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When Joel Embiid Decides To Be A Monster, Look Out!

Joel Embiid blocks Ja Morant's shot attempt.
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Joel Embiid had a pretty terrible time scoring Thursday night against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies are a very tough defensive team, anchored by all-court terror and probable defensive player of the year Jaren Jackson Jr. Even if Jackson's résumé is embellished by the fraud crimes of home-cooked box scores, there is no denying that he presents a hellacious challenge for opposing big men. After a half of tough, bruising basketball, the Sixers were down 12 on the scoreboard and Embiid was a ghastly 2-of-14 from the floor, for nine measly points.

Embiid belongs to the class of superstar NBA players who finish at least 30 percent of their team's offensive possessions when they are on the floor. There are 14 of these guys, and Embiid ranks third among them in usage, at a whopping 37 percent. This is tiring work, even for players who are not lugging around 290 pounds of bulk, and when the work is going poorly all the misses can be discouraging, even demoralizing. It's not unusual at all for players in this tier to effectively sit out the occasional defensive possession, due to some combination of exhaustion and frustration. Anyone who has ever watched Luka Doncic, for example, knows that pretty much any time he misses a shot and is not granted some free throws he is going to spend the subsequent defensive sequence resting in the backcourt. This is not meant to be a commentary on the modern superstar mentality or whatever. Doncic can be as tetchy as he wants; if you put him on a court with the absolute best ever version of Kevin McHale, McHale would finish the night sobbing and hiding behind the basket stanchion. It's just simply the case that a player given an offensive role of this size is going to need to conserve energy elsewhere, and that means devoting something less than 100 percent at the defensive end.

Embiid is sometimes guilty of this, although never quite at the Doncic level of petulant disengagement. With his night going so far sideways Thursday and the Sixers down double-digits to a punishing, relentless, annoying Grizzlies team, it would not have been very surprising if Embiid had started lagging defensively. He did not. "Tonight I could not make any shots, especially the ones I usually make," Embiid recounted after the game. "But defensively, I thought I had to be Bill Russell tonight to be able to kind of balance it out ... When you're not contributing offensively, you've got to find a way, making your teammates better. So defensively, just being a monster."

For all of his incredible skill as a scorer, Embiid is most fun to watch in situations when he has decided it is time to be a defensive monster. Embiid has not yet won a defensive player of the year award; incredibly, he has never even been named first-team All-Defense. This is not because there is anyone anywhere in the world who is more defensively capable than Embiid. But only one player in the world who is anywhere near as good defensively has anywhere near the same offensive burden, and that player (Giannis Antetokounmpo) has the word "freak" in his nickname. Antetokounmpo is an incredible defensive player; Jaren Jackson Jr. is also an incredible defensive player. But there is a switch hidden behind break-in-case-of-emergency glass inside of Embiid, and when he flicks it he becomes God Of Defense.

In the second half, as Philadelphia scrambled to close down a double-digit deficit, it started to seem like the only times Embiid did not personally thwart Memphis's offense came when he was knocked on his ass. Blocks were only part of the story, but it must be said that the blocks were extremely tight, and seemed to chip away at Memphis's confidence. With 8:45 on the clock in the third, Jackson drove into Embiid's chest, hunting contact, and floated up a righty layup; Embiid punched it into the stands. A minute or so later, with momentum still favoring the Grizzlies, Desmond Bane drove left in semi-transition and used a slick one-handed gather to get off a quick lefty layup; Embiid pirouetted gracefully in the paint and swatted the ball into the hands of teammate James Harden. Late in the fourth quarter, with Memphis still clinging to the lead, Dillon Brooks drove to the edge of the paint and slotted a quick bounce pass to a cutting Xavier Tillman; Embiid, who'd popped across the lane to help on the drive, reacted with supernatural reflexes and met Tillman at the rim.

The block that everyone will remember, and perhaps the best block of this NBA season so far, came with Memphis up a point and 75 seconds left on the clock. Ja Morant drove left, switched off gravity, and rose through the air over poor earthbound P.J. Tucker, stationed hopelessly at the edge of the restricted area. Embiid absolutely devoured him:

The block stuck in Morant's mind. Half-a-minute later, with the Grizzlies suddenly down a point, Morant once again drove left, into the paint. Embiid stepped forward, a terrifying all-consuming kaiju; Morant, whose stardom is built on fearless aerial acrobatics, suddenly went timid, hesitated, and tossed up an awkward little floater, which bounced harmlessly off the front of the rim. It was fitting that it was Embiid who subsequently delivered the finishing blow:

Embiid finished with 27 points on a gruesome 7-for-25 shooting night, but hauled in 17 defensive rebounds, and his defense and rim protection in the second half made up the story of the game. Were it not one of Embiid's worst games of the season, you would have no choice but to say it was Embiid's best game of the season. Philadelphia has been quietly lurking behind the front of the East's playoff pack all year, but Thursday's win felt like a statement and a reminder of what they can do when Embiid is at his defensive best. There are other good teams, and there might even be better ones, but at the very least the Sixers have a guy who can decide to be Godzilla when the situation calls for it.

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