With little help from the rest of his teammates, Joel Embiid reached back and offered a career-best effort to carry his team to a 105-98 win over the Jazz on Sunday night. Noting that Embiid had 59 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, and seven blocks does not show how good he was, which feels like an impossible sentence to believe.
Here’s what I saw.
• There were certainly times on Sunday night when you could tell Embiid had played 40 minutes the night before against Atlanta. Sloppy turnovers, a poor attempt to rebound on a missed shot from Utah, the sort of things that indicate that he doesn’t have the legs to make it through a 48-minute game.
Yet there he was, all but carrying the Sixers on offense for most of the evening. You looked up at the scoreboard at halftime, saw that he had 24 of Philadelphia’s 51 first-half points, and thought to yourself, “Yeah, that seems about right.”
He has been on an absolute rampage from midrange recently, perhaps by necessity. With Tyrese Maxey running the pick-and-roll with him, that pocket pass around the free-throw line is where both men find a comfort zone, and they’re capitalizing on the synergy. Embiid doesn’t always need that help from Maxey, of course, as he was happy to do battle with the likes of Kelly Olynyk and Walker Kessler in the post.
As a decision-maker in the post specifically, I thought Embiid showed more than the required patience and speed demanded of him in traffic. Where he got in trouble was trying to initiate further away from the hoop, his handle letting him down on more than one occasion. But every so often, he does remind you why he feels he has the right to dribble whenever and wherever he wants:
Mostly, he was locked in on scoring, and he basically had to be. Aside from Tyrese Maxey, who found a lot of his points in transition, there wasn’t a whole lot going for Philly on that end. It wasn’t the first or the last time No. 21 had to put on the hero cape for this team, but it doesn’t make it any less awe-inspiring when he has it going. The blend of power and finesse is still hard to believe as he weaves through traffic, kills a team from midrange, and wills himself to the line over and over again. Jab step, separation, death.
Embiid’s laser focus on the hoop had some hiccups, mind you. He airballed a jumper on the baseline with two guys hanging off of him in the first half, an example of a possession where he should have looked for a teammate and used the attention against the Jazz. Three consecutive turnovers before halftime made you think perhaps he was wearing down, that the Sixers would wilt in the second half and give the game away to a team that doesn’t let up. But that moment never came. The Jazz, for some reason I can’t figure out, decided to single-cover him for most of the second half, and he buried them time and time again as if to laugh at the idea that one guy was enough to deal with him.
Even if you want to venture into nitpicking territory, it’s genuinely hard to criticize him with any venom for any of his mistakes, because you have to consider just how little the Sixers created if it wasn’t through him. Embiid dragged what felt like Utah’s entire defense toward him throughout the game, generating nearly every quality look the Sixers had on Sunday night. When a good shot wasn’t there to be had, he simply rose up and banged one in Kelly Olynyk’s face, rendering pretty good defense totally useless.
Embiid alluded to this during his press conference on Saturday night, but it speaks to how high he has set the bar that his start to the year has been disappointing. And that’s exactly why it was disappointing to see him waltz through some uninspiring performances. This is the level of talent this guy has. He is not going to approach 50-point triple-doubles every night, but he is one of the absolute best basketball players on the planet, and he is capable of lifting much worse teams than this one. He gave them everything, and they needed it. Even without Harden to set him up, he’s playing ruthlessly efficient basketball, which will only get better if he can ever find his touch from three-point range.
Oh, by the way, Embiid offered some absolutely outrageous rim protection down the stretch of this game. After saving some gas in the early portion of the game, rightfully so, he emptied the clip in the second half. Utah basically scored at will attacking the rest of the roster, but with Embiid helping over from the weak side, we were treated to a barrage of blocks from the big man.
An absolute classic, all-time great performance within the context of the league, not just this franchise. You won’t see many like this in your life, and I can’t recall seeing anything like it myself.
• Regular readers are aware of my general thoughts on Matisse Thybulle, but can’t have many complaints about him after this one. On a night when the Sixers came out sleepy and disinterested on offense, Thybulle was a bolt of lightning, one of the only things standing between the Jazz and free buckets.
He picked up a tough foul here or there, but Thybulle’s night was largely defined by his off-ball defense. The Jazz couldn’t seem to keep track of him as he roamed in passing lanes and cheated away from his assignments, perhaps because this is the sort of team that allows him to be at his best. Without a true No. 1 option for him to worry about, Thybulle was able to freelance and prey on moments of hesitation for Utah, springing the Sixers on quite a few fast breaks throughout the evening.
Thybulle was several orders of magnitude better than every other Sixers player on the defensive end, which is one of the only reasons they managed to hang around with a bunch of goose eggs in the points department.
• It was a bad sign for Philadelphia to be down at the end of a first quarter where Embiid played every single second. Taxing the big man like that on the second half of a back-to-back, a night after he had played 40 minutes, is probably not how I would have approached it personally.
Was there another option? That’s less clear. Embiid was Philadelphia’s offensive centerpiece and their only real hope to score if Maxey was out of the game, and the backup center play has been brutal behind him the last few games. Paul Reed has been given a chance to run with the job this past week, and he has been fairly brutal, perhaps reinforcing why Rivers wanted this to be a competition.
(Watching Reed airball a jumper from roughly the dunker spot was a little depressing, I can’t lie. He was out there trying to impact the game with activity, but he’s in a rough patch of form right now.)
Philadelphia’s terrible rebounding was a big reason the Jazz were able to keep this game close the whole way. The Sixers couldn’t use the excuse of being on a back-to-back against this opponent, because the Jazz were on a back-to-back of their own and had to travel for this game, unlike their hosts. So even though they weren’t a fresher team, they were the hungrier team, punishing Philadelphia’s every bout of laziness on the glass.
It’s one of those things that makes you question whether the Sixers will ever have the sort of habits a winning team needs to have. They don’t box out well, they mistime jumps, they get beat to spots, it’s a mess on many levels and there’s not a magic bullet fix. I don’t think it has to be a problem, but it shows up from time to time.
• One side effect of the “Embiid goes crazy” experience on offense is other guys going long stretches of time with few chances to feel the ball and build an offensive rhythm. But I can’t say anyone else in this game really showed they deserved the time or attention based on run of play. The Sixers, save for Embiid, looked like a group of guys who had played a game the night before, and a game where most of the starters played heavy minutes.
Maxey was ostensibly Embiid’s top running mate in this game, at least if we’re measuring that by points scored, but this wasn’t his finest hour in what has been a rough week-plus. He doesn’t seem to be having an easy time playing through contact and initiating it, with opponents finding it easier to dislodge him as he makes his way to the basket. That’s leading to far too many runner and layup attempts that glance harmlessly off of the rim, and with Maxey spilling to the floor, the ensuing runouts often lead to points for the opponent.
The rest of the starting lineup was either anemic or non-existent on offense, which makes the Embiid heroics even more astounding. PJ Tucker was basically just out there getting cardio on Sunday night, standing in the corner on offense and offering little resistance on the other end — Lauri Markannen has been great this year, but in no way should be able to go right through Tucker. Thybulle’s nice defensive effort was not supplemented with any points, and Harris’ low volume night was unremarkable.
I don’t think there’s anybody on the roster save for Embiid who can truly hold their head up high after this one. Missed shots, late rotations, it was all fairly ugly. On another night, worth time and attention. Sunday night, you mostly just lament they didn’t offer more for the guy going absolutely bananas.
• I’ll go a step further — it honestly felt like they were conspiring against him the rest of the team was so bad. Maxey might as well have been wearing a Jazz jersey in the fourth quarter.
• I understand why coaches don’t want to use a challenge early in the first quarter, but the Sixers had a golden opportunity to use one at plus value in the opening quarter.
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