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Joel Embiid Will Drive You Nuts

Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers reacts during the first quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Wells Fargo Center on December 20, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Listen up. Now is the time of year in which it is necessary to begin considering the overall deals of various NBA teams and coming to snap judgments, such as, "This team is pure ass!" and, "Dang, I think this team can make the Finals!" It is also time to start circling match-ups between teams that fit into the latter category, and so I imagine a lot of people put a big red one around Wednesday night's game between the Philadelphia 76ers and Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Timberwolves came into the game sitting at the top of the Western Conference with a 20-5 record. Their case for inclusion on a list of potential Finals teams rests with their league-best defense, which is shaping up to be historically good. The pro-Wolves thinking goes that if Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns can eventually juice the offense enough to get the team's offensive rating into the top 10 of the league—they currently sit in 17th—then this is a team with a legitimate championship profile.

Though the Sixers came into Wednesday night's game with a worse record (18-8) and having played a much easier schedule, their case for being taken Very Seriously is perhaps stronger than the Wolves' case. This is down to the fact that 1) reigning MVP Joel Embiid is playing even better than he did last season, 2) Tyrese Maxey is already better than James Harden, and 3) the Sixers have the second-best offensive rating and second-best defensive rating in the league. Their most-used five-man lineup—Maxey, De'Anthony Melton, Nicolas Batum, Tobias Harris, Embiid—is, somehow, plus-163 on the season. That's fucked up.

So, yes, this was an exciting match-up, not least because of the specific profiles of each team. The Sixers' whole deal is that they have a really huge superstar center who is the engine of both their offense and defense. The Timberwolves' whole deal is that they have an entire team of really huge guys who specialize in squeezing the life out of every offensive set the opponent tries to throw at them. On paper, this game was to be a clash of the huge guys, a 48-minute battle in the post and under the basket to determine whose method of being huge was most effective. But to have expected such a game would have required forgetting that Embiid is just as devious as he is large.

Embiid scored a season-high 51 points last night, leading the Sixers to a 127-113 win. Embiid scored most of these points not by overpowering the Timberwolves with his size and strength, but by treating them to 36 minutes of psychological torture. Embiid only took seven of his 25 shot attempts at the rim, which left him plenty of time and space to do the thing that made him last season's MVP: hit lots of jump shots and draw lots and lots of crazy-making fouls. Embiid went 17 of 18 from the free-throw line, and from the very start made it clear that he was going to spend the whole game drawing fouls in such a way that would turn his defenders into stomping, frustrated children.

Embiid baited Towns and Rudy Gobert into two first-quarter fouls each, sending them to the bench early. It only took him a few minutes to throw the entire Timberwolves' roster into a state of extreme frustration. Embiid spent the whole first quarter, and then the whole game, cannily (or cynically) drawing soft shooting fouls and making every player in a Timberwolves jersey fuming mad. If you're looking for one highlight to sum up how this game went, it's probably Embiid launching himself into Naz Reid to draw a foul a step inside the three-point line, followed by a dejected Kyle Anderson attempting to kick the ball out of the air as it came down.

There's a whole online cottage industry dedicated to scrutinizing Embiid's performances whenever he has one of these free throw–laden games. Is this guy actually the best player in the league or just a flopping free-throw merchant? asks one side of the debate. Go to hell! shouts the other. Though it is kind of annoying to see a player as big and as skilled as Embiid earn so many of his points on plays like this, focusing too much on how he draws his fouls misses the point. What matters is why Embiid is able to draw these types of fouls.

Embiid gets to the line so much because he's spent his entire career proving what a pure and complete scorer he is. It's all those 17-foot jump shots, which he cans automatically when given the space to take them, that bring defenders up into his chest and gives Embiid the opportunity draw a rip-through foul. It's all those drives from the three-point line to the rim that make defenders so desperate to keep a body in front of Embiid, which in turn allows him to careen into them and demand a foul. Embiid gets to the line so much because he's one of those players who has to be defended perfectly at all times—get back on your heels too much and he'll just rain jumpers and dunks on your head, but get too far up on your toes and the sound of whistles won't leave your ears until morning.

Not that the reality of the situation makes it any easier to deal with as an opponent. Whenever Embiid has one of these games, it's always fun to watch the postgame comments made by his primary defenders. They provide an opportunity to see how many different ways a guy can deploy You know, he hit a lot of tough shots, as a euphemism for Can you fucking believe this guy? Gobert mostly stuck to the routine last night, though he did let a little bit of frustration leak out. "It makes it even harder for me when officials call some fouls, like they called the first two fouls. That puts me in foul trouble, and then it's even harder to guard him," he said. "I wish they would let us ... you know, call the game more fairly so I can really at least try to be me. Try to make him work harder."

The good news for Gobert is that he won't have to deal with guarding Embiid again this season unless both teams make it to the Finals, at which point he would have to confront some very bad news.

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