Last season, then-Indiana Pacers assistant coach Dan Burke wasn’t much of a fan of Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid.
These days, however, Embiid said things are a lot different, for one big reason: They’re now on the same team.
“It’s easy to say stuff when you’re playing against somebody,” Embiid said with a smile after Thursday’s practice. “I’m sure no one likes to play against me, because all I do is I either score or get fouled. I know the rules and stuff, I just take advantage, I play my game based on that. If someone wants to reach, I’m going to get fouled and I’m going to get to the free throw line.
“It’s harder when you play against somebody that plays that way, but when you’re actually on the same team, I’m sure he’s going to love it. We’re going to get fouls, we’re going to foul people out, we’re going to get to the free throw line, we’re going to score a lot of points.
“It’s going to be fun.”
It was not fun for Burke and the Pacers to face Embiid last year — particularly after the Sixers beat the Pacers 119-116 on Nov. 30, 2019, in a game Embiid finished with 32 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals in 33 minutes while going 15-for-15 from the free throw line.
Two days later, Burke, in an interview with the Pacers’ television partner, didn’t mince his words over how he felt about Embiid.
“I hate that team,” Burke said. “I really wanted to win that game. I think Embiid gets away with a bunch of crap the league ignores, and it would have been a good one to just walk away from.”
Burke, long regarded as one of the NBA’s best defensive assistant coaches, was hired by Doc Rivers to helm that side of the ball during the offseason, and Embiid said he has grown quite close with Burke already.
He said Burke has pushed Embiid to be more aggressive going out to meet the ball in pick-and-roll defensive coverages — as opposed to doing what Embiid prefers, which is dropping back to the rim.
“We’re great,” Embiid said. “I think he’s a great guy. We’ve actually been very close since we got here. I think him and the whole coaching staff is going to kind of look at me to kind of be the driving force of the defense, especially when we talk about being the Defensive Player of the Year, just making sure we have the best defense in the league protecting the rim. Which, I mean, the past couple of years when I’ve been on the floor we’ve always had most likely the best defense in the league, so they’re going to look for me to keep it going and keep that same energy.”