3 observations after heroic Embiid scores career-high 59, hauls Sixers to win


Joel Embiid absolutely hauled the Sixers to victory Sunday night.

Essentially, everything good for the Sixers came from Embiid in their 105-98 win over the Jazz. He turned in an astounding performance, posting a career-high 59 points along with 11 rebounds, eight assists and seven blocks. 

That's what the Sixers required to improve to 7-7 on the season. Still, Sunday was one of those games that makes you consider the notion that almost anything's possible for the Sixers as long as they have Embiid.

James Harden (right foot tendon strain) and Furkan Korkmaz (left knee effusion) were out for the Sixers, who won’t play again until they host the Bucks on Friday. Here are observations on Embiid's unreal evening and their win over Utah:

Sixers lean on Embiid from the jump 

De’Anthony Melton returned after missing a game with back stiffness, but Matisse Thybulle remained in the Sixers’ first five. The team’s starters did not begin well overall. 

Lauri Markkanen scored eight of Utah’s first 10 points. Offensive rebounding was a major issue for the Sixers in the early going as the Jazz scored eight second-chance points in the game’s opening four minutes and four seconds. Jarred Vanderbilt snagged a long rebound that led to a Jordan Clarkson three-pointer, putting the Jazz up 13-6. Utah attempted eight of the night’s first nine threes largely thanks to those offensive boards and their superior ball movement. 

Embiid was aggressive to start the game with the Jazz not sending double teams his way. Much like in the Sixers’ win Saturday night over the Hawks, he was the unquestioned hub of the team’s offense, finishing the period with 13 points, three rebounds and three assists. Kelly Olynyk guarded him and committed his second foul with 3:06 left in the first on an Embiiid jumper. 

Embiid made plenty of impressive passes, too. The Sixers ran a neat action in the middle of the first where Thybulle set a high ball screen before running to the block and giving Embiid a down screen that freed him to make a foul-line catch. Embiid recognized that Thybulle was momentarily open and found him for a dunk. Later in the quarter, he made a slick, no-look dish in transition to Tyrese Maxey, who sunk a corner three. 

When Utah subbed in Walker Kessler, Embiid hunted down chances to attack him in transition and force the 7-foot rookie to move his feet. Though he expended a lot of offensive energy in the first — and, notably, played the entire period —  Embiid’s individual defensive assignment wasn’t a tremendous challenge. The Sixers had him guard Vanderbilt, allowing the 23-year-old forward to shoot any long-range jumpers he’d like. Embiid had more freedom to hang out in the middle of the floor as a result. 

Ultimately, it did not appear encouraging that the Sixers trailed by four points after the opening period despite Embiid — on the second game of a back-to-back, after having gone 40 minutes Saturday — playing all 12 minutes. 

Second-unit disparity 

The Sixers started the second quarter with an all-bench lineup and that group struggled. 

Melton had a couple of bright flashes, rising high for a defensive rebound and then taking the ball coast to coast for a lefty layup that cut Utah’s lead to 35-32. Still, the Sixers’ offense unsurprisingly cratered without their top players on the court. Paul Reed air-balled a short baseline attempt, shooting the ball a couple of feet over the hoop, and the Jazz quickly turned that lowlight into a Malik Beasley three that extended their advantage to double digits. 

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers inserted Montrezl Harrell following a timeout. After another Beasley three and just 48 seconds of game action, Embiid entered. While it’s on whichever players get the nod to provide solid backup center minutes, it’s also been clear the Sixers tend to look shaky with Harden injured, Embiid sitting, and playmakers like Maxey and Tobias Harris on the bench. Striking the right rotational balances was especially challenging given the back-to-back situation, but it wasn’t shocking that all-bench minutes proved problematic. 

Meanwhile, depth is a strength of Utah’s. The team began the night leading the NBA in bench scoring and got 31 second-unit points in the first half. The Jazz ended the game with a 45-18 bench points advantage. 

Embiid made an instant impact upon his return, blocking a Clarkson layup and creating a fast-break Maxey dunk. Late in the second quarter, he Euro-stepped his way to a layup and drained a top-of-the-key three. He rose his arms as if to say, “Finally” after the jumper; Embiid had been 8 for 34 from long range this season before that make. His 24-point first half kept the Sixers close. 

All about Embiid down the stretch 

Thybulle spent time guarding Clarkson, Collin Sexton and Markkanen. He was very good defensively, accumulating five steals in his 27 minutes while remaining solid positionally. 

Of course, Thybulle minutes haven’t usually boosted the Sixers’ three-point shooting. He went 0 for 1 from long distance before intermission and the Sixers were just 2 for 11 as a team.

They got a couple more jumpers to fall in the third quarter, including a wing three by Maxey that gave the Sixers a 61-60 lead. Embiid continued doing damage with one-on-one opportunities against Olynyk and kicked the ball out to open shooters when the Jazz’s defense collapsed on him. Georges Niang, who checked in with 7:40 to go in the third after Harris’ fourth foul, hit a three courtesy of Embiid. 

Rivers timed things differently with Embiid’s second-half substitutions, taking him out after approximately five and a half minutes. He again employed his starter-less lineup, though. While that stretch in the third quarter wasn’t exactly smooth for the Sixers, they fared much better than in the first half. Kessler helped them out with a couple of close-range misses and Harrell slammed in two transition dunks that tied the game at 74 apiece. 

Throughout the evening, Embiid looked exceedingly comfortable and confident that he could create high-quality shots for the Sixers. He methodically drove in for a layup on Rudy Gay late in the third. Next time down, he stopped short of the rim to assist a Shake Milton lay-in. Early in the fourth, he shook Gay with a pass fake and then dribbled into a silky mid-range jumper. His blend of perimeter skill and agility at 7 feet tall is special. When he's healthy and everything's clicking, he is obviously an MVP-caliber player.

Embiid sustained his incredible momentum, which the Sixers needed. He put the team up 88-86 with yet another mid-range make. In between that play, he swatted his third and fourth shots. 

Playing Embiid the entire fourth quarter didn't seem doable, so Rivers removed him with 6:51 left and used P.J. Tucker at center. The Sixers could've made that move work if either Harris or Maxey made open threes, but both misfired. Utah scored four straight points to go ahead 94-92 and Rivers burned a timeout.

As soon as Embiid checked back in, he drained a fadeaway jumper over Markkanen and drew a foul on Mike Conley's desperate double team attempt. Embiid reached 50 points with two free throws. Two more gave him 52 and broke his prior career high.

Embiid certainly wasn't all offense, too. He recovered spectacularly to block a Markkanen shot that could've knotted the game at 100-all with 2:55 left. About a minute and a half later, he erased Sexton's fast-break layup try.

While his teammates couldn't seize several chances to give the Sixers an easier path to the finish line, that didn't matter. Anything that involved Embiid was excellent for the Sixers on the finest night of the five-time All-Star's career. With the Sixers up five points and the shot clock expiring, he narrowly missed a fadeaway three that would've given him 60 points. No one in the building would've been stunned if he'd made it.

Read more: Embiid has golden touch, trash-talking tongue in all-time great performance 

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