For James Harden, 50-point games were once rather routine.
He’s reached that milestone 23 times in his career — fourth in NBA history, behind Wilt Chamberlain (118), Michael Jordan (31) and Kobe Bryant (25). The 10-time All-Star did it four times in a seven-game stretch between Nov. 30 and Dec. 13 of 2019.
Joel Embiid ticked off his fourth 50-point performance Sunday and Harden’s postgame assessment included an odd but accurate thing to say about it: Embiid's night didn’t appear especially difficult.
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“He was in attack mode the entire game,” Harden said after a 131-113 home Sixers win over the Hornets. “He made scoring look easy tonight — just in attack mode, getting to the basket, the jumper was falling. He had an aggressive night tonight.”
Indeed, the Hornets rarely forced Embiid out of his vast comfort zone. He went 20 for 32 from the field, and even many of those misses were shots that Embiid expects to make.
“Joel, he literally scored in every way that you can possibly score a basketball tonight,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said.
Following early-season concern about Embiid’s offseason plantar fasciitis and related conditioning issues, last year’s scoring champion is back at the top. He’s averaged 33.4 points and, through 18 games, been more efficient than ever with 129.5 points per 100 shot attempts, according to Cleaning the Glass.
As Embiid keeps accumulating massive scoring games full of automatic-feeling jumpers and explosive drives from the elbow, it seems quite safe to call him a 7-foot, 280-pound player with the skills of a wing.
“He’s 6-11, can move like a guard,” Harden said. “It’s pretty special to see. He gets to the basket and he draws so much attention. It’s crazy. It’s crazy to be that big and be able to move like that.”
Nineteen rotation regulars this season have averaged at least two attempts per game in the 15-19 foot range. The only center in that group, Embiid has taken 3.5 of those shots per contest and made 52.4 percent of them, a figure which trails only Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant.
“(The mid-range) is my shot, and that’s a shot I can get to every time,” he said. “I know everybody wants me to be in the paint, but most of the time the paint is crowded anyways. That’s why we needed to add something different, and that’s the one thing that’s helped me a lot.”
While criticism of Embiid settling for jumpers and not earning deep post position enough is sometimes fair, it’s worth noting he remains a high-volume, high-efficiency post-up player by modern NBA standards. Since his rookie year, he’s ranked either first or second in post-ups per game every season, according to NBA.com. He’s at a career-low 4.8 per game thus far (third in the league), and there’s been nothing wrong with the Sixers’ overarching goal to get Embiid more touches in the middle of the floor, where double teaming is trickier and he has a better decision-making perspective.
Obviously, Embiid cannot drop 50-plus points whenever he pleases. The Hornets are 7-20 and Mason Plumlee doesn’t make the short list of players equipped to guard Embiid well.
P.J. Tucker (with considerable assistance from the Heat’s persistent, varied help defense) may very well have made the cut last year. Though practices are sparse in the NBA regular season, a glimpse of 1-on-1 drills last week suggested that the Embiid-Tucker matchup is still highly competitive, and that both players enjoy a challenge — along with some trash talk, of course.
“We’ve had a great vibe all season,” Embiid said Friday night after the Sixers beat the Lakers. “We might be 13-12 (now 14-12), but it hasn’t changed anything off the court. We’ve got a bunch of great guys, positive energy. Obviously we need to get healthy and we need to go on a run, but that’s how it is every single day, whether we’re on the road, whether we’re at home. We’ve got a bunch of great guys and we just need to keep that going.”
Already, the Sixers have dismal, inexcusable losses and improbable, shorthanded wins. Although they have clear flaws, there's still plenty of time for everything to click as Embiid envisions.
That idea sounds less like wishful thinking on nights he scores 53 points with ease.