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February 24, 2020

With 49 points against Atlanta, Joel Embiid shows who he could be every night

Sixers NBA
022520-JoelEmbiid-USAToday Bill Streicher/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts after his three point score against the Atlanta Hawks during the fourth quarter at Wells Fargo Center.

Whether you are watching up close or from the couch at home, it is almost always easy to tell what sort of game Joel Embiid is going to have within the first five minutes of it starting. The opponent matters to some extent, but you can draw a lot of conclusions from his demeanor, his commitment running the floor, and his engagement level on defense, whether he has an All-Star cast beside him or a bunch of journeymen he is expected to lift up.

Monday night, it only took a few minutes to figure out you were in for a treat. It is not a mystery to anyone, including his head coach — when Embiid plays with this level of aggression, he is capable of winning games all by himself.

"He knows it more than I can say it," Brett Brown said of Embiid's need to be aggressive, following a 49-point, 14-rebound, three-assist game for the big man. "Nobody is asking him to get 50 a night, for the most part, but his mentality is the thing that most impressed me, and we saw the same thing against Brooklyn. We’re all going to point to the numbers, and this and that, but the bottom line is this: when he comes out with that activity, that energy, that mentality, he makes a statistician work. And we will win a lot of games."

When Embiid sets his mind to it, he isn't just scoring points, he is shedding defenders and would-be rebounders as if he was the largest running back to ever live. Bodies bounce off of him and defenders flail in an attempt to slow him down, and all it does is put him on the line or serve as part of his highlight reel.

The playing to the crowd, the shimmying, the flexes at his opponent after dunking all over them? Those things were back in a big way on Monday night. 

"I said I was going to get back to having fun. Having fun comes in different forms," Embiid said after the game. "I don’t always have to be smiling or laughing all the time, I can have fun just dominating the game. Obviously tonight was just one of those nights where I was having fun like the old days, just having fun with the crowd. Some nights I might want to dominate and stay quiet, but it was cool. The most important thing was that we bounced back and got the win." 

There were, of course, some moments of levity throughout the evening, including when he flipped a middle finger at Atlanta's Kevin Huerter for stealing the ball from him with the clock running down in the fourth. Embiid was sitting on a career-high 49 points with the potential to go for 50, but it appeared he was comfortable letting the game end and falling short of that lofty number. Somebody forgot to give Huerter the memo.

Embiid certainly did not forget after the game.

“There’s always this thing about you shouldn’t shoot the ball if you’re up 20, something like that. I feel like it should go both ways too, I mean, I’m running the clock down and I feel like the game is over, that’s why I’m doing it," Embiid said. "But to me, if the other team is going to keep playing defense and they’re going to keep shooting the ball at the other end, I feel like we should just be like, well, be better next time and just go out and score. I thought about it when I had the ball again, but I was like eh, I’m going to stay cool.”

This version of Embiid is the best player in the world, or at least is capable of looking like it for stretches at a time. He refused to allow the game to be on anyone else's terms but his own, even in the final moments when the game was out of reach and his own career-high was locked up.

That is part of what has been so frustrating about this Sixers season. After watching him consistently play at an MVP level in years past, the big fella has been erratic this year, both as a showman and as a player. The Sixers haven't been able to count on him to be the all-consuming juggernaut he was in years past, and it has played a large part in their disappointing season. Everyone knows this sort of night is within him.

But with Ben Simmons out, there is no room for sulking, no room for Embiid to take a backseat or allow himself to fade into the background of a game. This is his team, with a cast of rotating guards and lineups around him, and it is time for him to seize the moment, whether he's playing the dregs of the league or a legit contender like the Bucks. 

Double teams don't matter when he reads them well. Good post defenders don't matter when he bodies them on the glass. And opponents have no chance at the rim regardless of their talent when he commits to protecting his basket with all of his might. The Sixers gave up 40 points in the third quarter to Atlanta, and then Embiid outscored the entire Hawks team in the fourth, 22-20. It didn't exactly take a rousing speech during the intermission between those quarters to get there.

"Play some defense and a lot of other curse words in there," Tobias Harris said of the talk between the third and fourth quarters. "That's what was said." 

For that to happen, all it took was a candidate for the best player in the world to actually act like one. And in his final show of force of the night, Embiid got into a half-serious sparring session with reporters following the game, claiming his previous comments on the subject were misinterpreted. So for the sake of the big fella, here was his full explanation of the matter on Monday night.

"What I said was that All-Star Game fourth quarter, I’m out there with some of the guys that are considered the best players in the world, and I’m out there just dominating, being unstoppable, doing whatever I want, especially in the post," Embiid said. "So to me, I just felt like that was a chance for me to prove that I deserved being in that conversation of being the best player in the world, so next time do a better job [reporting]. That’s what I said, but like I said tonight, if I play like that every night, like this, like I played tonight, what more can you say?" 

"I just gotta keep on doing it, I know I’m not, but I do believe it because I got to prove it, I got to win. My goal is to win a championship, that’s how you prove you’re up there. I’m going to do everything I can to get to that point and win a championship.”

Here's my stance: if Joel Embiid can dominate a game with 10 of the best players in the world, if Joel Embiid can make an NBA frontcourt look like a group of middle schoolers, if Joel Embiid can dominate any game he sets his mind to even when his shots aren't falling, he can absolutely be the best basketball player walking the Earth.

He will not drop 40+ points every night, nor will his scoring always be the thing that powers his team to victory. But if he is capable of offering greatness, it is fair for all of us to demand it from him.

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