PHILADELPHIA – The funny thing was, I came here to get some reporting done on Victor Wembanyama’s defense.
But the Spurs’ rookie phenom, like everyone else at Wells Fargo Center, became a bit player Monday, off in the wings like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, while Joel Embiid did a superstar soliloquy.
The first matchup between Embiid, the big man from Cameroon, and Wembanyama, the taller man from France, turned into Embiid’s show, and his history-making night – breaking the 76ers’ franchise record for points in a game, with 70 in Philly’s 133-123 win over the Spurs. That it came on the anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game against the Raptors, on Jan. 22, 2006, was Peak NBA. As every pup who follows the Association knows, Bryant was one of Embiid’s biggest inspirations as he took up basketball as a teenager.
And, like Bryant’s epic night, Embiid’s came during a kinda-sorta close game, with San Antonio hanging around just long enough for Embiid to have to come back into the game with six minutes left when he was sitting on 59 points. But Embiid’s 11 points down the stretch broke Wilt Chamberlain’s 56-year club record of 68 points, set against the Bulls in December 1967. As he neared the mark, the home crowd wanted him to get the rock every time – even booing Philly’s Danuel House for having the temerity to shoot an open 3.
“I mean, the only thing I told my teammates was ‘please, don’t force it,’” Embiid said afterward. “Let’s just play basketball. If I’m open, pass it. If I’m not, just make sure you make the right play. It’s unfortunate that Danuel House got booed for it. But we were just trying to play the right way and make the right plays. But, I think, obviously, I made shots, and they found me a lot.”
Embiid became just the ninth player in the history of the league to score 70 or more points in a game. Think of that. In this league, today, with teams putting up a buck forty seemingly every night, only eight other players have reached Embiid’s individual heights.
To wit: Michael Jordan never scored 70 in a game. Neither did Larry Bird, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or LeBron James, or Jerry West.
Wilt did. Six times! And until Monday, he held the franchise scoring record for both of Philadelphia’s NBA franchises, the Warriors and the Sixers. Wilt’s epic 100-point game in 1962 came as a member of the Philadelphia Warriors, which moved to San Francisco the following season. The 76ers came into being in 1963, when new owners moved the former Syracuse Nationals to the City of Brotherly Love. Chamberlain returned to Philly, and came to the 76ers, in a 1964 trade with the Warriors.
None of the other seven players who’d done it before Monday– Kobe, David Thompson, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, David Robinson, Elgin Baylor and Devin Booker – ever did it twice. (Once again, for the people in the back: how…freaking amazing was Wilt Chamberlain?)
Embiid made it look easy Monday night.
“He was unstoppable,” Spurs forward Devin Vassell said of Embiid. “We tried boxing him out, we tried sending doubles, we tried putting different people on him. He’s MVP for a reason. It was tough. Tough matchup.”
The Spurs tried Wembanyama, who has become one of the league’s premier post defenders just a couple of months into his highly-anticipated career. But there was nothing Wembanyama could do with Embiid’s bully-balling. The 7-5 20-year-old had half a head on the 7-foot Embiid when they were standing together at the foul line –”I walked past him, and I was like, I thought I was tall,” Embiid said. “Dude was just towering over me.”
But Embiid is 280 pounds, give or take a biscuit, the defending league MVP, and is as lethal a craftsman with the rock as almost anyone ever at his size – at the nail, at the elbow, in Philly’s pick and roll with Tyrese Maxey, maybe the best two-man game in the league.
Embiid’s hesitation jumper, his shot fakes, his strength, his ability to draw fouls – he used everything against Wembanyama and the other Spurs that tried to guard him. And when he missed, he got the offensive rebound for gimme putbacks.
70 PTS | 18 REB | 5 AST
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) January 23, 2024
There was zero shame to Wembanyama’s night – 33 points and 7 rebounds, with 2 blocks, on 10 of 19 shooting from the floor. There may be one other human being on the planet who could be as effective against him the way Embiid was Monday. He works in Denver.
Wembanyama is young, but he’s fiercely proud, and with good reason. He makes no bones about his intentions in the NBA – he came here to dominate. He wants all the smoke – Embiid’s and everyone else’s. He wants to be Rookie of the Year, badly, and he’s in a fierce contest with Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren – who’s eligible for this season’s award after missing all of what would have been his rookie year of 2022-23 recovering from a Lisfranc injury. So, yes, Wembanyama had a good game Monday, too. But he isn’t interested in incremental gains.
“There isn’t this many (great) guys,” he said. “But I’m not trying to be on a team that’s (just) one of the teams. We’re trying to be the best. Those few guys who are extremely talented and the best players in the world, we need to find a way to stop them, and we need to elevate our game. ‘Cause if you want to be the best, you’re going to have to play against them and win against them at some point or another.”
Wembanyama noted that the NBA is moving back towards big men, and he’s right. But almost all of them operate from the outside in these days, doing more work on the perimeter than in the paint. Only Embiid and Jokić ply the trade the way centers used to, and they don’t do it all the time. The game, then, isn’t necessarily moving toward big. What it’s most certainly doing is moving toward tall. Kevin Durant is the modern NBA prototype – a 7-footer who rains jumpers on the world. And Wembanyama, five inches taller, is what happens next.
Durant wants to be in the GOAT discussion. I’m not sure he’s there, but I can understand his argument. He’s a two-time Finals MVP, a former league MVP, and if he can get and stay on top of the injuries that have limited his last few seasons, he certainly will have a shot at finishing in the top five in scoring in league history. From his perch, and in his time, has anyone been head and shoulders better than him as a basketball player?
By contrast, Embiid has yet to lead Philly to a conference finals, much less an NBA finals. And the Sixers aren’t favored at present in the east over either Boston or Milwaukee. But he’s having one of the great offensive seasons in modern history, leading the league in scoring at more than 36 points per game. He leads the league in Usage Rate at a preposterous 38.2 and also leads the league in Dunks and Three’s Estimated Plus-Minus, at +10.3. After Monday, he’s averaging 38 points per 36 minutes. If he stays at that pace, he’ll break Chamberlain’s Per-36 record average of 37.4 points per 36 minutes, set in the 1961-62 season. The only question is whether he’ll reach the 65-game minimum required under the NBA’s Player Participation Policy starting this season to qualify for MVP.
Embiid, then, is big and tall. And after last season, he wants to stay on center stage for a very long curtain call.
(Photo: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)