Tuesday night, one game after he smashed the Nets with a 31-point, 16-rebound, seven-assist, six-block performance, he once again looked like the MVP candidate that he was for so much of the season.
But it wasn't just the Game 5 numbers that stood out; it was the way Embiid looked while putting up those stats.
He bullied the Nets in the post. He flew down the lane for slams. He smoothly ran and jumped and danced. His defense was brilliant, his feet bouncy. On one possession, he'd challenge a Nets shooter at the rim; on the next, he'd dupe a Brooklyn player into an ill-advised dump-off to a poorly positioned big.
"I didn't finish up the regular season, so just getting my rhythm and getting healthier and just doing the right things I think is working out well," Embiid said afterward. "Still got a long way to go, but as long as I'm alive, I've got to keep pushing."
The Sixers may boast a star-studded starting five, but it's Embiid who makes them special. He's the one who elevates them into a championship contender. He's the one who validates everything they've endured since former general manager Sam Hinkie began the Process six years ago.
Embiid is bigger than anyone as fast as him, faster than anyone as big as him, and more talented than nearly every player in the league. He's the closest thing the NBA has seen to Shaquille O'Neal in the last 10 or so years. He may be the most impactful defensive player in the league. His dunks and blocks stand out, yes, but so does the way he impacts the game. His presence hangs over the court like a shadow, one that opponents can't shake.
Granted, first-round victories are expected for this team. Now is where the work for Embiid and the Sixers truly begins.
Philly will face a surging and explosive Toronto Raptors team in the second round, one featuring a bull of a center in Marc Gasol, a player who Embiid has struggled against in the past. We've also seen this movie before.
This time last year, many of us were anointing the Sixers as Eastern Conference favorites. Then they fell apart against the injury-ravaged Boston Celtics.
"I feel like this team is better than last year's team," Embiid said. "Going into this (second-round) series, it's kind of different. I've seen it, this is my second time being here. Last year, we were kind of overconfident."
In the end, everything in Philadelphia will come down to Embiid's health. With him spry and on the floor, the Sixers can take anyone out. If he's unable to play close to his best, Tuesday may be the final time the Sixers celebrate this season.
A few minutes later, Embiid pulled his 7-foot frame out of the chair and stepped off the podium. He left the golf cart behind and gingerly walked alongside his agent back toward the locker room, strong enough to carry himself and the Sixers ahead.