LOS ANGELES — To watch Joel Embiid pulverize the Lakers on Wednesday was to see years of painstaking rehab pay off like never before, to bear witness to jaw-dropping statistical history, and to contemplate a 2018 postseason injected with an elite low-post flavor not seen in nearly a decade.
Philadelphia’s franchise center grinned widely and often after what he called the best game of his life, crediting Hakeem Olajuwon highlight tapes for his 46–point, 15–rebound, 7–assist, 7–block explosion in a 115-109 road win. Embiid’s locker-room victory lap included a celebratory step onto a scale (he’s still working into shape), an Instagram jab at LaVar Ball, a brief pause to autograph a box score, and a high-five with a trainer who tested Embiid’s body fat by pinching his chest and stomach with fancy pliers.
Before chatting up more than a dozen media members, Embiid stopped briefly to receive congratulations from a teammate near the shower. “You were… f---ing… amazing… tonight,” the veteran said, in an even and serious tone as if formally honoring the occasion.
Embiid had certainly earned the appreciative pauses, scoring the most points by a Sixers player since Allen Iverson in 2006 and becoming the first player in NBA history to post a 46/15/7/7 line. “I am impressed,” Embiid said, speaking for everyone. “I wish I could have had the quadruple-double in blocks. Shout out Hassan Whiteside. I was a force.”
Down the stretch, the 2014 lottery pick was so unstoppable that he essentially broke both coaches. Brett Brown copped to a philosophical bind: Should the Sixers pursue their preference for up-tempo play or should they force-feed their big guy on the block? “It’s always that slippery slope of playing with pace and movement, and then realizing you’ve got Joel Embiid,” Brown said. “Tonight we realized we had Joel Embiid.”
The fourth quarter saw Embiid pour in 19 points, many of them against an undersized L.A. lineup that deployed Julius Randle as a small–ball center. Lakers coach Luke Walton largely stuck to single coverage, a plan that allowed Embiid to alternate between bamboozling Randle with precise pivots, shooting over the top of him, and punishing him with strong chest-to-chest power moves. “Towards the end, they started double-teaming me,” Embiid said. “Too late. The game was over by then.”
Once the dust settled, Walton stood up for Randle, cycling through various help schemes that proved effective and pointing out that Embiid can’t be hacked like many big men because he’s an effective foul shooter. Eventually, Walton landed on Embiid’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” nature, noting that the Sixers center found a cutter for an easy basket when the Lakers did finally send a second defender. “He is a handful down there,” Walton concluded, out of answers. “He is a heck of a player. He’s a problem.”
Great players don’t just impact the game, they reorient it. Embiid’s methodical slow roasting of Randle was striking for two reasons. First, because he was actualizing years of elusive hoop dreams. Second, because he was rekindling a lost art, pushing hard from the inside as the rest of the sport has largely settled on attacking from the outside. Brown found himself “realizing he has Joel Embiid” because no one else—not even the league’s most proven playoff teams—has a threat like him. Walton didn’t immediately sell out to defend Embiid’s isolation post-ups or shift up to play bigger lineups because modern defense generally prioritizes maximum versatility and three-point defense.
Unfurled, The Process amounts to The Exception, a talent so prodigious and rare that he requires rethinking philosophical preferences and strategic defaults. As captivating as Embiid’s arrival has been already, conjuring up Playoff Embiid is ten times the fun. How many postseason opponents will end up looking like Randle as they struggle to cope with Embiid’s physicality and interior craft?
Consider the 2017 playoffs. None of the top 10 scorers were centers. None of the top 10 players by usage rage were centers. The Warriors, Cavaliers, Celtics, Rockets, Wizards and Raptors all favored spread lineups and/or role players at center. The Spurs and Jazz stayed big for as long as possible, but LaMarcus Aldridge wasn’t a forceful enough presence in the post when it mattered and Rudy Gobert is best cast as a finisher, not a creator. The Raptors regularly ditched Jonas Valanciunas at the first sign of trouble and Atlanta benched Dwight Howard in crunch time. Coincidentally or not, most of the traditional centers in last year’s postseason field—Howard, DeAndre Jordan, Steven Adams, Marc Gasol, Greg Monroe and Robin Lopez—were eliminated in the first round.
In fact, one must go back to Howard in 2009, Tim Duncan in his mid-2000s prime, and Shaquille O’Neal during his early-2000s Lakers heyday to find centers who averaged 20+ PPG over multiple series in a postseason run.
A full commitment to cutting against the grain requires both obscene skill and unbending confidence. Embiid clearly possesses both, as evidenced by his trash-talking and jubilance throughout this week’s wins over the Clippers and Lakers. “There’s a mischievous side in Joel and there surely is a competitive side in Joel,” Brown said. “He has fun. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He brings a cocky side and a swagger to the rest of his teammates, and that’s priceless.”
If the Sixers remain healthy and keep their heads above water, they would enter the playoffs with the East’s biggest match-up nightmare other than LeBron James and, perhaps, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those are clearly huge ifs. But even if they opened the playoffs on the road against a more experienced and well-oiled opponent, the Sixers would likely dictate the matchups and style of play thanks solely to their Hakeem-worshipping center.
“It’s not too soon [to talk playoffs],” said rookie Ben Simmons, a marvelous complement to Embiid. “That’s our goal. Once we get there, [we want to] win. … [The fans] see [what we’re doing]. Everybody has the Internet, League Pass. This is just the start.”
Let Wednesday stand as fair warning.