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On Joel Embiid, a historic night in Philly and what could be next for the Sixers

Joel Embiid turned in one of the greatest individual performances in NBA history. Maybe he can turn the Sixers’ season around.

Utah Jazz v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Sunday was a night that will become folklore for generations to come.

Of course when Joel Embiid tells his son Arthur, now 2, about this night, he might embellish the truth a tad.

“I’ll actually tell him that I had a 60-point quadruple-double on this night — when it wasn’t,” he joked.

Embiid was marvelous as the Sixers hung on to beat the surprising Utah Jazz. While it wasn’t quite a 60-point quadruple-double, 59 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, and seven blocks is mighty impressive.

Like one of the greatest individual performances the sport has ever seen impressive.

By now you’ve likely seen the historical context of Embiid’s night. He’s the first player in NBA history to record the above stat line. In fact, no player had ever recorded at least 50 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, and five blocks before (blocks did not become an official stat until 1973-74).

And this coming off a game 24 hours earlier in which he put up 42 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, and two blocks.

The Sixers swept their weekend back-to-back against the Hawks and Jazz — and boy, did they need it. They’re at the .500 mark for the first time since Halloween and have looked much better since Embiid returned to the lineup last Monday.

“We’re not panicked, but we want to win games,” Doc Rivers said. “We just do. We’ve got a lot of injuries and stuff going on, and there’s nothing better than finding ways to win through all of that. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Rivers, who played in the NBA for 13 seasons and is in his 24th year as a head coach, has seen an awful lot.

But nothing quite like this.

“I’ve seen a guy score a lot of points. I haven’t seen a guy score a lot of points, rebound, and then block shots,” Rivers said. “That was impressive. He was getting everything. So, ‘No’ is the answer. I’ve never seen a more dominating performance, when you combine defense and offense.”

Certainly the 59 points stand out. There have been only two players in franchise history that have scored more in a single game: Wilt Chamberlain and Allen Iverson. Since Embiid made his NBA debut in 2016, he is only the 11th player in the league to score 59 or more. The only other center to do it was Karl-Anthony Towns.

Embiid actually had a shot at 60. With under 30 seconds to go in the game and sitting at 57, the shot clock was winding down as the ball swung to Embiid at the top of key. With the much smaller Jordan Clarkson on him, Embiid might’ve been able to rise up over the guard or go to his left and hit the step-back shot he’s perfected over the past year or so.

He opted for a fadeaway to his right — that looked pretty good leaving his hand.

Did he think it was going in?

“I thought so,” Embiid said. “I made it harder than it should’ve been. I could’ve easily dribbled the ball and pulled up, but I guess I was feeling myself.”

When a guy has it going like that, you get him the ball and get out of the way.

“Joel didn’t say anything,” P.J. Tucker said. “Just called the play he wanted. That was it.”

So, he was calling his own number all night?

“They’re all for him anyways,” Tucker joked. “It’s just which one do you want to run?”

It would be great if all Embiid did was score Sunday, but he did a lot of other great stuff too. The eight assists were notable — as well as his zero turnovers after halftime, an old bugaboo that’s crept back up recently. Embiid has said he enjoys the challenge of playmaking from the middle of the floor, especially while James Harden remains out.

There were multiple passes that Embiid made Sunday that he likely couldn’t have made even a year ago. He’s seeing the floor and feeling the game at a higher level than he seemingly ever has.

“We started him on the elbow, did a lot of elbow, and then we put him on the nail more,” Rivers said. “And you can see from both sides. Our spacing has been really good. With Jo, I think it’s really important that he knows the answers. Like, if they come here, this is where you go. If they come from here, this is where you go. It makes him a more efficient passer — and he sees them.”

Aside from the scoring and passing, Embiid’s defense was sensational. He recorded five of his seven blocks in the fourth quarter. It felt like every time Utah went to the basket Embiid was there and ready to challenge the shot.

Embiid joked last week after the team’s win over the Suns that their season didn’t actually start until that night. Since Embiid made his return to the lineup against Phoenix, the Sixers have been one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.

As Embiid goes, so go the Sixers, especially on defense.

“Well, starting with me just being more impactful than I was the first three or four games,” Embiid said. “Getting back to myself, protecting the rim first of all, and making sure no one drives in there.

“And then as a team, I think with the schemes, we’ve kind of settled on what we’re trying to do. I think at the beginning, we went away from what worked in the past — especially with me on the floor — switching everything. I can do it, but that’s not my best attribute. I can guard guards and chase them all over the place, but then again, I’m 6-10, so I should be in the paint blocking shots, protecting the rim.”

It was a rocky start to the season for Embiid. A summer bout with plantar fasciitis kept him from being in optimal shape. Then the flu sidelined him for three games. You could see against the Suns that he was looking more like himself. Sunday was a return to prominence and dominance.

Tyrese Maxey likely summed it up best.

“Joel Embiid is very good at basketball,” he said. “There’s nothing else I can really say tonight. He’s just really good at basketball. … It’s good to see him back. He’s having a lot of fun. I think you can tell he’s hitting his groove. I think whatever he had with the foot kind of messed with him, because I thought he was in really good shape and then his little foot thing kind of messed with him. Then he got sick; that messes with your wind. And now I think he’s finally hitting his stride.”

Maxey repeated some variation of the phrase “Joel Embiid is very good at basketball” several times during his postgame availability.

After a guy puts up 59 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, and seven blocks in a game, what else is there to say really?

As magical as it was, it was one night in a long season. The Sixers have championship aspirations, yet sit at 7-7 on Nov. 14. They’re also navigating a fairly difficult early schedule while Embiid’s superstar running mate is out.

But Embiid has been in similar situations before. It was a special evening to be sure, but Embiid perhaps reminded everyone how special he can be.

And the Sixers need him to be.

On a night many people will one day tell their kids and grandkids about, Embiid will have to wait to tell Arthur about this night when the younger Embiid is a little older — and when his bedtime is a little bit later.

Just don’t tell Lauri Markkanen, who missed two crucial free throws late in the game after Embiid hurled some dishonest trash talk his way.

“Just a little trash talk. Just trying to get in his head,” Embiid said of the interaction. “I don’t even know what I said; I was just talking. I kind of lied, because Arthur is already sleeping. I was like, ‘I’ve got to put Arthur to sleep, so you better miss those free throws. You don’t need to go to overtime.’ I did lie because Arthur, he goes to bed. [His mom] don’t play around. Every single day, 7:30, he has to be in bed.”

Yeah, it seems like Joel Embiid is back to being himself.

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