On Saturday night the mood around Joel Embiid’s health was dark, if not outright ominous. Well-being has long been a precious resource for him, and it might always be, for a body that big doing all the balletic feats he asks of it. But even by his usual banged-up standards the center was juggling a comical set of maladies. He had just missed three games straight with the flu; plantar fasciitis had already ruined his conditioning heading into the season. That Saturday, he played 40 minutes and scored 42 points in a couldn’t-put-away win over the Hawks that lifted the Sixers, a preseason darling, to a limp 6-7 record. In that game he’d slipped and tweaked his ankle. “I plan on playing, but I’m going to see how it reacts tomorrow. It’s pretty sore,” he said afterwards, looking ahead to Sunday’s game against the Jazz. He’d also been clutching his shoulder throughout the game. “I don’t know what happened, but some days I can’t lift my arm up. When I go block shots, I really feel it. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Not what you want to hear in reference to a shoulder that determines the exact ceiling of this Sixers team. But then Sunday came and none of that seemed to matter. Whatever pain he feels when he contests shots, he tolerated over and over again. In the game of his lifetime Embiid collected 59 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, and seven blocks. Sixers coach Doc Rivers said he’d never seen a more dominating two-way performance than Embiid’s single-handed destruction of this unexpectedly sharp Jazz team. They won, 105-98, and Embiid re-entered consciousness as one of the best players in the NBA, and surely the only one capable of this hallucinatory stat line.
Stepping back from the individual glory, this is not an encouraging sign for the Sixers, who are midway through a month minus James Harden, out with a right foot tendon strain. Their remaining superstar supplied 37 minutes of everything that can be done on a basketball court. The team needed Embiid’s vigilant rim protection to approach anything like passable defense. PJ Tucker, brought into this squad to shore up their defense, was cellophane-grade all night. Those seven blocks probably still understate Embiid’s constant labors to deter easy attacks in the lane from Utah’s slashers. Everything good that Philly accomplished in half-court offense was also routed through Embiid. Tyrese Maxey, the third-year guard who has emerged as a speedy and sharp-shooting third option, stuck in his recent rough patch, and looked a wreck in the closing stretch. Embiid wasn’t going to get much rest in this one. Paul Reed, finally getting some consistent burn from Rivers, got yanked after air-balling an open nine-foot jumper, and isn’t ready to play backup center for a team with ambitions. Taken altogether the squad created a comprehensively dysfunctional backdrop for Embiid’s one-man brilliance.
Embiid made 19 of 28 shots and 20 of 24 free throws. The offensive repertoire is kaleidoscopic, a reminder that this is a 28-year-old armed with all the foul-drawing grift and genuine shooting craft that he’s honed in seven seasons. In particular, his midrange bag looks bottomless. On the season he’s now shooting 55 percent from 10 to 16 feet, and 57 percent from 16 feet to the three-point line, both preposterous figures. In this game he toggled at will between quick pull-ups, turnarounds, fades, and his combination of size and touch defies any coverage. Whenever the Jazz moved to single coverage he blew by quicker defenders, then trucked or feinted his way past any Jazz bold enough to contest him in the paint. Double-teaming was similarly doomed. Passing, which hasn’t always come naturally to Embiid, was on point in this one. He waved cutters around to clear up the space he needed, and then got to work mashing the likes of Kelly Olynyk and Walker Kessler.
In the final minute of the game, having already scored over 100 points on the weekend, Embiid sized up Jordan Clarkson, and whirled into a 26-foot turnaround. The game was by then secure and he needed three more points to hit 60. After all that toil, he’d finally earned himself the luxury of a bad shot.