PHILADELPHIA — After 76ers superstar Joel Embiid scored 42 points to lead them to a win Saturday night at Wells Fargo Center over the Atlanta Hawks, Embiid declared he was simply doing “whatever it takes” to lead his team to victories.
Little did anyone realize what Embiid had in store for an encore 24 hours later against the Utah Jazz.
Embiid had the performance of his career Sunday night, finishing with 59 points — a career high — to go along with 11 rebounds, 8 assists and 7 blocks in 36 minutes to give the 76ers a 105-98 victory over the Jazz. Embiid virtually carried Philadelphia to the win by scoring 26 of the team’s 27 points in the fourth quarter, along with registering five of his seven blocked shots in the final period.
“This is not about me,” Embiid said afterward. “We did it as a team. Obviously, the coaches put me in those positions and my teammates fed me the ball.
“I thought we had great spacing around everything we were doing. … Like I said, all the credit goes to my teammates.”
While that was rather magnanimous of Embiid, he also was the only one saying it.
Coach Doc Rivers — who has played or coached in close to 3,000 regular-season and playoff games — declared, “I’ve never seen a more dominating performance, when you combine offense and defense.”
Among the records Embiid set, according to ESPN Stats & Information research:
• He became the first player with at least 50 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 blocks in a game since blocks became an official stat in 1973-74.
• He became the first player to register at least 20 points and five blocks in a single quarter in the past 25 seasons.
• He became the first player to outscore both teams by himself in a fourth quarter (26-21) since Tracy McGrady in 2006.
• He became the fourth player — along with Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Bradley Beal — to score at least 100 points across a back-to-back since the NBA-ABA merger, and the first center to do so since Wilt Chamberlain in 1967.
And, perhaps most remarkably, Philadelphia needed every ounce of Embiid’s performance Sunday night to pull out a second victory in as many nights.
With James Harden still watching in street clothes from the bench as he deals with a foot strain that is expected to force him to miss a month, the 76ers turned to Embiid to carry them home at both ends down the stretch.
And, in a way virtually no other player on the planet could, Embiid did just that. He carved his way through Utah’s defense repeatedly, drawing one foul after another sandwiched around hitting a series of buckets.
The only shot he missed of the quarter? A 3-pointer late that would have given him 60 points on the night, a difficult turnaround triple attempt that Embiid admitted with a smile afterward was a heat check.
To say he had earned that, however, would be an understatement. In that fourth quarter, Embiid went 7-for-8 from the field. His teammates missed all nine shots they took.
“It’s funny,” Tyrese Maxey said. “I was like, at one point, Coach was trying to run a play, like a pick-and-roll play, and I was like, ‘Let’s get the ball to Joel.’ And he was like, ‘I agree.’ Because he’s really good right now.”
Meanwhile, at the other end, Embiid not only blocked several shots, but he deterred several more, as Utah’s free-flowing, motion offense — one that tries to get lots of 3-pointers and shots at the rim — ground to a halt when trying to score around him.
“What’s more impressive is the defense,” P.J. Tucker said. “Being there protecting the rim, being there, low man, consistently all night. To me, that was bigger than all the points he scored, just the things he did on defense. He communicated better today, and I think that stuff takes a little bit more even on offense because he’s so in tune with the game.”
Embiid even managed to psych out Lauri Markkanen late in the fourth quarter. Markkanen — who had 15 points and 10 rebounds as part of a breakout season upon being dealt to the Jazz as part of the Donovan Mitchell trade in September — missed a pair of free throws after Embiid had a few words for him.
What were they?
“I told him … I kind of lied, because Arthur [Embiid’s son] is already sleeping, so I told him I had to put Arthur to bed,” Embiid said with a smile. “So, you’d better miss those free throws. We don’t need to go to overtime.
“I did lie, because Arthur, he goes to bed … every single day, 7:30, he has to be in bed. But I just told him I had to put Arthur to sleep and make sure we didn’t go to overtime.”
Like everything else Embiid did in the fourth quarter, it worked.
The two victories allowed Philadelphia to get back to .500, and concluded a 3-1 week with Embiid back on the court after he missed three games following a bout with a non-COVID-19 illness. Those three wins came against the Phoenix Suns, Hawks and Jazz, teams with a combined record of 26-13.
“He was making shots over three people, blocking every shot,” Maxey said. “That’s big, to win two games in a row like that.”
While the week didn’t completely erase Philadelphia’s slow start, it was a sign that things are starting to realign themselves in the City of Brotherly Love — in large part because Embiid, after dealing with a bout of plantar fasciitis in the offseason and then missing time with the illness, is starting to round into the form that has made him a runner-up for the past two Most Valuable Player awards.
“The best way for me to get back to where I was before I got sick was to be on the floor, and just play,” Embiid said. “That’s really the only way. All the bikes and treadmills, that doesn’t work for me. So, for me, the only way for me to get where I want to be is playing in practices and games.”
He and the 76ers will now get the next four days off before hosting Giannis Antetokounmpo and the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). And, after Rivers gave the team Monday off, they’ll go into that break in a buoyant mood thanks to Embiid putting his team on his broad shoulders and carrying them home.
“As a team,” Embiid said, “we’re starting to find our way.”