The 76ers came back from a 15-point second-half deficit to beat the visiting Celtics Wednesday night, behind a monstrous performance from the huge and unstoppable Joel Embiid. Embiid—whose conditioning, at the moment, is less than great—played more than 41 minutes, the second most he’s played in a game this season, and poured in 37 points on just 17 shot attempts, along with 22 rebounds and four assists. He was the best player on the floor by a wide, wide margin:
A lot of Embiid’s efficiency came down to drawing fouls, as befits a guy who is second only to James Harden in free throw attempts per game on the season. The big man got to the line Wednesday night for a whopping 21 attempts, including the two he took after he baited Marcus Smart into an ejection, and made 20. This was the fourth time this season a player has made 20 free throws in a game, but needless to say it’s the season’s first 20 free throw, 20 rebound game. In fact, Embiid’s unusual 20-20 game was just the third of its kind since 1983. Embiid was helped somewhat by a second-quarter ankle injury to Aron Baynes, a gigantic cave troll in a Celtics jersey whose highest basketball purpose is bothering the 76ers big man, but it’s a sign of Embiid’s greatness that a specialist like Baynes is needed in order to keep him from putting up downright historic numbers.
For all that Embiid did to load up the box score, though, my favorite of his highlights is what he did with 35 seconds left in regulation and his Sixers holding a three point lead. The Celtics used an Al Horford screen to engineer a switch that had Ben Simmons trailing Horford to the corner and Embiid defending Kyrie Irving, the world’s best ball-handler, at the top of the key, in an isolation. For most NBA big men, that’s big trouble. The Sixers usually avoid switching Embiid onto ball-handlers on screens, so that he can guard the paint and protect the rim, but in late game situations most NBA teams automatically switch screens, and anyway the Celtics are so good at picking out and forcing matchups that this was at least the fourth or fifth time Embiid had been stuck on Irving on the night. In every instance he’d made life tough on Irving, but that’s a really difficult mismatch, especially in an exhausted 7-footer’s 41st minute of action. Here’s the play:
That is just an insane defensive play. Irving beats him cleanly going left, but Embiid does a good job of turning and running to stay in the play. Kyrie feels Embiid breathing down his neck and uses a little eurostep move to cross in front and get back to his right hand, but Embiid slows just enough to avoid crashing into and fouling Kyrie, then whips around in front of him and has enough balance and dexterity to get his gigantic left hand up and knock Irving’s layup away. And then he keeps his balance long enough to get back to the front of the rim in time to grab the rebound of Marcus Morris’s hurried fadeaway. No one else Embiid’s size could make any part of that play! Most NBA big men turn to jelly just standing in front of Irving; if Ian Mahinmi tried to replicate that sequence his entire skeleton would wind up outside of his body, and the Celtics would somehow score 19 points on the play.
After it was all over, Embiid was not shy when talking to ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth about that play and his performance overall, describing himself as both “the best defensive player in the league” and “the most unstoppable player in the league” in his answer to her first question:
Embiid might be overstating his greatness, but not by much. If he’s not the best defensive player in the NBA, it’s only because he’s known from time to time to take plays off on that end, at least in part because by and large he does a ton more heavy lifting offensively than most other players in his defensive class. And if he’s not the most unstoppable offensive player in the league (he’s not), he’s for sure at least in the discussion. And, anyway, after his performance Wednesday night, he’s earned a little exaggeration.
The Sixers and Celtics are currently third and fifth, respectively, in the Eastern Conference standings. Sadly, the Celtics are far more likely to climb to fourth than the Sixers are to fall out of third, which means we are unlikely to see these teams meet in the playoffs unless it’s in the Eastern Conference Finals. Decent people generally find it impossible to root for Philadelphia and Boston sports teams, but the chance to watch the Celtics drag the very best out of Embiid over a fiercely competitive playoff series might be worth a few weeks of compromise.