The story of last night was obviously Joel Embiid. After a lackluster performance in a loss to the Bucks, he went off against the Atlanta Hawks for a career-high 49 points to go along with 14 rebounds, three assists, and three steals while shooting 17-24 from the field and helping the Sixers win the game 129-112.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Embiid’s 49 are the most points by a Sixers player since Allen Iverson put up 53 in 2005. Embiid is also the first 76ers player with 49 points and 10 rebounds in a game since Moses Malone in 1984. Furthermore, the night marked the 25-year-old’s third straight double-double and 33rd of the season, and it is worth noting Embiid has 88 points and 30 rebounds in his last two home games.
While Joel Embiid’s performance was spectacular, it was made possible through skillful decision making, effective passing, and patience from almost the entire Sixers roster as Furkan Korkmaz, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, and even Shake Milton all made meaningful contributions of their own and set up Embiid for success. Check out some stills from this play mid-way through the first quarter for a glimpse of what I mean:
The first thing the average Sixers fan should notice is that instead of the Sixers’ standard offense (where they have someone playing isolation ball while everyone else stands around), everyone with the exception of Al Horford is on the move and everyone is actually relatively spaced out. Josh Richardson is in the paint already beginning to set the pick that will spring Embiid free, and Horford and Harris are spreading to the perimeter to allow spacing in the paint for Embiid.
You can tell by Milton’s body language that he knows where they play will be even though Embiid isn’t open yet. He sets up the pass and Richardson sets a phenomenal pick, blocking one defender and distracting another.
The second Embiid gets open, Milton makes the right decision and quickly lofts a perfect pass over the outstretched arms of Trae Young, resulting in another Embiid bucket. It was exactly this kind of patience and team performance that led to Embiid’s historic night. The entire Starting Five contributed and they each had at least five rebounds, three assists, and seven points while Tobias Harris had a promising night as well with 25 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists. Although, team plays which were more significant than their statistics were the difference makers against Atlanta.
After dominating early, the 76ers gave up the lead and the Hawks led 92-91 entering the fourth quarter after outscoring the Sixers 40-22 in the third. In the final minutes, the Sixers finally out-hustled and out-worked the Hawks, an effort made obvious on plays like this where Josh Richardson sprinted up the floor immediately following a missed Trae Young three to jam the ball right over the lazy youngster’s head:
Despite playing without Ben Simmons, the Sixers showed up in a way that silences some doubters as their full lineup (Embiid, Simmons, Horford, Harris, Richardson) when it is on the floor has an 8.5 net rating and an abusive 97.1 defensive rating (per Bleacher Report). Last night, the Sixers avoided their usual mistakes of forcing shots and running the shot clock out by simply taking the plays that came to them and finding the open man, like they did on this fast break where the team settled for an open Korkmaz three — instead of forcing an attempt in the lane or looking for the foul:
When you need a bucket, leave it to Furk. pic.twitter.com/sfQSJZknIu— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) February 25, 2020
Although this 76ers team struggles at times with inconsistent play, fans’ previous NBA Championship expectations could still be within reach. If Embiid can hit threes and mid-range jumpers as consistently as he did last night and continue to dominate the paint, the 76ers have as much of a chance at the Championship as anyone.
Embiid’s performance quells some anxiety regarding the team being unable to win without Simmons, and the Sixers now hold the NBA’s best home record at 27-2. It is their away record that’s been plummeting their playoff seeding and worrying fans as the 76ers have just 9 road wins in 2020. Don’t look now, but five of their next six games are on the road too (including match-ups with the Clippers and Lakers in the first week of March).
The Hawks are actually the NBA’s third-worst team, and the Sixers face the abysmal Cavs next. So questions about if they can perform similarly against the NBA’s elite are fair; however, if Embiid and the Sixers want to prove they can put up this type of performance on the road at least, beating the Cavs tomorrow night would help their case.