November 16, 2017
Following a single sports team is a much less rewarding experience than we sometimes pretend it is. With the Sixers at the end of a long road trip out west, it was just as likely fans back home in Philadelphia were staying up for a clunker as it was that they'd see their team pull out a win against the Lakers on Wednesday.
Instead, the night owls among you were rewarded for staying up late on a school night, and we all got to witness a piece of history. Joel Embiid just put on one of the most dominant performances in the history of the NBA, and that is not even a little bit of hyperbole.
Let's start with the raw numbers. His final box score is something out of an NBA 2K performance: 46 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, and seven blocks were all career highs for the young center, but more importantly, they represent a one-of-a-kind performance in the NBA record books. Blocks have only been recorded since 1973, but Embiid is the first player to ever put up 46-15-7-7 in a single game. He stands alone.
The old heads out there will note that a guy like Wilt Chamberlain could have possibly done that a ton, given how many ridiculous stat lines he put up over the course of his career and how much of it came prior to blocks being recorded. True though that may be, the data we have to work with paints a different story. Even if we take out the blocks component of Embiid's performance, a 46-15-7 game has only happened 11 other times since 1963. Here's the full list of players who managed to pull it off:
That is a prestigious list of players, and any time you can find yourself amongst company like that, you're doing something right. But the significance of a game like that is obvious to even a casual basketball fan. What did it actually look like?
For one, it looked like the Lakers had absolutely nothing to throw at Embiid that could have stopped him. He dealt with different matchups throughout the night, playing against a traditional center in Andrew Bogut and a smaller, quicker player in Julius Randle. Both got sauteed like they were a couple of bell peppers being prepared for a batch of fajitas.
To be fair to the both of them, there's not really much you can do when a man who is 7'2" tall is capable of moving like this in the post.
Embiid has long received comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon, in part because he has confessed to The Dream being one of his idols. Most of the time, Embiid's work in the post is much more of a power game than Olajuwon's ever was, but when he busts out the footwork like this, the comparisons make a lot more sense.
The fancy maneuvering didn't just take place with his back to the basket. If you needed an indication that Embiid is finally starting to get his legs under him with additional game time, look no further than this gorgeous Euro-step he pulled off in the third quarter:
They don't make many big men who are capable of moving and scoring like that. And because the Lakers had to prepare for moves and counter-moves the likes of which they rarely see, Embiid was able to bait L.A. into fouling him over and over again. His 46 points came on just 20 shots, with the rest of his damage done by knocking down a whopping 16 of the 19 free throws he was awarded during the game.
As I mentioned when Embiid played a career-high 36 minutes against the Clippers the other night, killing teams at the free-throw line is a surefire way to keep him on the court. It can be physically exhausting to bang on the low block all night, but Embiid isn't giving up size to almost anybody in the league, and he can have himself a breather at the line.
And all those made free throws allow him to get in position for his most important: protecting the paint on the other end.
It speaks to the greatness of Embiid's performance that a seven-block night gets pushed to the background by the offense. The blocks aren't even necessarily the most important part of Embiid's performance, and I want you to just watch the activity level shown in the clip below:
The reason this play seemed so notable is because we haven't seen as much of Embiid chasing smaller players on the perimeter this year as I remember seeing last season. He has played a little bit more conservatively on that end, and over the last couple games, it looks like he finally has the mental and physical sharpness back to exert max effort on that end.
There is another important subplot brewing with regards to Embiid's defense: he's learning when he should and should not risk taking a foul. It's far too early to say his foul trouble days are behind him, and a guy who plays with his bruising style will end up walking that fine line quite a bit. But there has been a change in the way he plays even compared to earlier this season when Embiid ended up on the bench for reaching in too much. On a couple different occasions against the Lakers, Embiid backed off and threw his hands up, suggesting to the officials he had no interest in drawing a whistle.
Embiid still picked up four fouls on the night, but all of them were what I would consider "worthwhile" fouls instead of lazy plays. He reads the play and is in position to challenge Randle on this look, and just jumps a little too far into him on the contest. Coaches will live with this sort of foul any day.
We saw a lot less of this in the opening couple weeks of the season, and a lot more flailing and slapping at the ball from Embiid as he struggled to recover back to the position he already should have been in. As his conditioning improves, he is looking better and better on the defensive end and putting himself in the right positions, which at his size is the majority of the battle.
Against the Lakers, there were long stretches of the game where the work he did ahead of time paid off. He gets through Brandon Ingram's screen quickly here, gives Lopez no chance to get by him, and then uses his superior length to treat Lopez's shot like a Nerf hoop prayer launched by a small child.
Good defense is about a lot more than compiling big block or steal totals. Embiid did pretty great by that metric, but what he showed apart from the blocks is a lot more important.
As recently as last season, Embiid was not often even thinking about passing. Now it's becoming a major part of his arsenal, perhaps because he has the personnel around him to capitalize when he's double-teamed.
We can start with the unsung hero of Embiid's big game, Ben Simmons. He and Embiid are quickly learning how to play with one another, and Simmons' time spent as a more traditional power forward has been invaluable when Embiid gets the ball in his hands. Simmons is excellent with the ball in his hands, but he is more than capable of creating offense as a cutter and roll man.
It also helps when you have someone like Embiid to decimate the guy who is supposed to be guarding you. Lonzo Ball gets completely wiped out by Embiid's screen here, and he wastes no time feeding the ball to his buddy for an easy dunk.
Later in the game, the Sixers gave the ball to Embiid on almost every possession, just not necessarily with the intent to score. Simmons slowly jogs as it looks like the Sixers are going to let Embiid pound on the block again, and then accelerates quickly through the hole in L.A.'s defense, rewarded by a pass right on the money from his center.
What's most impressive about Embiid's development as a passer is his improvement when things get hairy. There's still an element of "bull in a china shop" to his game, but there is better recognition when double teams and help defense come. Rather than trying to bulldoze his way through defenders—which often ends up in offensive fouls—Embiid is increasingly searching for his teammates.
There's an element of conditioning here too, as it's easier to keep your head up and your mind churning when you're not focused on how tired you are. This wrap pass to Covington comes without hesitation, and making these reads quickly is the key to cutting down his high turnover numbers.
Forty-three games into his NBA career, what we don't know about Embiid's future far outweighs what we do know. But on a night where his only peers are names like Chamberlain, Bird, and Abdul-Jabbar, we can set whatever future concerns we have to the side. This kid is special, and whether the Sixers are playing in Philadelphia or in the Philippines, you should do whatever you can to watch him play live.
You might just catch a bit of history in the process.